Every year, the Downtown Athletic Club in New York awards the Heisman Trophy to the most hyped college football player on a championship team. In recent years, they’ve gone an even shorter route, and just given the award to one of the QBs in the BCS Title game. You have to go back to Ron Dayne in 1999 to find a player who didn’t play in the championship game during his career, and the only running back to win since Dayne was the electric Reggie Bush in 2004.
Certainly, there have been magnificent individual performances by players for elite teams. Bradford threw a gazillion TD passes in 2008. Tebow was unstoppable in 2007, in a year that Florida didn’t compete for the national title. Vince Young (who didn’t win the Heisman) and Reggie Bush (who did) were dazzling athletes.
Winning is not the only measure of an individual performance. Football is the ultimate team game. If you had Lebron James and 4 idiots, you would win games in college basketball (and maybe the pros). If you have Tim Tebow and 21 idiots, you’re going 0-12 (maybe 1-11). Winning in football is about having talent at every position, or at least enough of it sprinkled throughout your team that you can make plays on offense and defense.
Individual performances are captivating, but they are not a consistent path to victory. When evaluating an individual, there are other criteria. Here’s how I would evaluate who deserves the Heisman Trophy.
1) Who is most critical to their team’s success?
What we’re looking for here is not total wins and losses for a team, but rather the difference in wins caused by the addition of a key player. Certain positions, like QB for Miami in the ’80s or USC in the 2000s, have produced an incredible number of talented players. Many of those players have won individual awards (USC has Heisman QBs in Palmer in 2002 and Leinart in 2904; Miami won with Testaverde in 1986 and Torretta in 1992).
The problem with these positions at these schools is that the QBs are often not big difference makers in the team’s final record. There’s talent all over the field. If they didn’t have that Heisman QB, they usually have someone waiting behind him who’s just as good.
This year, Mark Ingram for Alabama has a similar problem. With a nasty defense and a big offensive line, that team would win a bunch of games whether he was there or not.
For a true difference maker, you have to look for a guy who’s central to his teams success. I’ve only watched Clemson play a couple of times this year, but from what I’ve seen, CJ Spiller is their entire offense. He returns kicks and punts. They hand him the ball on first and second down and throw it too him on third. He even threw a TD pass. Clemson went 8-5 and earned a trip to the ACC Championship game with Spiller; without him, who knows? They certainly wouldn’t have that big win over Miami, and they might have dropped a couple more. A player that takes his team from 5-7 or 6-6 to 8-4 is a difference maker.
2) The Wow factor
One of the big changes with the spread of cable television has been the huge increase in the number of games on TV. Everybody’s on, and if not, you can see highlights. That’s why one of the big factors for a lot of people, me included, is the highlight reel play.
When you look back at clips of old Heisman winners like Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker, they are still stunning. I want the next generation to be able to look back at the Heisman winners of our time and have the same reaction. The Heisman Trophy should go to a guy who makes jaw-dropping plays.
Oddly enough, some of the most recent jaw-droppers have not won the trophy, especially at QB. Vince Young didn’t win, but he faced Reggie Bush. Michael Vick (may he rot) made unbelievable plays. Neither player has a Heisman. Neither does Peyton Manning or Marshall Faulk. Meanwhile, Ron Dayne and Gino Torretta do have one, which should tell you something about the nature of the award.
There are several guys who have made a number of incredible plays. From just this weekend, Dion Lewis of Pitt seemed to vanish into hordes of tacklers and squirt out the other side time and again. Mardy Gilyard of Cincinnati made several season-saving plays. A week earlier, Dezmon Briscoe of KU and Danario Alexander of Mizzou staged a receiving duel in which both had over 200 yards with catch after incredible catch.
Few players have done it all year.
So which player combines the critical importance to his team’s success, and those elusive highlight reel plays? Spiller makes a good case, but for me, there’s only one guy who should win the Heisman this year.
Very few times in my life have I seen a defensive player take over a game. I saw Aqib Talib do it for Kansas in 2007. In the pros, I saw Derrick Thomas and Lawrence Taylor terrorize passers and force game-changing plays. I’ve seen Ray Lewis terrorize the middle of the field.
But I’ve never seen a game completely dominated by a defensive tackle. Ndamukong Suh destroyed the interior of Texas’s line in the Big 12 Championship game. These are lineman at an elite football school, and he tossed them aside like they were children. Texas couldn’t run, and they couldn’t pass because of the pressure of the D-line.
Not only did Suh destroy Texas, but he did it all year long. Nebraska’s success is based entirely on their defense. If you go 9-4 without scoring any points, you know your defense is incredible. That defense is based around the interior dominance of Suh. Without him, they don’t beat OU, and don’t come within :01 of winning the Big 12.
As for highlight plays, all you have to do is watch. He moves sideline to sideline like a linebacker. He shucks blockers, hammers running backs, and devours quarterbacks.
[I think it’s unfortunate Nebraska didn’t show some imagination and let him carry the ball in short yardage and goalline situations, because that might have given the Heisman voters enough of an excuse to vote for a defensive player, like it did with Charles Woodson in 97.]
So there’s my argument, and there’s my vote: Ndamukong Suh, DT of Nebraska, for the Heisman Trophy.
This article also appears on Heretical Ideas.