U.S. News

12.14.13

The Heisman ‘Bad Boys’: Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, and Who Should Really Win

Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel had incredible seasons—but their off-the-field exploits stole the headlines. Who really deserves college football’s most prestigious award?

Something has been left out of the discussion for this year’s Heisman Trophy: football.

This year two of the finalists for college football’s most prestigious award—Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel—have had the press spending a lot more ink on their off-the-field activities.

Last year Manziel, a.k.a Johnny Football, became the first freshman in Heisman history to win the award as “the outstanding college football player” in the country.  This season opened with Johnny as the big favorite to repeat. And why not? The best player in the country as a freshman surely would only be better as a sophomore, right? 

Well, Manziel did get better this season—more on that in a minute—but only after garnering a career’s worth of publicity for what the press called “bad boy” behavior. There was his early departure from football camp, the Manning Passing Academy—as in Archie, Peyton and Eli—after allegedly oversleeping.  When he was given a parking ticket on the Texas A&M campus, he tweeted that “I can’t wait to leave College Station,” and he got himself kicked out of a University of Texas fraternity party—and as anyone who’s been in  Texas can tell you, to get tossed out of one of those parties you really have to misbehave. 

In the eyes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, though, none of this mattered compared to allegations that Manziel accepted payments for signing autographs.

An athlete being compensated in any way by anyone is the NCAA’s cardinal sin and can cause both the athletes and the school to lose scholarships, appearances in bowl games, even victories in past seasons. Only one player, though, in college football history was pressured into giving back his Heisman, and it’s not, as you might have thought, O.J. Simpson.  Southern Cal’s Reggie Bush is supposed to have accepted money and gifts, mostly for his family, when he was still in college back in 2006. If there’s one thing the NCAA simply cannot abide, it’s a player cashing in on his own celebrity. The NCAA even made USC take Bush’s photo off the wall.

No one really knows for sure if Manziel took money for autographs, though if he didn’t get paid for signing the hundred of photos that were floating around on the Internet, we have to wonder what he scored on his SATs. Anyway, unlike Bush, who was a poor black kid, Johnny Manziel was affluent and white, and the NCAA clearly didn’t want to tangle with his family’s Texas lawyers. So he was slapped for “an inadvertent violation” of NCAA rules and as “punishment” had to sit out the first two quarters of the season opener against Rice University. (It hardly mattered as the Aggies beat the Owls 52-31.)

Manziel’s real punishment was that in the eyes of many, he was no longer regarded as the frontrunner in the Heisman Trophy race, which began the season wide open. After the first few weeks, sportswriters had zoned in on a favorite: yet another freshman, this one Jameis Winston of Florida State.  Though many voters had seen him play perhaps once or not at all on television, the Seminoles easily crushed most of their opponents, and Winston’s numbers were sensational, so the media embraced the idea of a black freshman winning the trophy. 

That is until mid-November, when the Florida State attorney’s office announced they were opening a sexual assault complaint against Winston that had been filed in December 2012. As it turned out, there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Winston and charges were not filed against him.

Okay, so back to the Heisman.  Sportswriters don’t like to change their narrative when it comes to giving awards; that would require research and introspection. Winston once again became the betting favorite on the Vegas boards and still is. Some openly speculated that the episode might even have won him some sympathy.  But the case that has never been made is that Jameis Winston deserves the Heisman Trophy.

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Any discussion of the Heisman Trophy should begin by acknowledging that the Heisman Trust’s avowed mission is an impossibility: the award is supposed to be presented annually to “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” There are no objective standards for picking the Heisman winner. In baseball and basketball there are statistics that, if they don’t give definitive answers to the question of who is the best at least provide a framework for comparison. In football the only positions at which there are truly meaningful statistics are quarterback and running back.

Suppose the “best” football player was an offensive lineman for Youngstown State? How would we know?  It would make a lot of sense if the Heisman Trust would establish a few reasonable guidelines for the award.

First, let’s stop pretending that linemen on either side of the ball really have any chance of winning the award. That simplifies matters by eliminating more than half the players in the country.  Second, let’s further simplify by acknowledging that defensive players have practically no chance for the Heisman.

Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson is often said to be the only defensive player to take home the trophy in 1997. In fact, from its first year, 1935, when players wore leather helmets,  through 1963, players were required to put in playing time on both offense and defense, so defensive skill was an important part of the evaluation for most outstanding.  Over the last half century when the rules were changed to allow unlimited substitution, players stopped being football players and became specialists, playing only one position on just one side of the ball.

So let’s do the intelligent thing and award two Heismans—one for outstanding offensive player and the other for the outstanding defensive player.

While we’re proposing reforms, let’s go all the way and suggest some criteria for the passers and runners who are bound to be the Heisman recipients. For instance, is the player, as far as can be determined, the best or at least one of the best at his position? Is he the primary reason for his team’s success or simply the beneficiary of playing on a team full of studs? And are his statistics meaningful—i.e. were they really essential to winning games or were they just piled on hapless, beaten foes to impress Heisman voters?

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If Winston wins, it will be after having received less scrutiny—football scrutiny, that is—than just about any winner in Heisman history. And in truth, Winston’s record can’t survive a close look. He’s a terrific athlete with good mobility and a great arm, and the Number One Seminoles will be playing for and will probably win the national championship on January 6 against No.2 Auburn, a team that ranks 80th in the nation on yards allowed on defense. (FSU ranks first in offensive yards gained.)

Winston is surrounded by great players—the Seminoles were first in the nation on fewest points allowed on defense (10.7) and their pass blockers, runners, and receivers are rated by most as among the best in the nation. But they have played a cheesecloth schedule, and Winston will win his trophy without having faced a single first rate defense all season long.

In my experience, the best and most reliable computer power rankings are posted by Jeff Sagarin on USA Today. Sagarin rates all teams as if they were playing on a neutral field; he also rates the strength of each team’s schedule.  Most importantly, he ignores the politics that surround voting in the popularity polls of the Associated Press and other subjective rankings considered by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Sagarin rates FSU’s collective opponents as the 63rd toughest in the country. The closest to a good team they faced was Clemson, No.16, whom they beat 51-14. After that, one must go all the way to No. 40 Miami, whom they whipped 41-14.  Duke, a 45-7 loser to FSU in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, is ranked 42nd by Sagarin and is the only other team in the top fifty that the Seminoles played all season.

Winston has yet to be challenged by any team; Clemson’s defense, No. 19 in fewest yards allowed, was the toughest.  And was it really necessary for Winston to pass for all those 440 yards in a 37-point rout of Clemson? How about the five TD passes he threw in a 63-0 butchering of Maryland?  Really, wouldn’t two or three at most have sufficed to nail down the win?  Then there was that 80-14 travesty against Idaho, a team that won just one out of eleven games all season. Did Winston need all those 225 yards passing and four touchdowns to beat a team which the Seminoles led 21-0 after the first quarter, 42-7 at the half, and 59-7 after three quarters?

Yes, I know, the schedule is not the responsibility of the quarterback or the team and is often made years in advance.  And there’s no reason to punish a player because he didn’t face tough opposition. But there’s no reason why he should be rewarded for it, either, especially when several other players have had a much tougher row to hoe.

Johnny  Football, for instance. Last year Manziel threw 26 TD passes, had just 9 interceptions, and averaged 8.54 yards/throw. This season, he was even better, with 33 TD tosses and 13 pickoffs, averaging 9.5 yards/throw. Winston had five more TD passes, 38, and averaged more yards per throw than Manziel, 10.9. In addition Johnny rushed for 686 yards (5.2 yards/run) to Winston’s 193 (2.5 yards/run).

And why shouldn’t toughness of schedule be considered? He played Sagarin’s No. 2 ranked team, Alabama, and No.6 Auburn, and No. 9 Missouri. The Aggies lost all three games, but Manziel put on spectacular shows in each, producing 104 points in three defeats.

Yet Manziel, even though he is invited to New York this weekend as a finalist for the Heisman, isn’t regarded as a leading contender.  The reason usually given by pundits is that Manziel’s team finished 8-4 while Winston’s Florida State is 12-0. But the Aggies’ defense is wretched and allowed more than thirty points in seven of their twelve games. What is he supposed to do about that—volunteer to play defense?

Look at it another way: with Manziel’s unequalled passing and running ability, would Florida State have scored even more points if he had been their QB? 

For that matter, Florida State might have scored as many or even more points if Alabama’s A.J. McCarron had been the Seminoles’ quarterback.  McCarron is the only Heisman candidate whose every game over the last three seasons has been meaningful. His Crimson Tide teams have won two national championships and this year was ranked No. 1 for eleven of the twelve weeks until losing to Auburn on the last game of the season.   All McCarron has done over his college career is play meaningful football, throwing 26 TD passes with just five interceptions this season. His 2,676 yards passing may seem a trifle low compared to Winston’s 3,820, but Alabama doesn’t run up the score on beaten opponents the way Florida State does. Does anyone doubt that McCarron could have passed for another 1,000 or so yards and who knows how many more TDs if gaudy stats had been the team’s objective instead of simply win games?

McCarron was regarded by many as a prime candidate for the Heisman until the loss to Auburn. He put his team ahead in the fourth quarter with a miracle 99-yard TD pass, but Bama lost when Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed field foal 109 yards for a touchdown. How is A.J. to blame for that? Was he supposed to rush off the bench and tackle Davis as he ran by?

Why isn’t Auburn’s Tre Mason being seriously considered by the press? No other running back and few players at any position have had as much impact on the college football season as Mason, who ran for 1,621 yards and 22 TDs; he rushed for 14 yards against Alabama and an incredible 304 yards in the SEC conference championship game last week against Missouri.

At the very least the Heisman Trust should wait till after the BCS championship game, which will showcase both Winston and Mason, to decide who really is the most outstanding.  Why not include the bowl games in the Heisman mix? The argument for not waiting until after the postseason goes back to the 1930s when there were only three or four bowl games, but nowadays every good team and therefore every Heisman contender plays in a bowl.  It’s about time the Heisman Trust acknowledged the fact that players haven’t worn leather helmets in more than seventy years.