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The Heisman Trophy Doesn’t Promise NFL Success

The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in all of college football. However, being the best player in college doesn't always translate to the NFL.

Once upon a time, winning the Heisman Trophy meant a player was destined for NFL success. In the 80’s, Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Bo Jackson, Tim Brown, and Barry Sanders all won the prestigious award and achieved some measure of success in the big leagues. Once upon a time the Heisman trophy was given to the best player in the college football, and it was a shining endorsement of a pro prospect.

The Heisman Trophy Doesn’t Promise NFL Success

Since the year 2000, 13 quarterbacks and three running backs have won the award. Of those 16 men, only nine are still on NFL rosters and only five are on the team that drafted them. It’s worth noting that even of those five, three are still on their rookie contracts. 

Chris Weinke

Chris Weinke had a strange career. Currently the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams, Weinke was 28 years old when he won the Heisman Trophy. Weinke spent the better part of his twenties playing professional baseball, so even after he threw for 4,167 yards, 33 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions as  senior at Florida State University, he was too old to have a real NFL career. Despite that, the Carolina Panthers took him in the fourth round. Weinke would go on to have a brief but miserable career, losing 18 of his 20 starts and throwing almost twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.

Eric Crouch

Eric Crouch was a peculiar player. Crouch was a perfect fit in college football because he was a dual-threat quarterback. As a redshirt senior, Crouch threw for 1,500 yards, seven touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. That doesn’t sound impressive at all until it’s paired with his 1,115 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. The St. Louis Rams wanted him to play receiver, but like another player on this list, Crouch insisted he play quarterback. Injuries prevented Crouch from having much success in the Canadian Football League.

Carson Palmer

Carson Palmer is the best football player on this list. Palmer was the face of Pete Carroll‘s USC resurgence in the early 2000’s, and the obvious choice to be the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. The Cincinnati Bengals invested their first round pick in Carson Palmer and it began showing dividends almost immediately. In only his second season, Palmer led the entire NFL in passing touchdowns (32), and he took the Bengals to the playoffs, where they hadn’t been since 1990. Of course, a devastating injury in the 31-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers ended that season, and ultimately limited Palmer.

An ugly divorce sent Palmer from the Bengals to the Oakland Raiders, where he would achieve great statistical success, despite the team’s struggles. After refusing to take a pay-cut, Palmer ended up with the Arizona Cardinals, where he plays today. The Cardinals are considered legitimate contenders for the Lombardi Trophy in 2016, and a lot of that is due to the revitalized play of Carson Palmer.

Jason White

Jason White was the face of an Oklahoma team that could have been a dynasty. He threw for 85 touchdowns over his last two seasons a starter, and both years the Sooners played in the National Championship. Regrettably, they lost both years, and when the draft rolled around, White wasn’t selected. Unfortunately for White, he had suffered a bad knee injury as a sophomore, and NFL teams decided he wasn’t worth the risk.

Matt Leinart

How easily Matt Leinart’s career could have mirrored Carson Palmer’s. Both men came from southern California and achieved great success with the USC Trojans. Leinart actually enjoyed more success than Palmer in Southern California. Aside from two National Championship victories, Leinart threw more passing touchdowns (99) than Palmer (72). Unlike Palmer, however, Lienart had to wait until the Arizona Cardinals picked at ten to be drafted.

Questionable arm strength is the reason Leinart fell so far, and ultimately the reason he didn’t enjoy NFL success. He lost his job in Arizona to the ageless wonder, Kurt Warner, and never really found his footing afterwords. He started a couple of games for the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders, but it was obvious it just wasn’t going to work.

There’s a strange poetry to the way Leinart and Palmer’s careers have gone. Both men started as highly touted prospects from USC, only to struggle with their first team. Both men returned to California and the Raiders, but couldn’t find success. And while Leinart began his career with the Arizona Cardinals, that’s exactly where Palmer will finish his.

Reggie Bush

Perhaps the biggest Heisman bust in recent memory was yet another USC Trojan in Reggie Bush. At USC, Reggie Bush was unbelievable. In 2005, Bush compiled 2,218 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns. He was the driving force behind a dominant USC team, and had many experts calling him the second coming of Barry Sanders.

However, when the New Orleans Saints selected Bush with the second overall pick, they didn’t get Barry Sanders. For the second time in a decade, the Saints invested in a Heisman winning running back, and just like with Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush was a failure. While Bush became an essential part of Sean Payton and Drew Brees‘ passing offense, he never produced as a rusher. He never eclipsed 600 yards for New Orleans, and wouldn’t have a 1,000 yard season until 2o11 with the Miami Dolphins.

Last year, Bush was a member of the San Francisco 49ers, but he only accrued 28 yards in five games. Currently Bush is signed to the Buffalo Bills, his fifth NFL team. It’s unsure where he fits into the offense, but he’s sure to be nothing more than a complementary running back.

Another strange coincidence is that much like Palmer and Bush’s college teammate Lienart, history repeats itself. After failing to live up to expectations in New Orleans, the aforementioned Ricky Williams enjoyed the best years of his career with the Dolphins, just like Bush.

Troy Smith

Dual threat quarterback Troy Smith was never going to have a successful NFL career. Despite being a versatile and dominant threat for the Ohio State Buckeyes, Smith was only 5’11” and lacked the prototypical NFL size. While the likes of Russell Wilson have proven that smaller quarterbacks can succeed in the NFL, the same was not true in 2006. After a disastrous National Championship performance, Smith’s stock dropped significantly, he was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.

When Smith was given playing time in Baltimore, it was a trainwreck. Despite playing in 20 games during his career, Smith only mustered eight passing touchdowns and was released by the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season.

Tim Tebow

The most controversial name on this list belongs to Tim Tebow. What is there to say about Tebow that hasn’t already been said? Athletically speaking, Tebow may have been the most physically gifted player to ever line up under center. At 6’3, 245 pounds, Tebow is huge. In college, Tebow and the Florida Gators enjoyed a ton of success. He won two national championships, and broke several prestigious passing and rushing records in the SEC.

The problem was that Tebow wasn’t a conventional passer. He came to the NFL with an incredible amount of hype and momentum and nobody knew what to do with him. Tebow was not ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He was never going to be the kind of guy who could line up under center and throw 30 passes a game. Tebow needed time to develop and he needed to be put in the right offense. Unfortunately, Josh McDaniels, the head coach of the Denver Broncos at the time, didn’t do that.

Instead of waiting until the third round, where many experts predicted Tebow would go, McDaniels selected the Florida quarterback with the 25th pick of the first round in 2010. Tebow eventually stepped in for a struggling Kyle Orton, and the rest is history. Tebow is currently trying to start a baseball career, and regardless of the fact that he hasn’t played in a regular season game since 2012, we’re going to keep talking about him.

Sam Bradford

Once upon a time, Sam Bradford was being hailed as the second coming of Peyton Manning. Bradford’s accuracy and understanding of the game whilst at Oklahoma made him an obvious choice for the St. Louis Rams in the 2010 Draft, even with a season ending injury.

Even as a rookie for the Rams, Bradford enjoyed some success. He completed 354 passes, a record at the time, and earned the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately, injuries and lack of surrounding talent hindered his development. In 2016, he’s signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles roster, trying to stave off the injured rookie, Carson Wentz.

Mark Ingram

In three years at Alabama, Ingram rushed for 3,261 yards and 42 touchdowns. He was a dominant force reminiscent of Jim Brown. It seemed like his success as a power back was guaranteed in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Saints, the Heisman back curse continued. In his five years with the Saints so far, Ingram has yet to sniff 1,000 yards or break double digit touchdowns. In the eyes of many experts, Ingram is set to have a breakout season in 2016. If he does not, then the Saints will have wasted their 2011 first round pick.

Cam Newton

There’s no negative light to paint Cam Newton in. The reality is, his 2015 season was one of most celebrated performances in recent memory. Newton went from a stud at Auburn to a stud in the NFL, winning both the Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Trophy awards last season. Cam Newton personifies what a team expects to get when they draft a Heisman winner.

Robert Griffin III

Robert Griffin III, better known as RGIII, was one of the most exciting players in college football in 2011. He passed for 4,293 yards and 37 touchdowns while rushing for 699 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a rookie for the Washington Redskins, Griffin was a dynamic player. He accrued 4,015 total yards and 27 touchdowns, leading Washington to the playoffs and earning the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Sadly, he failed to develop into a passer, and his slight frame made him susceptible to injuries.

After being inactive for all of 2015, RGIII was released and now he’s the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. The Browns aren’t expected to be very good in 2016, so there’s less pressure on RGIII to succeed. Right now, he has to be considered a serious bust, especially for the Redskins, who traded up a lot to grab him.

Johnny Manziel

The saddest story on this list easily belongs to Johnny Manziel. Dubbed “Johnny Football” during his time at Texas A&M, Manziel’s football career burned bright and faded fast. In his two years as a starter for the Aggies, Manziel rewrote the SEC record books, combining for almost ten thousand total yards and 93 touchdowns. Manziel was a serious threat through the air and on the ground, and his collegiate career hit it’s peak when Manziel and the Aggies upset Alabama 29-24.

While Manziel was entertaining on the field, people were starting to take notice of his behavior off of the field. Manziel’s off the field activity was brash, unapologetic, and the focus of First Take for months. Despite being undersized and having a problematic reputation, the Cleveland Browns decided to take a chance on Manziel, drafting him with the 22nd overall pick over the likes of Derek Carr and Teddy Bridgewater.

In a series of immature acts that would require an entire article to list, Manziel sabotaged his own career. After only two years on the roster, Manziel was cut, and it appears as if his career is already over. Manziel’s legacy will be that he was a trouble-maker, and a mediocre quarterback.

Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston, like Manziel, brought over some baggage from college. There were questions about Winston’s maturity, and some truly frightening allegations being made against him. But at 19 years old, Winston was able to throw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, as well as win a national championship. Apparently this was enough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to overlook his off the field issues, because they made him the first overall pick last season.

As a rookie, Winston went through the typical highs and lows. He only threw 22 touchdowns to pair with 15 interceptions, but he did pass for more than 4,000 yards, becoming only the third rookie to do so in NFL history. It’s far too soon to say whether Winston will follow in the footsteps of Palmer or Lienart, but his young career is off to a solid start.

Marcus Mariota

Oddly enough, the pick after Winston was also a Heisman winning passer. The Tennessee Titans selected Marcus Mariota from Oregon to be their franchise quarterback with the second overall pick. Much like Winston, we haven’t seen enough of Mariota to determine whether he’ll be successful in the NFL or not. Unlike Winston, Mariota has shown exemplary off the field leadership, and is by all reports, a class act.

Unfortunately, Mariota has already suffered from some injuries. At 6’4 and 222 pounds, Mariota is very slight. Like RGIII, the punishment received by being a scrambling quarterback could come back to hurt him in the long run, literally. The Titans aren’t helping much, as they just traded his only viable receiver in the troubled Dorial Green-Beckham.

So while Derrick Henry will join Mariota in Tennessee’s Heisman winning backfield, his success in the NFL is not guaranteed. Whether the pro and college game are just too different or whether the voting system is broken, college football’s most iconic trophy doesn’t promise NFL success. While the likes of Barry Sanders and Charles Woodson can bring their trophy to visit their bust in Canton, Ohio, not every winner is so lucky.


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