Why Robert Griffin’s Heisman was obscure, unlikely, historic

On Saturday night, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was awarded the 77th annual Heisman Trophy. Griffin’s win was an historical anomaly, and there were a number of unique factors which led to Griffin being the ultimate winner of the award.

My purpose is not to say whether or not Griffin was the most deserving player. I am attempting to show why Griffin’s win was a once in a generation type of event.

The trophy is said to be reserved for: “The outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

Throughout the prestigious history of the Heisman Trophy, two things have been true: recipients come from elite programs and elite programs have Heisman winners. Since 1991, without exception, this has been the case.

Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC, Florida, Florida State, and Michigan. Since 1991, each of these schools has multiple Heisman winners. Other recipients have come from places like Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Miami, and Nebraska.

All of these are top programs, who win conference championships and play in BCS bowl games.

ALL eleven of these programs have won a national championship since 1991. In that same time span, 18 of the winners of the award have come from one of these schools. Furthermore, with two exceptions, every team who has won a national championship since 1991 has won at least one Heisman in that same span (exceptions: 1998 Tennessee and 2003 LSU).

Certainly it does not guarantee that you will win the award, but the winners so often seem to come from perennial powers. Of the previous 11 winners of the Heisman, NINE of them played in the national championship game in the same season in which they won the trophy.

The Heisman is not – nor has it ever been – about being an objective determination of the best player. Of the elite programs that are having good seasons, the award goes to the best quarterback or running back out of that group with overwhelming consistency.

In the award’s defense, deciding the winner is an extremely daunting task. The FBS has over 100 teams. Just taking into account the starters from each of these teams is a group of 2,000 football players. How do you decide the best player out of that group?

Stats?

Statistics are a way of measuring performance which naturally lends itself to comparisons, but the award cannot be based solely off of stats.

If the award were given to the player with the best statistics, it would have gone to Houston quarterback Case Keenum. He had more yards, more touchdowns, and fewer interceptions than Griffin. He’s also college football’s all time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. But he plays for Houston who didn’t beat a top 25 team this year. Keenum finished seventh in Heisman voting.

Every year, we see players in smaller conferences put up huge numbers that more closely resemble what would seem more realistic in a video game than in real life, yet many of these players don’t become household names, and never even get votes for the Heisman. Of the top 40 all time leading passers in the history of college football, only 3 have won the Heisman.

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously you need to have great stats to win the Heisman. But great stats alone don’t guarantee you’ll be a viable candidate for the award.

This football season has been fraught with peculiarities. Ohio State, Florida, Texas, and Auburn, programs that are usually strong were down this year.

The upper echelon of college football in 2011 has been a group of unusual suspects. The Associated Press national championship has been awarded since 1936. Aside from the country’s top two teams – LSU and Alabama – No other team who is currently ranked in the top twelve in the BCS standings has ever won the AP national title.

Look at the teams who are good this year. It’s a who’s who of who’s that.

Oklahoma State? Before this season, OK State has had one top five team ever. Ever.

Arkansas and South Carolina? Both schools joined the SEC in 1991. Neither school has ever won the SEC.

Then there’s Baylor.

Last season, Baylor won 7 games which put them in their first bowl game since 1994. This year, they had a 9- 3 regular season, and beat conference foes Oklahoma and Texas.

For some, this is further confirmation as to the greatness of Griffin. Like a Phoenix rising above its ashes, Griffin made Baylor relevant. If this is a factor as to why people think he was deserving of the award, that’s fine.

But…

Answer me this. WHEN has that EVER been relevant to the Heisman conversation?

You don’t win the Heisman for making a perennial loser decent. Except for this year.

Players have great seasons every year. Transcendent players lead their teams to better years than what their respective programs are used to. Those players don’t win the Heisman (and usually aren’t even finalists for the Heisman). Except for this year.

One of the unique differences between college football and college basketball is that the football players are obligated to stay in school longer. We see these guys play for three or four years. As each season winds down, based on the players who are coming back, we have a sense of who the frontrunners for the following season’s Heisman will be.

Of the top six finishers in voting for the 2010 Heisman, all of them returned to school for this season (except for last year’s winner, Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton).

When Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck announced he was returning for his redshirt junior season, he automatically became the frontrunner for the Heisman. He was considered the best player in the country and was the runner up a year ago.

All season long, we heard how Luck is going to be one of the best quarterbacks to enter the NFL draft in years and that he has all of the necessary skills to succeed at the next level. The hype was monumental, and while he had a supberb season, it was almost impossible for him to live up to the expectations which the media had set for him. Furthermore, he had an average performance in a home loss to Oregon. When given the big stage, and it’s your time to shine, Heisman winners perform.

Wisconsin has had a history of producing bruising running backs. This year, Badger Montee Ball rushed for at least two touchdowns in every game they played and scored 38 times (second highest single season total of all time). While Wisconsin had a very good season, they had two costly losses which hurt a team who had been viewed by some as a national championship contender. While this doesn’t seem like it should be a factor, as it has already been explored, Heisman winners come from top programs. They do not come from programs which underachieve and fail to meet expectations.

LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was a rare defensive finalist. He is the best player on the best defense on the best team in the country. But as I’ve said, the Heisman isn’t about being the best player.

Of the 77 winners, there has only been one defensive player to receive the award. Only one person has ever won when his team had a losing record. And of all of the winners, 71 of the 76 recipients have either played quarterback or running back.

Two years ago, Alabama running back Mark Ingram won the Heisman. This year, fellow Alabama running back Trent Richardson was a finalist. Statistically, Richardson had a better year than Ingram’s winning campaign. Richardson helped led Alabama to the national championship game, just as Ingram had done in 2009.

Considering that several teams who are usually good were down, some teams who had legitimate Heisman candidates ended up having disappointing seasons, I felt that Richardson would have been the default winner of the trophy.

But he finished third.

He’s on the second best team in the country, he had a great season. He’s the best running back in America. He definitely had the credentials to win the Heisman. After the LSU loss, Alabama had a couple of games against inferior opponents down the stretch, and it was expected that Richardson would perform well. But great plays against lackluster competition aren’t what matter when it comes to the Heisman.

But Richardson still did have the type of season worthy of the trophy. One theory is that given the recent dominance of the SEC in college football, some voters may have been more apt to voting for players from other conferences.

I struggle to think that this one factor could have swayed enough of the 900+ voters to make a significant difference in the voting. Richardson didn’t even lead in Heisman votes in his own region. Griffin won every region of the country.

Why did the voters go so far outside of orthodoxy with their voting this season? Because Griffin deserved it? Really? And the person who deserves it happens to play for a national championship contender every year but for this one?

No. Griffin had an amazing season and he was a great story, but he is a totally obscure Heisman winner.

On the last week of the regular season, Griffin had a brilliant performance leading Baylor to a late win against Oklahoma. I think that performance on primetime, national television left an impression for voters and worked to his favor.

Early in the season, Griffin had an impressive performance leading Baylor to an upset win over Texas Christian. It was around that time that the rumblings began discussing Griffin as a possible Heisman contender. But he was always a darkhorse.

As the season wound down, Luck was arguably the best player, but he had not had the best season. It was wide open. And in the week leading up to the award, after the Oklahoma win, more and more people started saying that Griffin deserved to win. I think that this snowballed in Griffin’s favor as voters were casting their votes. Without a clear winner, I think voters took other factors into consideration, and the result was a win for Griffin.

But it’s still odd that he won.

Will the 2011 trend continue and allow for another Robert Griffin III to win the Heisman next year?

Of course not. Braxton Miller is winning the Heisman next year, and everything will be back to normal.

jrb

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