How to Fix the Heisman

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It's impossible to choose the year's best college football player—so the voters should pick two

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AP Images, Reuters

The principal absurdity of the Heisman trophy—that it's possible to choose "the outstanding college football player in the country" among thousands of players—was nailed in 1954 by W.W. "Pudge" Heffelfinger, the first player selected to an All-America team (back in 1889) and the first to receive money to play football professionally (a year later). "In my day," he wrote in his autobiography, This Was Football, "there was some sense and logic in the All-America selections because there weren't many good teams and naturally there weren't many good players ... today, the All-America is a joke. There are hundreds of excellent players, and trying to rate one above the other is an impossible job." 

But once again the Heisman Trophy Trust is going to try and do it anyway—through a system involving regional representatives who select the voters, joined by former Heisman winners who also vote—and though it's too late to have any impact on this year's award, which will be announced Saturday night, it would be refreshing to see some logic and common sense standards brought to the annual debate.

A popular misconception about the Heisman Trophy is that except for Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson in 1997, the award has always gone to offensive players. In fact, the first 30 Heisman winners, starting with the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger in 1935, had to play on both offense and defense.  No one in the era of two-platoon football would have been considered worthy of a Heisman had he not been able to tackle as well as run and throw.

Since the rules were changed in 1965 to allow unlimited substitution—thus ushering in the era of specialists at each position—Woodson is the only purely defensive player to win the Heisman, and of the remaining 45 trophies, 22 have gone to running backs (including two to Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1975 and 1976 and one to USC's Reggie Bush in 2005, who was pressured into returning his trophy for having accepted cash and gifts while in college), 20 to quarterbacks, and three to wide receivers/punt returners (including Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers in 1972, who is listed on the Heisman site as a runner but did most of his spectacular work as a pass receiver and return man). 

Let's concede, then, that Pudge was right 57 years ago and that it's impossible to really select the best college football player in the country.  (Why isn't an offensive guard who plays for, say, Fresno State, as good at what he does as a passer or runner as one of the star players at a big-name school?)

Here are some commonsense criteria that could be applied to the leading candidates: 

  • Is the player, as best as can be determined, the best man at his position? 
  • Is the player, as best as can be determined, the main reason for his team's success or does he merely benefit from playing on a strong team?
  • And, finally, were his gaudy statistics truly significant, were they compiled against worthy opposition? Or were many of those yards and touchdowns just piled on to impress voters?

How do the performances of this year's five Heisman finalists stand up to these questions? 

First, LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu may well be the best defensive player in the country—he could be the best player on offense or defense. But how would we know?  A coach can choose to give the ball to an offensive player as many times as he wants to, but he can also choose to keep the ball away from a great player on the opposing defense. Mathieu is credited with two interceptions, but it's anyone's guess how many more he would have if opposing teams dared to throw more often in his direction. He is also a superb punt returner: 420 yards on 26 tries, two for TDs (one against Georgia in front of a national audience last Saturday).

Mathieu may go home with the trophy, but to award the Heisman to a defensive player requires a shift from objective evaluation to purely subjective judgment - the handful of observers who have seen the defensive player all season long must make a strong case that he is the very best at his position. (But how would they know if he's better than scores of other defensive players whom they haven't seen every week?) 

With the other four candidates, the question is much simpler: Alabama's Trent Richardson and Wisconsin's Montee Ball both put up spectacular numbers. Richardson ran for 1,583 yards, averaging six yards per try, and Ball rushed for 1,759 yards and a 6.4 average. But Richardson, playing in the SEC, achieved his numbers against far tougher competition, (USA Today's Jeff Sagarin, the leading power rankings expert, rates Alabama's schedule a whopping 14 points tougher than Wisconsin's.)

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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