Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Vote frauds

Toretta for Hall of Fame!

Sportswriters, broadcasters and former Heisman Trophy winners should be making up their minds right about now on this year's recipient of the Heisman, the most coveted award in college athletics, a signature marker of gridiron excellence, and a bronze albatross that has dragged many a man's professional football prospects to the bottom of the cold, merciless sea. Under the bright lights at the Downtown Athletic Club, Heisman winners commonly declare that the day they receive the trophy is "the greatest day of my life." They usually don't add "so far." Nor should they.

This past NFL weekend gave us a matchup of two quarterbacks who have sat in the front row at the Heisman ceremony: Peyton Manning of the Colts and Carson Palmer of the Bengals. Both are now certifiable NFL superstars, but which one had the harder path to stardom? Palmer, obviously. He actually won the Heisman in 2002, which meant he would begin his pro career shrouded in the foul vapor of incipient failure. Manning, on the other hand, was the runner-up in 1997, which meant he could enter the league with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove while the vastly inferior, critically flawed player who won the Heisman had nowhere to go but down. That player: Charles Woodson, the ultimate triumph of Heisman hype over talent.

The award that I like to call the Powerade Heisman Trophy is cursed -- or, more specifically, the selection process is cursed. The curse is never more evident than when a quarterback takes home the trophy and puts it on his mantel, where he can admire it every evening when he gets home from his insurance agency, real-estate office, car dealership or work-release program. In the past 20 years, 11 quarterbacks have won the Heisman. Only Palmer and maybe Vinny Testaverde (1986) became NFL stars. Ty Detmer (1990) has enjoyed a long NFL career because he's never had to do anything but carry a clipboard and come in for two plays to kill the clock. Chris Weinke (2000) played one year as a starter and went 1-15. NFL teams didn't even consider Charlie Ward (1993) and Jason White (2003) worth a draft pick. Eric Crouch (2001) flunked out of training camp twice and washed ashore in Europe. Andre Ware (1989) and Danny Wuerffel (1996) were utter disasters. The less said about Gino Toretta (1992), the better. In this light, perhaps 2004 winner Matt Leinart was smart to stay in school another year. The NFL might forget he won the award, and the stink might blow onto his USC teammate, Reggie Bush.

Of course, as we hear every year about this time, the Heisman is not supposed to identify the brightest NFL star-in-the-making. The marketing materials make clear that the trophy goes to the "most outstanding college football player." In other words, the recipient doesn't have to be particularly good, he just has to stand out. Maybe with wicked sideburns or something. And it's college success that counts, not pro prospects. Fine, fine. But the fact that so many of these guys come out with no NFL hopes whatsoever strongly suggests that they just aren't all that good.

The college game is different from the pro game, no doubt about it. Some players who excel at quarterback in college just aren't cut out for QB success in the pros. But if those guys are great players, great athletes, they'll find a spot in the NFL. Antwaan Randle El broke every QB record Indiana could throw at him, but when he got to Pittsburgh, the Steelers decided he'd be better at receiver. And the Steelers were more than qualified to make this call, having just spent five years trying to determine whether Kordell Stewart could be a pro quarterback (answer: not really). This year's example is Matt Jones, a beast of a QB at Arkansas whom the Jacksonville Jaguars have turned into a promising wideout. Contrast their experiences with those of Crouch, whom the St. Louis Rams drafted in the third round with the intention of having him play wide receiver. Crouch pouted around the Rams' training camp for a bit, "retired" when things got rough, came back with the Packers to try to be a QB, "retired" again, and was last seen learning to play safety in NFL Europe. Kinda sad for a guy whose official Heisman-candidacy website (still online) declared him "destined for greatness."

Of late, quarterbacks win the Heisman simply by default, because they happen to be the most recognizable name on a national championship contender. (The voters, however, credit "leadership" and say he "makes his teammates better." No. QBs are leaders because they're good, not the other way around.) That's why Leinart probably won't win it this year. As good as Leinart may be, Bush is now the bigger name at USC. Further, quarterback Vince Young of No. 2 Texas is also a bigger name, so if Bush doesn't win the Heisman, Young is the next-best bet.

Palmer is the exception. Yes, he played on a title contender and was its most recognizable member, but he was also the best player on the team. Had he played at Fresno State or Minnesota or UCLA, he'd still have been a top prospect. Had Weinke or Ward played somewhere other than Florida State, you'd never have heard of them (as football players, at least; Ward is now in the NBA). Same with Toretta (Miami), Wuerffel (Florida), Crouch (Nebraska) and White (Oklahoma).

The quarterback for a college football powerhouse has to be sound, but he doesn't have to be especially good. He has the best line to keep defenders away. He has the best receivers to throw to. He has the best coaches drawing up schemes. Put me in there, I might throw you some touchdowns. This is why White's phone never rang on draft day 2004, despite all the wins he had at Oklahoma. Meanwhile, guys who had succeeded with "lesser" teams -- Eli Manning (Mississippi), Philip Rivers (N.C. State), Ben Roethlisberger (Miami of Ohio) -- were drafted in the first round. Matt Cassel, the backup to Palmer and then Leinart at USC, was drafted after throwing fewer than 40 passes in college, while White stayed home. Devastating.

What about Ware (Houston) and Detmer (Brigham Young)? Detmer teaches us the value of having a schedule full of cupcakes. He threw for thousands of yards and dozens of touchdowns in the WAC back when the WAC was whack. BYU ran up the score on chumps like New Mexico and Utah State. In the Holiday Bowl, after Detmer had taken home the Heisman, BYU was brutally exposed and royally pounded by Texas A&M, 65-14. Ware, meanwhile, had an undeniably great year in 1989 playing in a run-and-shoot offense. He was drafted by the Lions, who at the time were also playing the run-and-shoot, but he couldn't crack the starting lineup. Just as well: The run-and-shoot has yet to work in the NFL. (Not saying it can't!)

When you look at the results of the Heisman voting, you're peeking into an insane parallel football universe. In that topsy-turvy, head-spinning dimension, the 2001 NFL draft is marked by two of the biggest scouting blunders of all time -- front-office boners of epic proportions. That year, the Chargers traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Falcons, who used it on Michael Vick. The Chargers then took Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round. Which quarterback was the better choice? Trick question: neither! The right choice, of course, was Weinke, and both teams left him on the board for Carolina to snap up. No wonder the Panthers have been to the Super Bowl since then, while the Chargers and Falcons have not, hmm?

This is how it works in the Heisman Underverse. Voters beware! Those who do not learn from history (Crouch) are doomed to repeat it (White).

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