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What Does a Heisman Winner Look Like?

To be honest with you, I’ve been involved with a lot of award programs in my life and my observation is that they’re fairly arbitrary. And maybe the Heisman is arbitrary too, 1 but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun to try to predict the winner. Toward that goal, I recently waded through a sea of Heisman data to try to answer the question “what does a Heisman winner look like?”.


Going back to the year 2000, I looked at the most recent ten Heisman-winning quarterbacks, the ten highest vote-getting running backs, which includes two winners, and the ten highest vote-getting receivers; no receivers won. From there I compared their raw stats, per-game stats, and market share stats to determine the ways in which they were most similar, in terms of relative standard deviation. Also, I looked at team quality and age to try to decipher the profile of the typical Heisman contender at the main three positions. Ultimately, in an effort to project the 2015 candidates, this conversation will focus mainly on per-game and market share stats, as well as team performance.

Universal Commonalities

Across the board, the top running back and wide receiver contenders were from BCS / Power 5 conferences and enjoyed excellent health during their campaigns, rarely missing even one game. The quarterback position, where our focus is on ten winners, was also dominated by major conference players of outstanding health. It should be noted that a few smaller conference quarterbacks like Jordan Lynch and Colt Brennan have finished in the top three, so it’s not impossible for them to finish highly, it’s just the potential for that type of quarterback to win is virtually nil. Corey Feldman reference, anyone?

Pocket Quarterbacks

QBYearVotesMS Rush YdsMS Total YdsTouches/GPass TD/G
Troy Smith200625409.2%54.9%29.52.3
Jameis Winston201422057.7%58.8%33.72.9
Sam Bradford200817261.7%62.2%37.53.6
Jason White20031481-7.3%60.1%35.22.9
Matt Leinart200413251.9%56.1%35.52.5

When I went looking at quarterback winners, I thought they could be grouped into one batch, but it became pretty clear that there were two archetypes. The first that we’ll focus on, the pocket quarterback, accounts for less than 10 percent of his team’s rushing yards and plays for a team that, before the bowl game, goes undefeated or loses only one game. He plays for a team with a balanced offense, rather than an air raid system, and typically accumulates touchdown passes with high frequency. Interestingly, this bunch tends to be older than any of the other positional cohorts (even with the youngest winner, Jameis Winston, lowering their average age of 21.8), which could be tied to being around longer and having more name recognition, or it could be tied to the “team leader” narrative, or both.

Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

QBYearVotesMS Rush YdsMS Total YdsTouches/GTotal TD/G
Marcus Mariota2014253421.9%64.0%38.73.9
Cam Newton2010226336.9%62.5%39.03.6
Johnny Manziel2012202944.8%70.5%48.83.6
Tim Tebow2007195734.4%70.4%43.14.2
Robert Griffin III2011168722.8%65.6%44.83.6

With dual-threat quarterbacks, the expectations are a little different. To define the term “dual-threat,” we’re looking at players who account for more than 20 percent of their team’s rushing yards, in addition to their passing duties. Whereas the pocket quarterback needs to be outstanding on a great team, the dual-threat player is typically highly-productive on a good team; we’re talking something in the neighborhood of 9-3 or better. Dual threat quarterbacks also account for nine percent more of their team’s yards than pocket quarterbacks do, and score more touchdowns overall, typically boosted by their rushing production. Also, this group tends to be younger than their pocket passer counterparts with an average age of  just 21.1 and they tend to get stuck with the “for love of the game, playground playmaker” type label.

Running Backs

RBYearVotesMS TouchesMS Total YdsTouches/GTotal Yds/G
Reggie Bush (W)2005254123.8%29.4%18.4170.6
Darren McFadden2007170338.1%36.2%27.5162.8
Mark Ingram (W)2009130432.1%35.3%21.7142.3
Toby Gerhart2009127641.8%36.8%27.3157.4
Melvin Gordon2014125037.3%41.7%25.9195.7
Adrian Peterson200499735.4%32.2%26.5149.0
Trent Richardson201197836.1%36.1%24.0155.2
LaMichael James201091633.5%31.4%25.9161.6
Darren McFadden200687836.1%35.2%21.7133.2
Larry Johnson200272635.6%44.2%24.0187.4

Note that at the running back position, we only have two winners since the year 2000, Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram. The rest of the cohort was determined by top vote getters during that time frame. The name of the game for this crowd is touches – voters want to see them with the ball in their hands – and yards. Both of the winners were on elite teams, but to get lots of votes “only” required being on a team with a record of 8-4 or better. Similar to the dual-threat quarterbacks, the average age here is 21.1. To elaborate on this notion of age, I think there’s an element of getting swept up in the excitement about a player. Comparatively, for older players, they are more of a known commodity and opinions formed by voters during previous seasons could work against them.

Wide Receivers

WRYearVotesMS RecMS Scrm YdsRec/GScrm Yds/G
Larry Fitzgerald2003135336.7%31.8%7.1129.2
Amari Cooper2014102342.8%25.8%8.9125.0
Marqise Lee201220741.5%32.5%9.1140.5
Michael Crabtree200811620.9%16.9%7.589.7
Justin Blackmon201010533.1%29.7%9.3154.9
Mike Williams20037834.9%23.0%7.3103.1
Braylon Edwards20046239.1%30%8.1115.9
Santana Moss20005522.7%18.7%4.186.3
Dwayne Jarrett20064728.0%21.6%5.884.3
Tavon Austin20124730.2%29.6%8.8148.6

The last wide receiver to win the Heisman was Desmond Howard in 1991 (yes, that guy from College Gameday). Since the game has evolved a bit over the past 25 seasons, and data is more readily available starting in the year 2000, I’m going to focus this discussion on the top vote-getting receivers since the year 2000. There were really only two true contenders – Amari Cooper in 2014 and Larry Fitzgerald in 2003 – but I think we can still extract some common denominators for what voters look for out of a Heisman-worthy receiver. The name of the game here is lots of catches and lots of yards, both in raw- and market-share terms. Being on a contending team helps, but, ultimately, a winning record is all it takes to garner votes. For what it’s worth, all of these guys were top 45 draftees, but I’m not sure which way the causality flows there.

Stay tuned for part two of this article, which will apply these filters to identify 2015’s top Heisman candidates

Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast. Continue this conversation with him on Google+Facebook or Twitter.

  1. I haven’t been involved with that one yet  (back)
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