The Heisman Gets Defensive Minded, But It's Not Enough

Jacob StutsmanCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2009

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 12:  The Heisman trophy awarded to Running back Mark Ingram #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at a press conference after he was named the 75th Heisman Trophy winner at the Marriott Marquis on December 12, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The Heisman Trophy, with its outstretched hand and the kind of running posture that seems preconditioned to promulgate the myth of its own offensive man of action, is modeled after Ed Smith, a little known running back from New York University who happened to be the man of the moment in 1934 but has, through the arc of football history, no true significance.

This revelation might say more about the award than you think.

Most of the criticism rests in the provincial hands of the voters, who keep the award as the luxuriant claim of offensive talent, and not necessarily the players, whose achievements, just by virtue of the process, are usually great.

Consider the fact that two ends have ever won the award—Larry Kelly, Yale, in 1936, and Leon Hart, Notre Dame, in 1949.

Fullbacks have been selected four times during an era when the position was fastidiously used in the offensive scheme.

Since the advent of modern football in the 1960s, the award has almost exclusively been the domain of running backs, which includes a 12-year winning streak for the position between 1972 and 1983, and quarterbacks.

Only Desmond Howard in 1991 and Charles Woodson in 1997 have recently bucked the trend.

The NFL MVP award advocates only slightly more amenable habits.

Ever since the award was instituted in 1957, it, too, has been dominated by running backs and quarterbacks, while Alan Page (DE) in 1971, Mark Moseley (K) in a strike-shortened 1982 season, and Lawrence Taylor (LB) in 1986 have abrogated the rule.

Then again, the NFL MVP award occupies the strange world in which a kicker has won but a wide receiver hasn’t. However, history attests to the fact that we have always been enamored with the two skill positions in the backfield that dominate the ball. It is not necessarily the recent engine of fantasy football or marketing.

People are obsessed with giving awards, even if they can’t stand the process. But the ideological spirit of football seems interminably resistant to the very idea of crowning an outstanding player.

In basketball, it’s possible to compare positions. For instance, you can weigh a center’s diminishing point total against his dominance on the boards.

In baseball, pitchers and hitters are rightly spared from comparison by the divide that separates their own respective awards.

But in football, how do you attempt to weigh the value of a guard’s block against that of a quarterback’s throw?

There does seem to be an agreed upon set of principles: A tackle is logistically more valuable than a center, and a quarterback is the leader of a team, even if his success is contingent on the blocking array of the offensive line before him.

If football is an ad agency, then the skill positions are the creative team.

Consider the Minnesota Vikings, who lost five of six games last year by a touchdown or less. In a sport where a single play can change the game, the elevation of quarterback skill alone may be worth entire wins.

The same does not entirely hold true for most other positions.

Yet it’s hard to imagine the inclusion of Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game without the dominance of its defense, which only stands behind Alabama nationally in scoring—and Ndamukong Suh is the indomitable anchor of that defense.

How do we consider his stats? The standard metrics can’t quite measure efficacy, drive-killing plays, momentum, and impact.

What we do know is this: Though only ninth nationally in sacks per game, nobody put more pressure on the other team: 21 QB hurries, 10 batted balls, three blocked punts, and more tackles, both solo and assists, than any defensive lineman in the country.

During the biggest game of the season, fellow Heisman nominee Colt McCoy was held to one of his worst—55 percent, 184 yards, and three INTs—while Suh had his best. It is not often that one Heisman hopeful directly dims the hopes of another.

It’s difficult to gauge Suh’s impact without watching all of his games, which most Heisman voters don’t do, since he may have had a hand in disrupting as many as a dozen offensive plays a game.

Both Toby Gerhart and Mark Ingram had impressive years*, and yet the system seems unnecessarily stacked against a player like Suh, who took his team like a dirigible and steered it along its proper course.

The myth that the winner has to be a junior or senior on a top five team is already beginning to fracture, but defensive players are still left out in the dark.

While I understand that the most prestigious running backs and quarterbacks during any single year will always be invited, must there be the talent of a Lawrence Taylor before we will consider them?

How valuable or outstanding must they be to equal the worth of a quarterback?

It doesn't seem to matter because the voters are almost resigned to the very idea that Suh cannot win.

The most disappointing thing is that so few people are willing to challenge the ill-begotten tradition and the self-perpetuating bias.

The definition of “outstanding,” like “most valuable,” may have been instituted in order to inspire independence and creativity amongst the voters, but the anarchy that has resulted ensures a voting body that is past-reliant and slow to change.

Because no one wants to rethink the nature of the award, the problems compound.

The Heisman Trophy ennobles and enshrines its recipients, but the actual significance of the award seems hollow, a historical footnote that looks good on Wikipedia pages and highlight reels without offering the revelation of a player's ability.

Without the pomp and press, the position awards have always had more credibility since the voters can directly compare linemen to linemen and receivers to receivers.

College football is a game of contradictions and inverses anyway. We remember great players and significant moments but not necessarily awards and championships.

But if the Heisman is going to remain an important icon and not atrophy, we must try to make it equitable for all.


* Stats: Both Gerhart and Ingram nearly had the same number of total yards—Gerhart had 1,736 rushing and 149 receiving, and Ingram had 1,542 rushing and 322 receiving—but Gerhart had 26 total TDs to Ingram’s 18.

If you compare opponents, then Alabama played against an average defensive rank of 51st, plus 1-AA Chattanooga, compared to 59th for Stanford. In their final games, Ingram had 209 yards and three TDs against the fourth-ranked defense, and Gerhart had 256 yards and four TDs, one of which was a passing TD, against…well…Notre Dame.

I say that, if the competition came down to either, Gerhart would be my choice, but Ingram is a worthy winner.