If you hadn't watched a single down of South Carolina football this year, opting to follow the season on ESPN and Twitter alone, you'd think Jadeveon Clowney was out of shape, off his game and kind of a diva.
To be fair, some of that is self-imposed. Clowney himself has complained about his performance, making public declarations for change and (successfully) pleading for freedom to roam the line. By acting like something might be wrong, Clowney has helped attract some of his criticism.
But the rest of it is more or less unfounded, and confusing given that it's come from quote-unquote "experts." Just because Clowney hasn't shown up on the highlight film, apparently he's buckled under expectation and lost his mojo.
Which is ridiculous. Anyone who truly understands football—and folks like me, who have gotten good at faking it—will tell you that's not the case. Take it from B/R's Michael Felder, who said this after South Carolina lost to Georgia:
Here's the most important part of Felder's analysis:
[Clowney's] impact on [the Georgia] game was undeniable. Even in a loss, Georgia ran the football away from Clowney most of the game. Georgia ran quick passes—especially quick slants—to stop Clowney from getting to Aaron Murray with five- and seven-step drops.
He impacts the game. Jadeveon Clowney is still getting push off the ball, he’s still a terror for offensive tackles, [but] teams are just now realizing they’ve gotta do things away from him to minimize his immediate impact on the game.
There it is—clear as words could be spoken. Clowney hasn't made a highlight play this year, but that doesn't mean he's struggled or lost a step. Teams have altered their game plan to keep him from getting a chance..
ESPN scout Kevin Wiedl got even more specific with Clowney's numbers against Georgia, counting how efficient his 20 pass-rush snaps were for the Gamecocks:
What's most baffling about the Clowney backlash is that his numbers—what Felder warned against misreading about defensive ends—are just fine. He had a sack and two tackles for loss against Georgia and still came under fire.
Another sack against Vanderbilt, upping his total to two in three games, was still not enough to quiet people down.
What more does Clowney need to do?
As it turns out, that's the salient question. And the answer is sadly quite cynical. Nothing Clowney does this season will appease us because we spent the offseason aggrandizing him. We built up this image of Clowney as God—complete with metaphysical feats of strength—and held him to that impossibly high standard.
But here's the problem with impossibly high standards: they're impossible. No one could be as productive as Clowney was expected to be, especially with defenses so paranoid about letting him make an impact. His last two games of 2012 featured a 4.5-sack performance and the ESPY for Play of the Year.
No player can continue at that pace.
Earlier this summer, before the season started, ESPN.com released a straw poll of Heisman candidates. Clowney finished first; though now, just three games into the season, he is left off the list entirely.
When the first poll—the one with Clowney ranked first—was published, I wrote about it with indignant skepticism. It didn't seem to make any sense. Even if Clowney was the best player in college football this year, how would his stats reflect it? How would he create another once-in-a-lifetime highlight?
Who's ever won the trophy without both of those things?
In the past three weeks, it's become clear that this obsession—this need for players to produce something tangible—extends far past Heisman balloting. It exists in every judgment the general public makes about football.
Fair or not, in order to win the reverence of the masses, a player needs to have numbers and highlights on his side. The All-22 tape can only vindicate so much to so many people; in certain respects, the Youtube reel is a more important showcase.
There was a time when Clowney was the bar-none favorite to go No. 1 in next April's NFL draft. Now, in the wake of his supposed struggles, that's become a bit of a question mark. But despite what you might hear or read, Clowney isn't the one playing himself out of the top spot.
Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden and every other NFL quarterback who might play his team into the No. 1 pick—those are the ones hurting Clowney's chances.