Why Heisman Contention Does Not Guarantee NFL Success

Ryan McCrystalFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2012

Will Geno Smith be the next to succumb to the Heisman curse?
Will Geno Smith be the next to succumb to the Heisman curse?James Lang-US PRESSWIRE

I've been covering the NFL Draft since 2004 and the Heisman Trophy race since 2009. One might expect a fair amount of overlap between the two subjects, but Heisman Trophy candidates haven't exactly found NFL success in recent years.

Since 1999, the 13 Heisman winners have combined for three Pro Bowl selections, two of which belong to Carson Palmer.

So why don't Heisman contenders take their success to the next level?

It's a difficult question to answer since each candidate's situation is different, but here are a few conclusions I've come to over the years.


It's a stats-driven award

The Heisman is limited to offensive skill position players, making it a statistics-driven award. As a result, voters are drawn to players who excel in fast-paced offenses, and these players simply don't translate well to the NFL.

Take Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, for example. While he's an electrifying athlete and one of the most entertaining players in the college game, he will never reach this level of success in the NFL. At 5'9", 175 pounds, he's perfect for Chip Kelly's high-flying offense at Oregon, but he'll be limited to a much smaller role on Sundays due to his lack of size.

We see this phenomenon with quarterbacks as well. Guys who are "products of the system," such as Jason White and Chris Weinke, can post video game-like numbers in college despite limited physical tools. For these guys, winning the Heisman is all about being in the right place at the right time.



The college game is (relatively) easy

Plenty of Heisman contenders had the skills to excel in the NFL but failed to apply themselves (Matt Leinart and Vince Young, I'm looking at you). 


In college, these players used their superior talent to feast on weaker competition. But the NFL might as well be a completely different sport. Success isn't guaranteed for anyone in the NFL, and players who work hard (Drew Brees, for example) will always outperform the guys with the raw talent. 

So many elite college athletes are essentially playing backyard football. We've all heard the stories about Auburn's laughably simplistic playbook, yet Cam Newton owned the football world in 2010. But even Newton, who initially appeared to be an exception to this rule, is starting to struggle. If he doesn't learn to prepare like guys such as Brees, Brady and Manning, he'll soon join Leinart and Troy Smith on the long list of failed Heisman contenders.


Some skills aren't needed in the NFL

This is a relatively rare situation, but it applies to at least two winners in the past decade: Eric Crouch and Tim Tebow. Both were elite college quarterbacks, yet many NFL scouts believed they needed to make a position change at the next level. 

Tebow has achieved some measure of success as a quarterback, but only when the Broncos adopted a college-style offense to fit his skill set. Seventy years ago, both quarterbacks could have been NFL stars, but the option offense—while alive and well in some college programs—has long since been phased out of the NFL. 

So when this year's group of Heisman candidates make the leap to the NFL, keep these three categories in mind. If they fall into one of the groups listed above, they're probably a good bet to keep the Heisman curse alive.