The debate rages over who should win the Heisman trophy, Manti Te’o or Johnny Manziel. Both players have been magnificent and both sides have their arguments, some valid and some not.
To reach an honest conclusion, though, we need to have an honest discussion. We need to expose some of the fallacious arguments and outline why the legitimate ones are legitimate.
From the outset though, let's establish one thing. Both players deserve real consideration, and if you think that it's not even a conversation, you need to open up your mind a little more. It's not open and shut either way.
The Worst Arguments Against Te’o
Those who argue for Manziel make an argument against Te’o that his numbers aren’t that good. This doesn’t really work because the better a defensive player is and the better his overall defense is, the worse his numbers will be.
It’s counterintuitive but true. The reason is that if a defense is good, the opposing offense will be on the field for fewer plays. That means that the defensive player will be on the field for fewer plays because he is a good defensive player.
Furthermore, a good defensive player is different from a good offensive player because the offense calls the play. While an offense is going to design plays to put the ball in the hands of its best player as much as possible, it's also going to design plays away from the opponent’s best defensive players.
So, while Te’o might not have the most tackles in the country, and in fact be only 51st, it’s a bit misleading. Only one player, Khaseem Greene of Rutgers, who has 110 tackles to Te’o’s 103, is from an elite defense. That certainly tightens up the conversation a bit.
It's also worth mentioning that Te'o has seven picks, two shy of the record for a linebacker. There's a reason he's drawn comparisons to Brian Urlacher.
The Worst Argument Against Manziel
Those who argue for Te’o try and dismiss Manziel arguing that he racked up his numbers against poor teams and struggled against good teams. In doing so they overestimate what he’s done against weaker teams and underestimate what he’s done against the stronger teams.
Manziel has played three games against Top 10 teams, and in each of those cases, they were teams whose biggest strength was their defense. Those three teams are Alabama, ranked first in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, Florida, ranked third in scoring and fifth in yards, and LSU ranked 11th in scoring and ninth in yards.
Collectively those teams give up an average of 270 total yards and 13.7 points per game. Texas A&M averaged 21.7 points and 387 yards per game against those teams, and Manziel, by himself, accounted for 293.7 yards per game against them.
Additionally, while it’s true that he squared off against two FCS opponents, he also played limited minutes in those games, and rather than inflate his stats in those games, they actually hurt his averages as he only averaged 309.5 yards in those games, attempting only 20 passes in each of them.
If you take out all the FCS schools and poor FBS teams, his numbers still glow. Against FBS winning schools he averaged 373.4 yards and three touchdowns.
By comparison only one of Notre Dame’s opponents, Oklahoma, was ranked in the top 10 in offensive yards and only one other, USC, was ranked in the top 50. On top of that when Notre Dame faced USC it was without its starting quarterback and best player, Matt Barkley.
The reality is that when you’re looking at scheduling, Manziel has faced better defenses than Te’o has offenses. If Notre Dame wants to make scheduling a part of the argument, it better be careful.
First Freshman vs. First Defensive Player
Some argue that Manziel shouldn’t be considered because he is a freshman. This is absolutely an argument of convenience, and it’s really a moot point. Whether someone thinks freshmen should be eligible is not an argument for this year. By rule they are.
There is nothing in the voting rules which prohibits a freshman from winning. Some will argue that a freshman has never won, indicating voters don’t believe freshmen should win. However, just because a freshman has never won doesn’t mean a freshman shouldn’t win.
The irony of the argument is that a pure defensive player has never won either, but that precedent is one which the Te’o proponents would argue needs to end. In one case they want to use the lack of precedent against Manziel, but in the other they use the same as an argument for Te’o.
If there were to be something which breaks precedent, shouldn’t it be which is more historic? While Te’o’s performance has been admirable and truly outstanding, can anyone really argue that it is historic? Yet Manziel’s is—literally.
If you were going to give it to a freshman, wouldn’t it go to the freshman who has had the greatest offensive year ever by a freshman? Manziel only set the freshman record for total offense. And he didn’t just break it; he shattered it.
According to ESPN, the former freshman record was 3,827 yards set in 2000 by Jared Lorenzen. Manziel has 4,600 yards already, and he has a bowl game to go. He hasn’t just broken the record; he’s broken it by 20 percent and counting. He shattered it.
You can unequivocally say that Manziel has had the best freshman year ever by an offensive player, but you simply can’t say the same about Te’o as a defensive player.
Manziel distinguishes him from every freshman who has ever played the game. Te’o has not done as much from the defensive side.
In fact, the best argument for Te’o is that he is the best defensive player on a team that is the top-ranked team in the nation (and deservedly so). Yet the exact same argument was used for Tyrann 'Honey Badger' Mathieu last season, and he finished fifth.
Of course the Te’o proponents might argue that just because being a freshman shouldn’t cost Manziel the Heisman, it doesn’t mean he should win it for being a freshman either, so breaking freshman records doesn’t mean he should win it.
Manziel didn’t just have a historic season as a freshman. He became only the fifth player to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 and only the second, other than Vince Young in 2005, to do so from a major conference. He also broke the SEC record for total offense.
The Non-Statistical Argument for Te’o
As previously stated, it’s hard to gauge Te’o’s true worth through stats.
There’s also an inherent bonus to that argument: You can’t see his flaws through stats. For example, one of his statistically weakest games came in Notre Dame’s toughest game of the season, Stanford.
In that game he had only three solo tackles, eight assisted tackles, no sacks, no tackles for loss and no interceptions and no passes broken up. Was that because Stanford was running plays away from him? Or was it because they were basically winning the battle with him?
It’s easy to point to Manziel’s LSU game and say he struggled, but you can’t point to a box score and identify Teo’s weakest game for the same reasons you can’t use them to identify his best.
It’s impossible to say by looking at the box score how well he played. And it’s pretty much impossible to say without specifically watching the game focusing specifically on what Te’o is doing. Even just watching a Notre Dame game doesn’t mean you see everything he does.
You might not see where he gets blocked out of the way and a hole opens up, or you might miss where he plugs one and changes the direction of a runner, resulting in lost yards.
While I’m certain that tens of thousands of Notre Dame fans will attest that they have studied him extensively, their objectivity might be in question.
It’s just impossible, for better or worse, to objectively measure his impact on Notre Dame’s defense. Those who have watched him the most are, by default, subjective, and the only way to really grasp his impact is through watching.
So while Manziel can be criticized for game to game performances, Te’o gets off that hook. Or, if you prefer, while Manziel can get lauded for single-handedly beating Alabama, Te’o’s performance against Stanford gets lost.
The Non-Statistical Argument for Manziel
The other aspect of this argument is that it implies that the entirety of the “watch-the-game” argument ends up in Te’o’s favor. While Te’o is the most essential cog in a well-oiled machine, Manziel seems to be the actual machine.
There is no other way to describe it. It’s easy to dismiss Manziel’s numbers because we’ve see other QBs put up monster numbers because of the system they’re in. Manziel isn’t a system quarterback though. He’s a quarterback who is the system.
How many of the yards which he gained were gained by Manziel running 50 extra yards behind the line of scrimmage, leaving a trail of flailing linemen in his wake, adding five, six, or seven seconds for his receivers to get open, and then rifle in an impossible throw that hits right on the money?
So much of the Aggie offense is just Manziel running around creating something out of nothing on a busted play, whether he’s scrambling to gain yards on the ground or scrambling around in the backfield until a receiver gets open.
There’s a reason he’s been dubbed “Johnny Football,” and if you’re annoyed by the name, it’s because you haven’t watched him play. When you do it’s obvious that he’s just a pure football player to his core. Because he has impressive stats, don’t dismiss that everything about him is qualified by them.
Who Has the Most Talent Around Him?
Notre Dame has other NFL talent on its defense, but Te’o clearly outshines them all. Bennet Jackson, and Zeke Motta could go both go to the NFL this year. Prince Shembo and Dan Fox could go next year. That’s a pretty decent amount of NFL-caliber talent surrounding Te’o.
Meanwhile, Manziel has Luke Joeckel, who might very well be the first player to go in the NFL draft, but offensive tackles don’t usually get as much Heisman chatter as defensive players and freshmen. He also has Swope, an NFL-ready wide receiver and Christine Michael, a top-10 running back on his team.
In short, neither player deserves all the credit for his unit’s success, but there does seem to be a difference slightly in favor Te’o in terms of help.
Neither player succeeds alone, but you get the impression watching both teams play that while Notre Dame’s defense is great because of Te’o, any offense with Manziel would be great. His ability to dominate a game is extraordinary.
The gap between Manziel and his offensive teammates is simply greater than the gap between Te’o and his defensive companions. Both make their units better, but Te’o has more help and Manziel has more impact.
There are a few other arguments which aren’t worthy of responding extensively to but to avoid ignoring them completely here are a few thoughts.
While Te’o’s personal tragedy is inspiring, it shouldn’t have a place in voting. Yes, I get all the integrity arguments, but it’s never taken a prominent role in voting before (just ask Cam Newton) and shouldn’t start now. That’s just an argument of convenience.
Playing in the SEC might give Manziel some votes and it probably takes some away as well, as there is an unreasonable backlash against the SEC this year. You need no more evidence than the fact that many call this a “down year” for the SEC despite the fact that it has six of the top 10 BCS teams.
All six of those teams have lost, but all of their losses collectively have only been to one another. One of those losses, ironically, is why Te’o is in the Heisman talk. Had Manziel not led A&M to a win over Alabama, likely the Tide are still No. 1 and Te’o loses his best argument.
On the whole, both players are certainly deserving of consideration, and anyone who argues that it’s “open and shut” either way is being obtuse in regards to the other player. Both are remarkable and both are deserving, but Manziel has a bit of separation and should be the winner.