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When Did the Heisman Become an Award for Quarterbacks? Why Can't a WR Win?

US Presswire
Brandon OliverContributor IOctober 24, 2013

Since 1935, the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to the most outstanding player in college football. There is an ongoing debate about whether the honor is about being the most outstanding player in the country or the most valuable player on a highly ranked team.

According to the Heisman Trust mission statement, the award is based on not only the performance of the player, but also his character. That causes a subjective process to be even more so, making it almost impossible to accurately describe the combination of characteristics needed to win the award. 

One thing is for sure, though: The quarterback, who has his hands on the ball nearly every time it is snapped, has a clear advantage in that process. Which player do fans and the media see the most now that they can find nearly any game on TV?

Of course, it's the quarterback. 

The Heisman is becoming an award dedicated to the best quarterback on one of the best teams in the country. The line between the Heisman and the Davey O'Brien Award, which goes to the nation's top quarterback, seems to have disappeared. 

Someone has to get open and make defenders miss. What about the players who get the ball from the quarterback? 

Since the year 2000, running backs and wide receivers have become an afterthought. When Alabama running back Mark Ingram won the award in 2009, he became the first non-quarterback to win the Heisman since 1999. 

It is becoming more difficult for anyone other than a quarterback to earn college football's most prestigious individual honor. It has proven to be almost impossible for a wide receiver.

Heisman Trophy Voting Results for QB/RB/WR (2000-2013)
YearWinnerRunner-upTop RB in VotingTop WR in Voting# of QBs in Top 10
2000QB Chris Weinke (Fla St)QB Josh Heupel (Okla)LaDainian Tomlinson TCU (4)Santana Moss Miami (Fla) (7)5
2001QB Eric Crouch (Neb)QB Rex Grossman (Fla)None in Top 10None in Top 106
2002QB Carson Palmer (USC)QB Brad Banks (Iowa)Larry Johnson Penn St (3)None in Top 106
2003QB Jason White (Okla)WR Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt)Chris Perry Mich (4)Larry Fitzgerald Pitt (2)6
2004QB Matt Leinart (USC)RB Adrian Peterson (Okla)Adrian Peterson Okla (2)Braylon Edwards Mich (10)5
2005Reggie Bush (USC) VacatedQB Vince Young (Texas)Reggie Bush (USC) VacatedNone in Top 105
2006QB Troy Smith (Ohio St)RB Darren McFadden (Ark)Darren McFadden (Ark)Dwayne Jarrett USC (9)3
2007QB Tim Tebow (Fla)RB Darren McFadden (Ark)Darren McFadden (Ark)None in Top 106
2008QB Sam Bradford (Okla)QB Colt McCoy (Texas)Shonn Greene Iowa (6)Michael Crabtree Texas Tech (5)6
2009RB Mark Ingram (Ala)RB Toby Gerhart (Stan)Mark Ingram (Ala)Mardy Gilyard Cinc (9)4
2010QB Cam Newton (Aub)QB Andrew Luck (Stan)LaMichael James Oregon (3)Justin Blackmon Okla St (5)7
2011QB Robert Griffin III (Bay)QB Andrew Luck (Stan)Trent Richardson Ala (3)None in Top 106
2012QB Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)LB Manti Te'o (ND)Kenjon Barner Oregon (9)Marqise Lee USC (4)4
Yahoo! Sports

Regardless of how the award is defined, there have been years in which the voters got it right by selecting the most deserving player. There have also been plenty of curious choices.

Johnny Manziel was not one of them. He broke many of Cam Newton's records while turning around a stagnant Texas A&M program that was in its first season in the SEC. As such, he was clearly the most valuable and outstanding player in the country.

But what about the other skill-position players? There have been plenty of cases in which the voters could have easily gone another direction before voting for a quarterback.

In 2002, Penn State running back Larry Johnson rushed for 2,087 yards and 20 touchdowns. He added 41 receptions, 349 yards and three touchdowns through the air and 219 yards on kick returns to finish with 2,655 total yards and 23 total touchdowns. He finished third in the vote behind USC QB Carson Palmer and Iowa QB Brad Banks.

There have been eight Doak Walker Award winners in the past 13 years who rushed for at least 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns during their award-winning season, yet none of them won the award. Oddly enough, Ingram didn't win the Doak Walker Award (that honor went to Stanford's Toby Gerhart). 

Running backs have a legitimate beef because they handle the ball more than any player on the field other than the quarterback. However, one glance at the list of players who have won the award, and you'll see it isn't the running backs who have the real argument.

The frequency of running backs winning the award has decreased dramatically, but at least they get to join the discussion. On the other hand, wide receivers are rarely even considered as serious Heisman Trophy candidates.

Biletnikoff Award Winners (2000-2012)
YearWRRecYardsTDYds/RecTotal YdsHeisman Top 10
2000Antonio Bryant (Pitt)681,3021119.91302N/A
2001Josh Reed (LSU)941,740718.51747N/A
2002Charles Rogers (Mich St)681,3511319.11425N/A
2003Larry Fitzgerald (Pitt)921,6722218.216772nd
2004Braylon Edwards (Mich)971,3301513.7139110th
2005Mike Hass (Oregon St)901,532617.01,550N/A
2006Calvin Johnson (GT)761,2021515.8123210th
2007Michael Crabtree (TT)1341,9622214.641,978N/A
2008Michael Crabtree (TT)9711651912.011,2165th
2009Golden Tate (ND)931,4961516.091,91510th
2010Justin Blackmon (Okla St)1111,7822016.051,8665th
2011Justin Blackmon (Okla St)1211,5221812.581,538N/A
2012Marqise Lee (USC)1181,7211414.581,8274th
Sports Reference

There are a number of legitimate candidates this year, and most of them are quarterbacks. But there is one wide receiver who should have everyone's attention and maybe their vote.

Being a wide receiver is the only legitimate explanation for why Oregon State's Brandin Cooks has gone mostly unnoticed despite his red-hot start. He is on pace to have perhaps the greatest statistical season by a wide receiver in the history of college football, and few seem to care. 

At 5'10", 186 pounds, Cooks has remarkable quickness, great hands and a knack for making big plays in the clutch. He plays for an Oregon State team that lost to an FCS opponent to start the season, but like many receivers before him, Cooks deserves much more consideration in the Heisman race.

Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks Statistics
YearRecYardsTDYds/RecYds/GmTotal Yds
2012671,151517.1888.51,233
2013 (7 Games)761,1761215.471681,289
2013 Projected stats1422,1842215.471682,393
cfbstats.com

According to the ESPN experts' poll, Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans has a better shot at winning the award than Cooks. You'll also be unable to find Cooks anywhere in the CBS Sports Heisman rankings.

Of the 78 Heisman Trophy winners, just two are wide receivers. Both made their mark in the return game and did it in big games. Notre Dame's Tim Brown won the award in 1987, a season in which three of his seven touchdowns came on punt returns. Four years later, Michigan's Desmond Howard won it with two of his 23 touchdowns coming on a punt and kickoff return.  

Statistics for Heisman Trophy WRs
YearPlayerRecYards (TD)Yds/RecRush Yds (TD)Return Yds (TD)Total YdsTotal TD
1987Tim Brown (ND)39847 (3)21.7144 (1)857 (3)1,8487
1991Desmond Howard (Mich)62985 (19)15.9180 (2)694 (2)1,85923
Sports Reference

Is it even possible for a true wide receiver to win the award? Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald never returned kicks, and he finished No. 2 in the voting in 2003.

Michael Crabtree never cracked the Heisman Top 5.
Michael Crabtree never cracked the Heisman Top 5./Getty Images

In 2007, Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree had 134 receptions for 1,962 yards and 22 touchdowns. It will go down as one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in the history of college football, but he didn't even finish in the Top 10 of the voting.

After winning his second consecutive Biletnikoff Award with 97 receptions for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns, Crabtree finished fifth in the Heisman voting.

When discussing the possibility of Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon winning the award in 2011, Sports Illustrated's Cory McCartney wrote:

Yes, previous winners Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991) both played the position, but they were also heavily involved in the kick return games. Blackmon's only significant special teams contribution has been taking a blocked punt he took seven yards for a TD last season. He is simply, and yet brilliantly, a pass-catcher.

That alone couldn't net the award for Michael Crabtree, who was fifth in 2008 or Larry Fitzgerald; his second-place in '03, 128 points behind winner Jason White, is the highest finish for a player who was strictly a WR, and Blackmon himself was fifth in last year's voting.

As much as we discuss whether a defender can ever win, the argument for a strict WR is overshadowed.

If their play warrants as much, the time has come for wide receivers to become legitimate Heisman candidates. So why not Brandin Cooks? If he keeps up his current pace, he will surpass any numbers that Fitzgerald, Crabtree, Blackmon, Brown and Howard ever had.

The debate lingers on, as the 79th annual Heisman Trophy presentation is under two months away. If the trophy is supposed to go to the most outstanding player in college football, Cooks and Evans need to be in the discussion.

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