The All-Quarterback Heisman Finalist Group Overshadows Several Other Worthy Stars
Football in 2018 is a quarterback’s game. But should the Heisman be only a quarterback’s award?
On Saturday night, the finalists for the 84th Heisman Trophy—Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins, all quarterbacks—will gather in New York City missing a few worthy candidates.
Voters spurned the nation’s leading rusher, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, for the second consecutive year despite him buoying a disappointing Badgers team by running for nearly 2,000 yards. Clemson tailback Travis Etienne wasn’t selected despite his 20 touchdowns. (Neither was Memphis star Darrell Henderson, who one-upped both Taylor and Etienne with an eye-popping 8.9 yards per carry and 22 touchdowns.) Game-wrecking Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams pushed his way into the national spotlight a bit too late. And Josh Allen, Kentucky’s powerful edge rusher, was left out despite leading the country with 14 solo sacks in the regular season.
How does an award given to the “most outstanding player in college football” feature a final three of just quarterbacks in a season like this, when all four playoff finalists were led by QBs in their first full season as starters? Elite, quarterback play is the most valuable commodity in sports, but it’s overly simplistic to think that the top three, or four, or five most outstanding players in the country this year all played the same position.
This isn’t to discredit Tagovailoa, Murray and Haskins. They’re all surefire candidates and talented players, and either Tagovailoa or Murray would be one of the most deserving winners ever. Neither Taylor nor Etienne nor Williams nor Allen should win over him. But even before the final voting margins are made public, it’s clear each of those non-quarterbacks, much like Saquon Barkley in 2017, Jabrill Peppers in ’16 and Tyrann Mathieu in ’11, earned heavier consideration than they got.
It’s not news that the “most outstanding player” tagline for the Heisman is now often conflated with the “best quarterback on a good team” concept. Yet in an era featuring explosive offenses, the Heisman’s quarterback obsession is relatively new. From 1972 to ’83, zero quarterbacks won the award, as running backs like Archie Griffin and Herschel Walker ruled. But since the turn of the millenium, 15 of the 18 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks. Number 16 is just days away from lifting the trophy. And of the 71 total invitees since 2000, a mere 25 unique non-quarterbacks grace the list.
Take 2009 as an example of the Heisman ceremony’s potential, the close of one of the most competitive and fun races in recent memory. College football’s most prolific rusher, Toby Gerhart from Stanford, was a candidate. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska’s world-beating defensive lineman, nearly won it. Alabama tailback Mark Ingram took the Heisman home. And the two most important Power 5 quarterbacks, Tim Tebow from Florida and Colt McCoy from Texas, were also finalists.
The standard for non-quarterback Heisman candidates has skyrocketed. Before winning, Ingram dashed for 300 fewer yards than Taylor did this year. On the defensive side, 2009 Suh finished with two fewer sacks than 2018 Allen. A once-exciting competition featuring elite players of all shapes and sizes has morphed into a quarterbacking contest.
This season, Taylor was the most profound Heisman finalist snub. Wisconsin’s stud sophomore running back fell just 11 yards shy of 2,000 on the ground, with 15 touchdowns. He rushed for over seven yards per carry. Just once all season did Taylor fall short of the 100-yard mark, and he eclipsed 200 yards four times and 300 yards once.
In a disappointing year for the Badgers, Taylor is all that kept the program in bowl position. He’s the next phenom in a line of Badger running back greats like Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon—and like those three Wisconsin legends, Taylor deserves a seat in New York. The Badgers finished a disappointing 7–5 with the 117th ranked passing offense in the FBS. Mired by Wisconsin’s quarterbacking downfalls, Taylor faced stacked boxes throughout the season, yet the Jersey native piled up over 165 yards per game, significantly more than anyone else in the FBS. He also delivered quite the Heisman moment:
With the Badgers down in triple overtime against Purdue, Taylor trucked through the Boilermaker defense en route to a walk-off touchdown. His last step into the end zone was his 321st yard of the evening, and he finished with three scores in the comeback win.
Taylor’s dominant 2018 season merited more Heisman hype than he actually garnered. His team’s struggles—and his position—shouldn’t have pulled him down in the race. Same goes for Etienne, who dominated for Clemson, and for Williams and Allen, defensive forces for top SEC teams.
Each of the quarterbacks you’ll see in the front row on Saturday night earned their way to New York. This was a profoundly quarterback-driven year among college football’s stars. But narrowing the Heisman pool to just the best quarterbacks—and the occasional top rusher, receiver or defensive playmaker—is a disservice.
For the sake of the John Heisman himself, a 158-pound lineman, let’s at least consider more of football’s outstanding other guys.