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Why does the Heisman Trophy seem to shaft WRs (and even RBs) of late?

Heisman Trophy is Saturday night. Yaaaaaay. We all know the award is probably a curse professionally, we all tend to know who’s going to win about 200 hours before the TV program even commences, and this year, we got robbed (in all likelihood) of the chance to see a second two-time winner (although that storyline will return next year). Your big stories, real quick: Winston will likely win, meaning that since 2000, the only non-QBs to win it are Reggie Bush (er…) and Mark Ingram; Cam Newton is having a good professional run, and the jury is still out on Sam Bradford, but Manziel probably ain’t coming back for a third shot at Mr. Stiff-Arm, and his NFL future might be the most interesting of all; and some people think Winston would be No. 1 this year if he could come out. Oh, and no one knows who will come in second. Those are your big talking points for this year’s ceremony. This post is a little more global. (Kinda.)

Check this out. Since 2000, you’ve had five years (’01, ’02, ’05, ’07, ’11) where no WR finished in the top 10. In ’11, when RG3 won (Heisman curse…), you had six QBs in the top 10, but no WRs. That year, you had Jordan White haul in almost 2K yards, Patrick Edwards of Houston (Sumlin’s 13-1 year) score 20 TDs and average almost 20 yards per catch, and … nada. Not even top 10. I understand those guys not winning — more on that in a second — but not even top 10? Odd.

In the same period (2000-2013), where the highest Heisman finish for a WR was No. 2 (Larry Fitzgerald in 2003), you’ve had 14 of the 20 single-best receiving yardage seasons since 1977. Michael Crabtree in 2007, for example: 134 receptions, 1,962 yards (third-best ever since 1977), 22 TD. Dude was a freshman, yes, and a WR — but he didn’t even finish top 10.

Look at the receiving TD charts since 1977, and it’s the same thing: most of the truly elite numbers have happened since 2000. But ah… therein lies the problem.

Most of these guys don’t play at marquee, traditional programs — and I’m not saying you have to play at such a place to win, although it helps — but rather, they play at the Fresno States, the Louisiana Techs, and the Houstons of the world. Those are perceived broadly as gimmick-type offenses. The most notable schools on these receiver records lists are Texas Tech and Pittsburgh, probably. At the time, Texas Tech was coached by Mike Leach, who almost defines offensive gimmickry for some. Pittsburgh ran through Fitzgerald, but they were 8-5 in 2003. They ended up in the Continental Tire Bowl. That’s the second problem: elite WRs don’t always power their teams to greatness, but elite QBs can almost always be perceived to. Consider this: the Biletnikoff Award for best WR this year went to Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, and rightfully so — he had 120 catches, close to 1700 yards, etc. The Beavers were 6-6. Mike Riley, who has seemingly been coaching there since Oregon was added as a state, is going to open next year on the hot seat despite having a WR who posted one of the 20 best receiving seasons in the past 30 years. So maybe it doesn’t matter that much, right? And the Heisman is all about winning, at some level: in the BCS era, the winner almost always comes from a guy headed to a major BCS bowl. Actually, the shift to QBs happened right around the same time as the BCS — Ron Dayne won in 1999, which is the year FSU beat VT in the Sugar Bowl. That was the second-ever BCS Championship.

So, if you ignore Reggie Bush for a second, that means that since the advent of the BCS, you have three non-QB winners, and two happened right as the BCS was starting: Ricky Williams in ’98 and Dayne in ’99, then Ingram in ’09. Similarly, there’s been 16 No. 1 picks in the NFL draft since the advent of the BCS; 12 have been QBs. In the 16 drafts prior to Peyton Manning being No. 1 overall, a QB went No. 1 five times. Is there any chance the emergence of the BCS, and the tight title window that top teams ultimately face, has shifted everyone to more QB-focused? Or maybe the NFL has just become more of a QB league. (Also argued via Sports Illustrated here.)

Alright, so … here’s what we have. QBs are almost exclusively (a) winning the Heisman and (b) becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, although not always the same people (notable exceptions would be guys like Troy Smith). WRs went from being the toast of the 1996 NFL draft and periodically winning Heismans (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) to barely finishing in the top 10 for the college side and only being six of the first 59 picks last year. (I forgot Tavon Austin went that high.) This all could be a result of rules designed to protect QBs, which some argue “waters down” the game.

Another potential argument for the lack of WR reps in Heisman discussions: when a WR excels, couldn’t you just pin it back and say it was his QB that excelled? Think of Patrick Edwards, in that Kevin Sumlin high-octane offense at Houston a couple of years ago. Couldn’t you just give all that credit to Case Keenum, his QB at the time?

It’s a QB’s world — we’re all just living in it. Seven of the top 10 guys in receiving yards this season weren’t seniors, though, including Allen Robinson (PSU) and Mike Evans (Texas A&M) at bigger-name programs. Robinson could be an interesting guy to think about if he doesn’t go pro — they have a young team with a frosh QB, and next year they could potentially develop into something that could shoot Robinson into a new territory. And Tyler Boyd from Pittsburgh (Fitzgerald’s old school) was the highest-ranked frosh on that list — 77 catches for 1001 yards and 7 TDs. He could become something too. Winston’s going to enter 2014 as the Heisman favorite, and Marcus Mariota is probably going to enter as the No. 2, but there are some WRs and other RBs who could break into this rotation. The gimmick offense thing, though — Fresno State, San Jose State and Baylor all had a WR in the top 10 in yardage — hurts for sure. (And then there’s Kelvin Benjamin, he of 14 TDs, who is hauling down a lot of what Winston is throwing up.)

Football is never going to stop being a QB’s game — at least not anytime soon, when it will probably become more of a QB’s game. WRs and RBs (and defenders) will largely continue to play second fiddle on the bigger stages, like the Heisman and the Draft. In some cases it’s fair; other times it’s not. So maybe this whole WRs-getting-shafted thing is a broader metaphor for life…

Ted Bauer

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