How Cam Newton Cleared a Path to the Heisman for Johnny Manziel

College football is the only major American team sport in which a first-year player hasn’t won the sport’s most prestigious award. Freshmen have been chosen as national players of the year in college basketball, baseball and hockey. Rookies have won MVP awards in the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.

And yet voters for college football’s Heisman Trophy have lagged behind. No freshman has won the Heisman since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen in 1972. Since then, the three freshmen Heisman finalists – Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson – have all lost for various reasons. Some of that has been timing. As a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due. Apparently, the director of the club that hosted the award ceremony said Walker likely would have won the Heisman that year had his 205-yard, 3-TD performance against Georgia Tech been considered.

But the main reasons no freshman has yet won the Heisman are ignorance and bias. Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen don’t begin seasons as known commodities and that initial lack of familiarity among mostly sportswriter voters hurts their chances. As far as I know, no sports information department has launched a Heisman campaign for a freshman, no matter how talented.

Pervasive technology has larged wiped away this knowledge barrier, though. A decade ago, Texas A&M likely would have waited for this upcoming offseason to launch a Heisman campaign for Manziel. Video would have been edited and DVDs would have been mailed out along with snazzy press packets extolling the fleet feet and field awareness of Johnny Football.

The Aggies may still go through the trouble of doing this, but nowadays voters are more likely to pay attention to what’s coursing through their Tweetdeck feed than dropping into their mailbox.

Bias and muddled thinking persist, though.

By and large, voters expect freshmen to be even better as sophomores and juniors. Sure, this happens most of the time. But not always. Michael Vick, for instance, led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman while leading Virginia Tech to the national title game, but as a sophomore his numbers dipped. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had his best overall statistical season as a freshman, but five regular season losses squelched any Heisman talk.

That season would still help propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman as a senior, but he should have been awarded on the merit of a single season.

Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman – meant to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity” – should reflect sustained excellence over multiple years and not equate to an MVP award for a single fall. That a mere season’s worth of kicking ass with integrity isn’t enough to prove one’s chops. Voters want to be certain that a player isn’t “a one-year flash in the pan,” longtime Heisman voter Dave Campbell told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate – and I underscore legitimate – juniors and seniors to consider.”

In 2010, Cam Newton destroyed any arguments that more than one season matters. The Auburn quarterback won the Heisman almost purely on the merit of single season’s worth of play. He was so good, it didn’t matter if he’d stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out or that he was a crappy teammate.

Newton racked up 4,300 yards, and essentially secured the Heisman by squeaking out a  win against a top-ranked Alabama defense on the road.
Manziel now has that same signature, late-season win – against a defense many experts had believed was the best in recent years. Moreover, he’s on track to surpass Newton’s numbers while dwarfing the stats of fellow frontrunner Collin Klein. Manziel has a couple hiccups on his resume – losses against Florida and LSU – but his overall impact is just as impressive as Newton’s. And that whole “pursuit of excellence with integrity” thing sure seems to fit a lot better in Manziel’s case. [ed: Oops]

At this point in the season, Manziel deserves the Heisman but could very well lose it since other top contenders have the advantage of playing in more high-profile games in the coming weeks before Heisman votes are due. Superlative performances from Collin Klein or Marquis Lee could cost Manziel the Heisman.

His class shouldn’t.

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