Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, his 2029 points beating out Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o with 1706 and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein with 894. After leading Texas A&M past No. 1 Alabama, the rise of Manziel’s star was meteoric. Tonight’s presentation may have been a foregone conclusion, but did the voters get it right?
Manziel reached 4600 total yards to break the SEC record Cam Newton set two years prior. His one-man show against SEC champion Alabama captivated the nation. He passed for 24 touchdowns and rushed for another 19, just missing the magic 20-20 mark Newton and Tim Tebow reached. The comparisons to those past Heisman winners are apparent. Manziel can also be compared to a third recent winner.
Manziel’s candidacy mirrored 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III’s in several ways. Both were dual threat quarterbacks who put up eye-popping statistics. Each bucked the usual trend of having to play for a national championship contender as the leaders of teams with multiple losses. Both propelled to the podium with high profile wins in November that caught voters’ attention.
The two differed in some key ways, too. Each lost multiple games in challenging conferences, as mentioned. Griffin threw for 425 yards and a touchdown, but also two interceptions in Baylor’s 59-24 loss at Oklahoma State. He rushed for a second touchdown, but had 27 yards on the ground off 16 carries. That game was Griffin’s only without more touchdowns than interceptions, and it was his only game with multiple interceptions. Against Kansas State, Griffin passed for five touchdowns. Against Texas A&M, he hit 430 yards and three scores.
By comparison, Manziel had two games with more interceptions than touchdown passes. He was picked three times against LSU without a score, and stifled on the ground with just 27 yards on 17 carries. He did earn an endorsement afterward from Tiger defensive end Sam Montgomery, though. Manziel threw two interceptions and lost one fumble in a 30-27 Aggie win at Ole Miss, but did rush for 127 yards.
I only compare Manziel to Griffin because of the similarities in their rise to the award. Determining the former’s legitimacy as a Heisman winner against a past winner is unfair, merely done for historical perspective. He can only be compared to his particular class.
Losses are when Heisman candidates are most closely scrutinized. To wit, Collin Klein wilted from front runner to third place finisher after Kansas State’s loss at Baylor. Klein was intercepted three times in the loss, his second straight game with more interceptions than scores.
His 15 touchdowns passes are markedly fewer than Manziel’s 24, though their rate of scores per pass attempts is incredibly close. Klein threw a score every 16 passes; Manziel, every 16.7. But Klein did throw almost as many interceptions (7) as Manziel (8) with far fewer pass attempts. That nearly half of Klein’s picks came in that high profile game against Baylor, and five of the seven were in November, hurt Klein’s candidacy far more than Manziel throwing over half his in October games.
Klein trumped Manziel in rushing touchdowns with 22 to Manziel’s 19. The two carried a similar amount: Klein 194, Manziel 184. Manziel also averaged far more per carry, though, going for 1181 yards to Klein’s 890. Manziel also did it against SEC competition, while Klein as facing the offensively-inclined Big 12.
They were used in much different styles, despite each filling dual roles in their offenses. Comparing their production against quality competition is the most accurate measure when putting statistics side-by-side. Klein scored 28 of his 37 touchdowns against FBS teams with records of .500 or better (nine games); Manziel scored 19 of his 43 against teams with the same mark (seven games). The perception of the SEC certainly bolstered Manziel’s campaign. And indeed, Texas A&M played a more top-heavy slate than K-State. But K-State played the better top to bottom schedule.
Deciding which is a more accurate measure of a player’s worth is subjective, though a player shining in a few games against top 11 defenses probably outweighs excelling over a longer stretch against simply decent competition.
That said, only one of those three games against top 11 defenses contributed to Manziel’s Heisman candidacy. He scored a combined three touchdowns against LSU, Florida and Alabama.
Manziel scored 24 touchdowns against teams either in the FCS or below .500. Over 23 percent of his scores were made against FCS Sam Houston State and South Carolina State. Another six (14 percent) were scored against the No. 116 ranked Louisiana Tech defense. However, Klein registered seven touchdowns (19 percent) against West Virginia’s No. 113 defense.
Moreover, Manziel threw for two touchdowns and led a crucial touchdown drive in his biggest win over Alabama. Klein had a far more modest one rushing touchdown and none through the air in K-State’s defeat of Oklahoma. His one score was the go-ahead touchdown, but it also came with over 13 minutes remaining, and in September. Not nearly as exciting.
The X-factor in this year’s vote was Te’o. Other defensive players were finalists, but he was the most realistic candidate to win the award from that side of the ball since Charles Woodson. But unlike Woodson, he played only on defense.
Evaluating Te’o against a quarterback — or any defender who isn’t also on special teams, for that matter — is challenging. Quarterbacks pile up tangible statistics, and the more difficultly defined but still tangible “Heisman Moments” with greater ease. Te’o was a particularly unique candidate in that other defensive finalists have had highlight moments and some gaudy statistics. Ndamukong Suh is the closest recent comparison to Te’o, though Suh racked up sacks at a prolific pace.
Te’o had just one sack this season, because he wasn’t a blitzing linebacker. He led the nation’s best defense in tackles, though wasn’t approaching the FBS leading 166 Toledo’s Dan Molls accrued — even with just two misses all season. A middle linebacker reading formations and directing his unit just isn’t impressive enough.
The most tangible evidence supporting Te’o, beyond Notre Dame’s defensive-powered run to the BCS championship game, were his seven interceptions. Picks in the finale against USC and the momentum-shifting takeaway against Oklahoma were Te’o's Heisman Moments.
And they were nearly enough. His second place finish builds for future defense-only Heisman candidates, but they still have ground to make up on their offensive counterparts.
So did the voters get it right? Did Te’o or Klein deserve it over Manziel — or was someone not even invited to New York the most worthy?