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Historical Heisman trends, by position

Posted by Andrew Mooney  December 11, 2012 01:55 PM

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For the people moaning about how Manti Te’o’s Heisman snub proves the award is exclusively an offensive one, you’re right—not in that Te’o should have won it, but that it goes to the guys who put points on the board. In the 78-year history of the Heisman trophy, Charles Woodson is the only primarily defensive player to win it, and even he got a boost from his time on offense and special teams, scoring four touchdowns in his Heisman-winning campaign.

What interests me more than the debate over the justice of this fact is the specific type of offensive player who wins the award. We all know that running backs and quarterbacks have monopolized the voting, but who has ruled the game when? Inspired by this tweet from Smart Football’s Chris Brown, I decided to visualize the positional trends in Heisman history to see which were the eras of the running back and which were dominated by quarterbacks.


For the first 50 years the Heisman was awarded, halfbacks and running backs ruled the college landscape, collecting the trophy 35 times (70 percent). With an elite back, a team’s running game was still the focus of its offense, as legendary names like Archie Griffin, Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, and Herschel Walker stood at the forefront of the game.

Since that time, however, quarterbacks have begun to assert themselves as more worthy of the nation’s “most outstanding player” designation, mirroring the shift in the sport itself. Assisted by the proliferation of pro-style and spread offenses through the college game, 17 out of the 28 winners since 1985 have been quarterbacks (60 percent), including 11 out of the past 13.

The running game certainly still has a place in college football—just ask Oregon—but it’s hard for voters to ignore the gaudy stats being put up by quarterbacks in spread offenses, who can chew up the yards of a running back on the ground in addition to their skill through the air. Troy Smith, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and now Johnny Manziel have benefitted from this type of attack, all in the last seven years. For the time being, the quarterback is ascendant in Heisman voting, though it is anyone’s guess as to what kind of shift the next revolution in the sport will cause.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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