Heisman Trophy winners or runners-up: Who made the better pros?

A buddy and I were recently discussing past Heisman Trophy winners.  After all, it is that time of year.

As we all know, bringing home the most coveted, individual award in college athletics doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in the NFL.

Sure, last year’s recipient, Cam Newton, is having a breakout season but the twelve winners before him: Mark Ingram, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Troy Smith, Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Jason White, Carson Palmer, Eric Crouch, Chris Weinke and Ron Dayne, well…. I’ll let you decide.

I started thinking that Heisman runner-ups have probably had more success at the next level than those who actually won the award.

So I decided to put my theory to the test, beginning with the 1980s.

1981 Winner: Marcus Allen, USC, RB

1981 Runners-up: Herschel Walker, Georgia, RB; Jim McMahon, BYU, QB

Even though McMahon went on to win a Super Bowl with the 1986 Bears and participate in the memorable, yet probably regrettable, Super Bowl Shuffle, complete with headband and Vuarnets, it’s hard for any reasonable football fan outside of Chicago or Provo to argue that either he or Herschel had a better professional career than Marcus Allen.

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1982 Winner: Herschel Walker, Georgia, RB

1982 Runners-Up: John Elway, Stanford, QB; Eric Dickerson, SMU, RB

Wow, what a year for Heisman voting, one that has to rival the 1984 (Olajuwon, Barkley, Jordan, Stockton) and 2003 (Lebron, Carmelo, Bosh, Wade) NBA Drafts for pure talent.  While Herschel was arguably the greatest college football player ever, his pro career clearly paled in comparison to both Elway’s and Dickerson’s.

Advantage: Runners-Up


1983 Winner: Mike Rozier, Nebraska, RB

1983 Runners-Up: Steve Young, BYU, QB; Doug Flutie, Boston College, QB

Rozier was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Oilers.  He finished his career with 30 rushing touchdowns.  As quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Steve Young rushed for more than that (37), not to mention bringing home the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX.  Nod Young.  Throwing Flutie into the mix is just gravy.

Advantage: Runners-Up


1984 Winner: Doug Flutie, Boston College, QB

1984 Runners-Up: Keith Byars, Ohio St., RB; Robbie Bosco, BYU, QB

Man, this one’s tough, especially considering the fact that I’ve never even heard of Robbie Bosco.  So how do we determine whether Flutie or Byars had a ‘better’ NFL career?   They were both one-time Pro Bowlers.  Byars, was a multi-purpose back, who finished his career with 54 touchdowns.  Flutie threw for 86 touchdowns and played with four different teams over 13 years.  I’m inclined to say Byars BUT, considering the fact that Flutie had to overcome being 5’8” and was drafted in the 11th round while Byars was selected tenth overall, I’m going to declare this one a push.

Advantage: Push


1985 Winner: Bo Jackson, Auburn, RB

1985 Runners-Up: Chuck Long, Iowa, QB; Robbie Bosco, BYU, QB

No research necessary.  Bo knows Heisman.  And why does this Bosco guy keep following me?

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1986 Winner: Vinny Testaverde, Miami-FL, QB

1986 Runners-Up: Paul Palmer, Temple, RB; Jim Harbaugh, Michigan, QB

Another tough one.  Testaverde played in the league an amazing 21 years, passing for more than 46,000 yards and 275 touchdowns.  In 14 years, Harbaugh threw for 26,000 yards and 129 touchdowns.  They boasted one Pro Bowl appearance each.  That’s a lot of years combined with only two trips to Hawaii.  I’ll give Testaverde the nod based on longevity, as well as four playoff wins compared to two for Harbaugh, although I doubt Vinny could lead the Niners to an 8-1 start.  Feel free to disagree with me.

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1987 Winner: Tim Brown, Notre Dame, WR

1987 Runners-Up: Don McPherson, Syracuse, QB; Gordie Lockbaum, Holy Cross, WR-DB

Need I even bother?

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1988 Winner: Barry Sanders, Oklahoma St., RB

1988 Runners-Up: Rodney Peete, USC, QB; Troy Aikman, UCLA, QB

Here we have arguably the greatest running back of all-time against a guy who won three Super Bowls as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.  Before I automatically give the nod to Barry and hear you all tell me that Troy played on considerably better teams, I’d just like to bring up that Aikman has 11 playoff wins while Sanders has only one.  That being said…

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1989 Winner: Andre Ware, Houston, QB

1989 Runners-Up: Anthony Thompson, Ind., RB; Major Harris, West Va., QB

After seeing this trio, I quickly surfed the internet to see who else was drafted in 1990.  Jeff George was drafted first overall that year.  Junior Seau was drafted 5th,Ware, 7th and Emmitt Smith 17th.  I don’t know what my point is here.  I’m just postponing having to choose a winner.  What a miserable year for the Heisman.  The only thing noteworthy about this ceremony was that Ware was the first African-American quarterback to receive the award.  Ware, Thompson and Harris combined to play seven years in the NFL, one third the career of the aforementioned Vinny Testaverde.  As far as I know, Major Harris never took a snap.  I begrudgingly vote Ware by default but this one should really be a push.

(Slight) Advantage: Heisman winner


1990 Winner: Ty Detmer, BYU, QB

1990 Runners-Up: Rocket Ismail, Notre Dame, FL; Eric Bieniemy, Colorado, RB

Ty Detmer had his day in the NFL, as I’m sure Philadelphia Eagles fans remember all too well, but you clearly have to go with Rocket here as the better NFL player.

Advantage: Runners-Up


1991 Winner: Desmond Howard, Michigan, WR

1991 Runners-Up: Casey Weldon, Florida St., QB; Ty Detmer, BYU, QB

Career playoff wins for Ty Detmer: 0. Career Super Bowl MVPs for Desmond Howard: 1. Advantage Howard.  Now, please, enough with the Ty talk.

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1992 Winner: Gino Torretta, Miami-FL, QB

1992 Runners- Up: Marshall Faulk, San Diego St., RB Garrison Hearst, Georgia, RB

This year’s contestants present quite the mismatch.  I could easily dismiss this year and give the nod to the Runners-Up with no research (Heck, Hearst was a far better pro than Torretta), but I decided to have a little fun.  Torretta played for five years in the NFL, officially playing in two games and completing only five passes.  Faulk finished his career with 100 rushing touchdowns and 36 receiving touchdowns.  He is an 11-time Pro Bowler, a Hall of Famer and one of the most dynamic, offensive players of our generation.

Overwhelming Advantage: Runners-Up


1993 Winner: Charlie Ward, Florida St., QB

1993 Runners-Up: Heath Shuler, Tennessee, QB; David Palmer, Alabama, RB

Ward was a bad-ass at Florida State.  Just ask any Florida Gator that had to watch him.  However, he never played a down in the NFL, opting for the NBA where he had a respectable career, mostly with the New York Knicks.   Even though Shuler’s NFL career was short-lived, since I gave Andre Ware the nod earlier, Shuler gets it here.  Plus he now serves in the House of Representatives.

Advantage: Runners-Up



1994 Winner: Rashaan Salaam, Colorado, RB

1994 Runners-Up: Ki-Jana Carter, Penn St., RB; Steve McNair, Alcorn St., QB

The last time I checked, Rashaan Salaam was never a league co-MVP.

Advantage:  Runners-Up



1995 Winner: Eddie George, Ohio St., RB

1995 Runners-Up: Tommie Frazier, Nebraska, QB; Danny Wuerffel, Florida, QB

Another one that required no research.  These are getting easier.

Advantage: Heisman Winner



1996 Winner: Danny Wuerffel, Florida, QB

1996 Runners-Up: Troy Davis, Iowa St., RB; Jake Plummer, Arizona St., QB

Even though Plummer exited the league long before his days were numbered, he still had a far better professional career than Danny Wuerffel.

Advantage: Runners-Up



1997 Winner: Charles Woodson, Michigan, DB-WR

1997 Runners-Up: Peyton Manning, Tennessee, QB Ryan Leaf, Washington St., QB

Ahhh, now we’re getting somewhere.  Woodson is only one interception returned for touchdown away from tying the NFL career leader in that category, Rod Woodson (no relation).  That being said, Peyton Manning, neckbrace and all, has been the better professional football player.

Advantage: Runners-Up


1998 Winner: Ricky Williams, Texas, RB

1998 Runners-Up: Michael Bishop, Kansas St., QB; Cade McNown, UCLA, QB

Even though most feel Ricky Williams never lived up to his potential as an NFL running back, that was his, and perhaps Mary Jane’s, choice.  All marijuana references aside, Williams still had a far better pro career than either Bishop or McNown.

Advantage: Heisman Winner


1999 Winner: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin, RB

1999 Runners-Up: Joe Hamilton, Ga. Tech, QB; Michael Vick, Va. Tech, QB

Another year requiring little research.  Michael Vick has signed two, different NFL contracts worth more than $100 million.  Despite that, it’s hard to think Ron Dayne would trade places with him if he could.  Woof!

Advantage: Runners-Up


2000 Winner: Chris Weinke, Florida St., QB

2000 Runners-Up: Josh Heupel, Oklahoma, QB; Drew Brees, Purdue, QB

HA! This has to be the funniest one yet.

Advantage: Runners-Up


2001 Winner: Eric Crouch, Nebraska, QB

2001 Runners-Up: Rex Grossman, Florida, QB; Ken Dorsey, Miami, QB

Crouch never played quarterback in the NFL.  Despite a rocky career, which is still ongoing, Grossman did take the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl, despite a single-digit quarterback rating.

Advantage: Runners-Up


2002 Winner: Carson Palmer, Southern Cal, QB

2002 Runners-Up: Brad Banks, Iowa, QB Larry Johnson, Penn St., RB

Wow!  Brad Banks.  I haven’t heard that name in a while.  Okay, here we have a year that might require a little research.  After years of frustration in Cincinnati, Palmer sat out the 2011 season until he was finally traded to the Oakland Raiders where he’s currently experiencing a little bit of a rebirth.  There was a time where Johnson was one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the game.  He rushed for over 1700 yards in back-to-back seasons, but that dominance was short-lived.  At his best, Palmer might have been considered among the top quarterbacks in the league.  He led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2005.  Palmer and Johnson both have two Pro Bowl appearances.  Palmer has 159 career touchdown passes and counting.  Johnson has 55 career rushing touchdowns but the bulk of those came those two years he went ape-shit in Kansas City.  I’m looking for reasons to call this a push but I think I’m going to have to side with Carson Palmer on this one.  Again, save your disagreement for the comments section.

Advantage: Heisman Winner


2003 Winner: Jason White, Oklahoma, QB

2003 Runners-Up: Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh, WR Eli Manning, Mississippi, QB

I just scrolled back up to see whether there was another year quite as lop-sided, with both runners-up becoming major NFL players and the eventual Heisman winner a non-factor.  Nope, couldn’t find one.

Advantage: Runners-Up


2004 Winner: Matt Leinart, Southern Cal, QB

2004 Runners-Up: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, RB; Jason White, Oklahoma, QB

Even though Leinart is getting the start this weekend in Houston, Peterson is considered the running best back in the league and has been for some time.

Advantage: Runners-Up


2005 Winner: Reggie Bush, Southern Cal, RB

2005 Runners-Up: Vince Young, Texas, QB; Matt Leinart, Southern Cal, QB

This one has been debated since draft day.  That year, Bush was drafted second, Young was drafted third and Leinart tenth.  Is it safe to say that all three have failed to live up to the expectations they set forth in college?  Young was steady in Tennessee until he was run out of town.  Bush is still a back-field threat in Miami in the right situations.  Another tough call.  If I called this a push, would that be a cop-out?  Young has been to two Pro Bowls, Reggie none.  I’ll tell you what.  I’m going to call this one a push only because the jury is still out.  Bush is still making his mark.  Young is riding the pine behind Michael Vick and these days, is most famous for recently calling his 3-6 Eagles “The Dream Team.”  For that remark alone, I should give the nod to Bush, but I won’t… yet.

Advantage: Push


2006 Winner: Troy Smith, Ohio St., QB

2006 Runners-Up: Darren McFadden, Arkansas, RB; Brady Quinn, Notre Dame, QB

It took a while but Darren McFadden is finally coming into his own as a pro.  He rushed for nearly 1200 yards last year and is on a pace to do that again this year, barring injury.  On the other hand, Troy Smith has six career NFL starts.

Advantage: Runners-Up


2007 Winner: Tim Tebow, Florida, QB

2007 Runners-Up: Darren McFadden, Arkansas, RB; Colt Brennan, Hawaii, QB

You guys just couldn’t wait for me to talk about Tebow, could you?  This boils down to one question.  Who would I rather have on my roster, Darren McFadden or Tim Tebow?  I’d obviously have to take McFadden… I think.

(Skeptical) Advantage: Runners-Up


2008 Winner: Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, QB

2008 Runners-Up: Colt McCoy, Texas, QB; Tim Tebow, Florida, QB

2009 Winner: Mark Ingram, Alabama, RB

2009 Runners-Up: Toby Gerhart, Stanford, RB; Colt McCoy, Texas, QB

2010 Winner: Cam Newton, Auburn, QB

2010 Runners-Up: Andrew Luck, Stanford, QB; LaMichael James, Oregon, RB


Let’s just say for 2008-10, the jury is still out.  You would obviously have to go with Bradford in 2008, and would likely go with Ingram in 2009, but these players are all still wet behind the ears.  Newton’s turning a lot of heads in Carolina but Andrew Luck’s not even in the league yet.

That being said, since 1981 we’ve seen ten Heisman winners have better pro careers as opposed to fifteen times where the runners-up have fared better.  By my count, there have been two pushes and three to be determineds.

What was the point of this exercise?  I’m not quite sure other than to prove the Heisman Trust doesn’t always get it right.  But then again, who among us does?

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37 Replies to “Heisman Trophy winners or runners-up: Who made the better pros?”

  1. Nice topic…I like the list and I only disagree with you on 3 years.

    1981…this should be a push IMO. Herschel Walker has 18,168 total yards in the NFL (2nd all-time). Plus he played 3 years in the USFL 5500+ rushing playing against many future NFl players. The title of the article says pros.

    1984…this is Doug Flutie…same thing…played in the USFL…8 seasons in the CFL with winning a Grey Cup and MVP…Keth Byars? C’mon?

    2005-Reggie Bush stills gets the nod in my book over those other two scrubs.

    Nice topic…keep up the great work!!

  2. I must be gettin’ old (is that why I’m getting an AARP banner ad on this page? lol): I don’t remember Byars NFL career at all. Had to go to Wikipedia just to see where he played. Must give the nod to Harbaugh over Vinny based on the fury he absorbed from Ditka alone.

  3. D…

    I figured you’d like this one.

    And you’re such a stickler for the rules. Good point on both Herschel and Flutie making their marks in leagues outside the NFL.

    If I said strictly NFL, however, would that change your mind?

    And I’m inclined to go Bush as well, but then again…. aren’t we all?

  4. Yaz…

    I remember Byars as being pretty solid. Tough call on that one.

    Harbaugh over Vinny, huh? That was another difficult one to call.

    And I’ll be getting my AARP card in the mail soon as well. Does that mean I get a discount at my local Golden Corral?

  5. All good picks Rev, but I’d take Tebow. He’s more versatile in the right offense. Speaking of Florida I’m making my first trip to the Swamp tomorrow and I am pumped. (it’s a bucket list thing)
    Have a great weekend my friend. Cheers!

  6. Ya know, Aer…

    I was gonna put up a Who Would You Rather Have poll between McFadden and Tebow but I was afraid, based on my readership, that it would be all homered out and wouldn’t really give an accurate representation of what most people think.

    That being said, he’s 4-1 as a starter and just keeps winning.

    Have an awesome time up there, man.

  7. Good stuff man. Glad you gave Palmer the nod over grandmama.

    I think that Peyton vs. Charles debate is a pretty good one. Naturally I’d lean towards Charles, but in the end I think I’d call it a push…

  8. Ya know what’s funny, Chap?

    I actually brought up the Manning-Woodson debate to a fellow, football fan the other day and he didn’t immediately say Manning as I thought most would.

    I mean, you would have to say Manning was a better pro, right? It wasn’t all that long ago we were calling him the best thing since Unitas. One neck injury later and he’s on the same status as Woodson, which is by no means an insult?

    I guess it all boils down to how we define the question. Overall impact on the game? Gotta go with Peyton, right? By position? Wouldn’t you still have to go with Peyton?

    But that’s why I brought it up.

  9. The Heisman competition has devolved into a popularity contest complete with billboards, hype machines, et al… Kinda like Joe Theisman allowing the pronunciation of his name changed to rhyme with the trophy’s name… Then I recall Joey Harrington’s fans erecting a billboard in New York City pushing him for the trophy. With sports journalists responsible for most of the votes I think the integrity of the award has been compromised by regional cronyism. Then you’ve got the universities that like to attract high school talent by spouting off about how many Heisman’s their alumni has won…

    On the other hand, you can run a similar look at the number one NFL draft picks verses lower picks. Those guys are scrutinized from every angle and yet a fair share of them end up being busts, wealthy? yes, but busts… So like you say Chris, who’s gets it right all of the time?

  10. I’m in a contrarian mood so here we go:

    Chappy, Grandmama was the old UNLV and Knick basketballer.

    Chris, no fair betting the runners-up. You gotta lay a price for 2 stars versus one.

  11. Dwin…

    Speaking of popularity contests, Croshere and I have a bet, twenty-five dollars straight up, on the NFL Rookie of the Year.

    While he and I both agreed that Andy Dalton is having a great season, and his team might make the playoffs where Cam Newton’s won’t, Newton is also putting up sick numbers and, based on his popularity, should win the award.

    Needless to say, he took Dalton, I took Newton. I also felt that the Bengals are about to hit a rough patch while Cam’s numbers will continue to inflate as the Panthers’ season gets more and more meaningless.

  12. RB…

    I think Chap knows the difference between the two Grandmama’s and to be perfectly honest, I think they both pale in comparison to my own personal favorite: Grand Marnier.

    Fair rebuttal on the 2:1 but at 15 to 10 (3:2), doesn’t that essentially even things out?

    Furthermore, if Green Bay was last year’s Super Bowl champions and the Jets, Steelers and Bears were all runners-up, weren’t the Packers still the best team when it was all said and done?

  13. I’d have to go with Byars. His worth to his team was as a punishing lead blocker and short pass catcher… can’t measure his value in rushing TDs. He was a hoss, and STARTED for years in the NFL… unlike Flutie.

    I’d also take Vinnie T any day over Harbaugh. Vinny got it done for DECADES.

    Your roster with McFadden will be watching my roster with Tebow on TV as he leads the Broncs to the playoffs this year.

  14. Han…

    Glad to see you had my back on Byars. You’re the only person to vote for him so far. I couldn’t just hand it over to Flutie without giving the guy his respect.

    We also have a nice split on Vinny-Harbaugh votes. Funny how revisionist history works, huh?

    And on second thought, maybe I should have posted a McFadden v. Tebow poll just to check out the results.

  15. Chris

    Heisman Trophy ? Let’s just say that for some it’s proven to be a curse while for other it has been fruitful and profitable from a financial and professional sense . I’m off to take a knee as Tebow does ……………….. “Te-bowing “ it’s the new “it word” for this upcoming decade.

    What the hell is going on within college football ? How many one loss teams is it now ?

    tophatal ……………….

  16. Al…

    You’ll be happy to know that I have the cure for the BCS coming up in a post tomorrow, so stay tuned.

    And I’ll be over to check out your latest in a bit.

  17. Chris

    You’ve found a cure for the BCS ? Goodness gracious ! And here was I thinking that money wasn’t the root of all evil .

    So Mike Florio of PFT (Pro Football Talk) believes that the Texans should have approached Favre about signing with the team rather than have Leinart suit up with the loss of Schaub for the season . Lawyers do not make very good NFL analysts . Florio should stick with what he knows and nothing beyond the sphere of his comprehension !

    At least one SEC team will be there for the BCS title ……….. but then again who knows ? The realms of the unbeatens this season have lasted nowhere near as long as some would have liked .

    Kim Kardashian is now said to be on the prowl for an NFL player who meets her intellectual mindset . Sorry Kim , Cutler is taken and when last seen both Ochocinco and TO were having a tough time understanding that the NFL no longer needs them . Has Och’ caught a ball this season ? I know he’s been cupping his own to keep ’em warm while he stands on the sidelines for the Pats .

    tophatal …….

  18. C’mon, Al, what’s a week without Favre talk? I’m sure Florio just misses the guy. Don’t we all?

    After so many successive years of SEC dominance, it’s only appropriate that two conference teams play for this year’s title.

    And Kardashian’s not the reason Cutler broke his thumb, is she?

  19. Totally disagree with the Flutie/Byers comparison.

    You ask the question Who’s the better Pro and only comment on NFL statistics. The NFL is not the only professional league.

    Flutie as a Pro – One CFL league MVP, 3 championships (MVP in all) – not sure but most likely a shoe-in for their hall of fame.

  20. I like the list except that you don’t have the fourth runners up. That’s because I’m a Missouri fan and they have never won a Heisman and the closest they have ever got was Chase Daniels in the year of 2008 so next time go with my idea with the fourth runners up.

  21. Well, Chase Daniels is actually a pretty good QB if you ask me. If you didn’t know he is actually the backup for Drew Breeze on the Saints and just tonight I was watching the Saints versus Raiders game and the commentators were saying that they thought the Saints should put him in the game. Also, remember that he was a fourth runners up for the Heisman in 2008 so that means that he was a pretty good QB.

  22. What is Doug Flutie known for…..Hail mary pass. I can throw that pass. Does anyone know who caught the pass? If the reciever had dropped that ball. No Heisman for Flutie. He should give that trophy to that receiver.

  23. Ah, Scott. But the receiver didn’t drop that pass.

    Keep in mind, Flutie a) had some pretty good years in Buffalo and b) threw for over 40,000 yards and 270 touchdowns in the CFL.

    By any chance, you didn’t go to Miami, did you?

  24. So……How about that Peyton vs. Woodson debate now? Peyton is still absolutely amazing after all he went through. Great topic, was debating same topic in my head, and thinking the runner-ups have been better pros. I feel vindicated.

  25. I always thought the Hesiman was for the college player who was the most valuable to his team, not the best prospect for or record in the NFL. Peyton lost because of regional anti-SEC bias; he was hands down the most valuable player for his team during his college tenure.

    He just also happened to turn out to be possibly the best NFL QB who ever played.

  26. Not so sure I agree with you on that one, Bill.

    Wuerffel outplayed him that year and put up monster numbers. Plus Tennessee won a national championship the year AFTER Peyton graduated.

    The fact that Peyton could never beat Florida was appropriately held against him.

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