Why can’t we have an honest discussion about defensive players and the Heisman?

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I’ve documented for years on this site why pure defensive players can’t win the Heisman.

That’s not the same as not wanting a defender to win, but merely a recognition of the realities of football and the Heisman selection process. I look at the race as it is, not how I wish it would be.

There is potential down the line for a defensive player to mount a legitimate run at the Heisman, but that won’t happen until some type of advanced analytic is developed to properly quantify a defender’s value to a team, or his impact on a game.

Until then, we are stuck with a double standard that actually works in favor of defenders — and other non-skill-players — in the Heisman race, though it is not quite enough to put them over the top.

What do I mean?

Well, let’s look at how we usually treat a Heisman candidate if he is a quarterback or running back.

For quarterbacks, we look at their touchdown passes and interceptions, their total yardage, their passing efficiency, their rushing totals, their clutch plays at crucial moments in games, and so on.

For running backs, we look at their rushing yards and their touchdowns scored, their passes caught and their all-purpose yardage.

If a quarterback has a bad game or two, he is invariably expelled from the race. If the quarterback’s production doesn’t reach a certain threshold, he is not considered Heisman worthy. Same goes with the running back.

In other words, quarterbacks and running backs are held accountable for their production. Sometimes that production is parsed in a way that takes wins into account as well, but production is still the underpinning of their candidacies.

But when it comes to defensive players, production is valued only to a certain point. After that point, the media focuses on more nebulous qualities like ‘leadership’ or ‘heart’. Or, they just make stuff up in order to shoehorn the facts to fit the narrative.

Among the things you hear to cover for lack of production:

“He’s being double or even triple teamed on every play.”

“Teams are running away from him.”

“He affects the game in ways you can’t imagine.”

“You can’t measure what he brings to the team.”

“He is the heart and soul of that defense.”

These types of platitudes make it possible for defensive players to never have a ‘bad’ day. A defender can be invisible for most of a game and no one will really notice.

A case in point is Manti Te’o last season against USC. By all accounts, this was a key game in his Heisman Trophy campaign. While he did have an interception on a poorly-thrown ball, the Irish linebacker who some were touting as the best player in college football had all of three solo tackles. But it didn’t matter because he was the ‘heart and soul’ of that defense and so on.

But the media’s penchant for focusing on the ephemeral is not as bad as its general fabrication of events when describing defensive accomplishments.

For instance, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney was recently named the preseason Heisman leader on ESPN’s Heisman Watch.

The blurb about Clowney had this line: “Few opponents try to block him one-on-one.”

Normally I wouldn’t make too much of a claim like this, but it came in conjunction with some other discussions I’d had with people about Clowney. When I pointed out to those people that he had just 8.5 sacks heading into his final regular season game last year — something they were not aware of — the response was predictable: “Yeah, but that’s because he’s always double and triple teamed.”

The great thing about the internet is that there are actually ways to check these kind of claims. Here’s a cut up of Clowney from nine games from the past two seasons:

If you actually watch the tape, you find that Clowney is rarely, if ever, double or triple teamed. He does get chipped on occasion, but it’s not anything out of the ordinary. In many cases, offensive linemen are quite effective blocking him one on one.

Once you realize that claims such as the one made by ESPN are bunk, you have to ask yourself whether Clowney’s production warrants the type of hype he is getting. Shouldn’t someone being touted as the best defensive prospect in a generation have the numbers to back it up? Terrell Suggs had an NCAA-record 24 sacks in 2002. Shouldn’t we expect the same type of production from someone who, by all accounts, is far more talented?

This is not to say Clowney is not a great player. He is often spectacular. But that still doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be held to the same production standards that we hold quarterbacks and running backs to in a typical Heisman race. If the facts don’t fit the narrative, we shouldn’t make excuses. But a lot of people in the media want Clowney to win the Heisman, so they’ll say anything to justify it.

Instead, we should look at the game with clear eyes. We should acknowledge that some positions in football just aren’t as important as others. As good as Clowney is, he can’t affect the game the same way a quarterback can. Clowney might have six sacks in a game but his team will lose if Connor Shaw has a particularly rough outing. Conversely, Clowney can be bottled up all game but if Shaw goes off, the Gamecocks will win going away. The increase in value from Clowney playing at a high level (compared to a regular player) is marginal compared to the value South Carolina gets when its quarterback plays at a high level. In other words, Clowney’s production could be achieved by someone with far less talent and South Carolina would probably be just as good. But since Clowney hit the genetic lottery and is a freak of nature who makes plays like this on occasion, we pretend that isn’t the case.

So for all the talk about bias against defenders in the Heisman selection process, the reality is that defenders are benefitting from not being judged by the same standards by which we judge offensive players. This year’s race will be the ultimate test case to judge whether nebulous claims and downright fabrications can overcome lack of actual production and carry a player all the way to the Heisman.

It almost did last year.

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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