Well, it really is no.
But let me explain.
First, let’s look at history. A wide receiver who doesn’t also shine in the return game has never won a Heisman. Very few have even managed to make it to New York.
Here are the wide receivers who have finished in the top five in the voting in Heisman history:
Marqise Lee, 2012, 4th
Justin Blackmon, 2010, 5th
Michael Crabtree, 2008, 5th
Larry Fitzgerald, 2003, 2nd*
Randy Moss, 1997, 4th*
David Palmer, 1993, 3rd*
Desmond Howard, 1991, 1st*
Raghib Ismail, 1990, 2nd*
Tim Brown, 1987, 1st*
Anthony Carter, 1982, 4th
Howard Twilley, 1965, 2nd
Jack Snow, 1964, 5th
Tom McDonald, 1956, 3rd
Bill McColl, 1951, 4th
Leon Hart, 1949, 1st
Larry Kelley, 1936, 1st
* — traveled to NY as finalists.
As you can see, only five receivers have been invited to the Heisman ceremony (1981 was the first year it was televised, so the practice of inviting finalists is relatively new). Outside of Larry Fitzgerald in 2003, most of the receivers who did well in the vote were also all-purpose dynamos.
But this shouldn’t mean that Cooper can’t be the first to break this glass ceiling, right? After all, if Fitzgerald could finish second in the Heisman vote as a sophomore while playing for an 8-4 Pittsburgh team in 2003, surely Cooper could win it as a junior for an Alabama squad that is challenging for a national title in 2014.
But here’s the issue with pure receivers trying to win the Heisman: They either get bottled up at some point, or their quarterback starts to share credit.
Let’s look at Cooper’s numbers. Through four games, he has a remarkable 43 catches for 655 yards and five touchdowns. Much of this production can be attributed to Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has a habit of force-feeding his wide receivers, especially early in the season. For instance, Robert Woods had 41 catches through four games for Kiffin in 2011 (and 54 through five games), while Marqise Lee had 40 in four games (and 52 through five games) in 2012.
So we’ve seen this show before.
Woods tapered off after that hot start, catching just five passes for 36 yards in game six and two catches for five yards in game 10. Lee was held to two catches for 32 yards in game six and five catches for 75 yards in game 12. Both Woods and Lee wore down physically (and mentally) due to the burden of being the focal point of the USC offense, not to mention because they took on more hits from defenders, which led to more bumps and bruises over the long run…and diminishing returns.
Also, unlike Woods and Lee, Cooper does not have a top-flight No. 2 wide receiver to draw attention away from him. At some point, defenses will adjust.
This is what happened to Larry Fitzgerald against Miami late in the 2003 season. Fitzgerald was unstoppable all year, but he was held to three catches for 26 yards by a determined Hurricanes defense that didn’t want him to win the Heisman on their watch.
It’s just much easier for defenses to scheme to stop receivers than it is to stop quarterbacks or running backs. Quarterbacks touch the ball on every play. Running backs are handed the ball in a generally secure manner by the quarterback. But for a receiver to catch the ball, a series of events MUST occur before anything else can happen.
(1) The receiver must get open.
(2) The quarterback must identify the open receiver (he may not be the only open receiver, at that).
(3) The quarterback must deliver an accurate pass.
(4) The receiver must catch the pass.
If any of these steps get disrupted, the receiver doesn’t produce. In general, the farther away you are from the ball when it is snapped, the harder it is to win the Heisman.
But let’s say that Cooper doesn’t wear down and continues to pile up huge numbers while the Crimson Tide remain undefeated. Alas! At some point, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims is going to start to take some credit for the production and those wins. After all, every pass caught by a receiver is also a pass thrown by a quarterback.
That’s why recent pure receivers who’ve made noise in the Heisman race have seen their candidacies diluted to some extent by their quarterbacks. Brandon Weeden drew attention away from Justin Blackmon, while Michael Crabtree had to share the spotlight with Graham Harrell.
So what’s a receiver to do?
Luckily, we have the Biletnikoff Award for pure receivers. Cooper seems a cinch to win that.
The Heisman is going to be far, far more difficult.