College Football Awards: How the Winners Perform in the NFL

“Awards don’t mean a goddamn thing. They’re stupid. They’re all stupid….and if I hadn’t already won all these awards, I would not be talking like this.” –Jerry Seinfeld at The Comedy Festival, November 19, 2005

 

For years, football enthusiasts have argued over the NCAA-to-NFL transition. Fans of the sport quibble over beer about famous draft busts and how the hell Tom Brady was a 6th Round pick in 2000. Meanwhile, NFL owners and coaches put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line trying to figure out the same thing.

The draft is tricky. Some teams are good at it, some get lucky. Yet, the debate persists: Of the 27,000+ Division I college football players out there, who gets one of the 256 draft spots?

Unfortunately, what is perceived as collegiate achievement does not necessarily translate into NFL success, and the “Heisman curse” puts this into perspective.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in college football. Its requirements are defined on its official website:

The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.

Indeed, Heisman lore includes a fraternity of the most outstanding collegiate football players ever. Guys like Archie Griffin, Reggie Bush, and Tim Tebow were much better college players than they were (or are) in the NFL, while many Heisman winners are as recognizable to NFL junkies as they are to CFB fans, players like Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, and Barry Sanders.

 

The Curse

The “Heisman curse” makes reference to the two specific ways in which the awarded player suffers almost immediately upon receipt of the trophy.

First, Heisman winners tend to lose their subsequent bowl games. This actually hasn’t happened since Sam Bradford (’08) lost to former Heisman winner Tim Tebow’s (’07) Florida Gators in the 2009 BCS National Championship. Even so, that was the 7th time the Heisman winner had lost his bowl game since 2000, with only Matt Leinhart having won both the Heisman and his bowl game in that stretch. Another long streak was 1974 to 1992, when Heisman winners went 5-13 in their bowl games.

The second way that Heisman winners are seen as “cursed” is their ability to go from football royalty to irrelevancy in so short a time. Heisman winners Jason White (’03) and Eric Crouch (’01) never played a single NFL game. Troy Smith (’06), Rashaan Salaam (’94), Gino Torretta (’92), and Andre Ware (’89) all played four to five seasons before retiring or moving on to Canadian or arena leagues.

Even veterans are considered underachievers. Danny Wuerffel (’96) was drafted by the Saints when that was still a dead-end franchise, and later played on three different teams in his last three years. Matt Leinart’s (’04) seven years in the NFL was nothing more than mediocre, and now he’s an analyst for the Pac12 network. Ty Detmer (’90) played fourteen years primarily in a backup role, only making a name for himself against the Panthers.

While these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of NFL busts, the list doesn’t mention the Heisman winners who’ve done very well professionally, particularly the running backs.  Barry Sanders (’88), Eddie George (’95), Tim Brown (’87), Bo Jackson (’85), Marcus Allen (’81), Earl Campbell (’77), and Tony Dorsett (’76) are all evidence that the curse might just be the selective memory of fans who expect more from Heisman winners.

Given that college football’s most prestigious award can’t predict NFL success, how could we possibly know how a college player will translate into a professional athlete? If we could, the NFL draft would be easy. Still, earning awards ostensibly means that those players are the best at their respective positions, so are there any awards given in college football that can accurately project a player’s future achievement in the NFL?

That’s what we’re going to try and figure out.

 

College Football Awards as Indicators of Future Success

It so happens that this kind of study has been done before. In 2008, Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference.com examined the same thing for awards given from 1993 to 2005. He had originally done this for ESPN Magazine a year earlier, but eventually posted it on his blog.

He looked at 17 different awards and determined that, on average, winners of defensive or lineman awards performed better in the NFL than other award winners, while special teams award winners performed much worse.

Heisman award winners were in the middle of the pack, demonstrating that the Heisman-to-NFL transition is basically a coin flip, but that unfair expectations might influence popular memory of the ordeal. In short, Doug’s study suggested the Heisman curse was a Heisman myth.

I hadn’t seen Doug’s research until I started doing work on this article, but there are a few things that set my efforts apart from his. First, I’m examining the 15 years spanning 2000 to 2014, so mine is something of a sequel. This time frame has the added benefit of comparing all the awards against one another equally – i.e. there are some trophies that weren’t awarded until the mid-90s, and a few more that didn’t appear until 2000, both after Doug’s start date. I also omit the Tatupu award, since “special teams” isn’t really a draftable position.

 

Methodology

I’m no mathematician, and Doug is. While my methods are quantitative in nature, I don’t have a special formula or fancy algorithm. I just collected data points and reported the results. Here are the three categories I examined:

  • Average NFL Career Length
  • Doug measured the number of years that a player was a starter, but I’m only looking at how long each award winner lasted in the NFL. His data point is more valuable, but a long career usually includes a lot of starts, and short careers usually indicate busts (or catastrophic injuries). Obviously there are exceptions, but this method gets close to what I want to reflect.
  • Average Number of Pro Bowls
  • When thinking about how to measure NFL success without logging each players stat line and ranking vs other players at his position, I immediately decided to use Pro Bowl selections. I later realized Doug used it in his calculation. Pro Bowls are akin to a college football award – voters elect the NFL players they think are the best at their respective positions, there just happens to be more than one player per “award.”
  • Average Number of All-Pro Players
  • The NFL All Pro team has a bit more legitimacy than Pro Bowl teams, mainly due to the longevity of the All Pro tradition, which dates back consecutively to the 1940s, and the ability for fans to vote for Pro Bowlers, whereas the All Pro teams are selected by the well-read and presumably less biased Associated Press. There are also fewer players selected for the All Pro team each year, and this selectivity will help confirm the Pro Bowl metric.

 

Average Overall Award Rankings

If we assigned each award its own ranking with respect to the others (i.e. 1-16 accounting for ties), we can then average those averages to get a final NCAA-to-NFL efficacy index. The results are telling.

CFB Awards

The top half of the final ranking looks a lot like Doug’s index from 2008. Defensive award winners translate better (on average) into the NFL than offensive skill positions and special teamers, which populate the bottom half of the rankings.

There are plenty of theories to explain this. Pulling guards and pass-pro tackles have a pretty simple mission from high school to the NFL. Defense doesn’t change that much from one level to the next, either. You have a dozen basic sets (3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime, etc), and any special looks or audibles out of those rely mainly on coaching and experience.

Meanwhile, college offenses have become more nuanced, complicated, and downright gimmicky over the years. Modern collegiate offensive players benefit from the chaos those offenses create (see Oregon, Ole Miss, Auburn, et al), but pro-style offensive coordinators hold a trump card in recruitment because they can pitch the skills that players will develop for the NFL. The strange thing about this theory, though, is that award winning college kickers and punters don’t do well in the NFL, even though literally nothing about kicking and punting changes at the next level.

Successful college players also frequently lack the physical attributes sought by NFL scouts. Russell Wilson has bucked the trend of smaller QBs in the NFL, a trend that Eric Crouch, Joe Hamilton, Brad Banks, and other Davey O’Brien award winners perpetuated. The irony, of course, is that Davey O’Brien himself was a measly 5’7″.

Likewise, Jerome Bettis and Barry Sanders proved that running backs on opposite ends of the size spectrum could succeed in the NFL, which was something Ron Dayne and Byron Hanspard could not do. I’d like to note that Jerome Bettis did not win any college football awards, despite finishing his career 5th on the NFL’s all-time rushing yards list. He lost the Doak Walker award to Georgia’s star running back Garrison Hearst, who also went 7 spots earlier than Bettis in the 1993 draft (#3 overall).

 

College Football Award Winners in the NFL Draft

The NFL seems to agree with my analysis. Below is a chart showing the average draft positions of these award winners, and it’s clear that the NFL trusts defensive award winners more than any other CFB accolades. The average draft position of the 75 defensive award winners since 2000 is 27th, which is a 1st Round pick.

CFB Awards (with draft position)

Again, the special teams players jump out as the least trustworthy draft picks, and I myself was shocked at how poorly Rimington winners do in the NFL. The best bang-for-your-buck in the NFL draft appears to come from Maxwell award winners, who are drafted 62nd on average and go to the 4th most Pro Bowls of any other award winner.

It’s important to note that the relationship between winning awards (even defensive ones) and the NFL draft is not a causal one. That is, NFL owners and scouts don’t sit around promoting award winners over players not even considered for an award. Each NFL team has a profoundly complex way of deciding who to draft, and even then nobody knows how the kids will respond to the pressure of professional football.

With that being said, Jerry Seinfeld was probably right.

Awards don’t mean a thing.

 

 

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