They Gave It The Old College Try: Heisman Busts in the NFL
Winning the Heisman trophy means you are the best, most dominant force in college football. Hands down. What it doesn’t mean is that you will be able to translate your college success to the next level. The NFL is a completely different beast from college. The players are faster and stronger. The defensive schemes more complicated. The intensity magnified. College players are often the big fish in a little pond, and when they change leagues, they change bodies of water. They become the little fish in a big pond. Let’s have a look at some of the Heisman winners who dominated the college landscape but were doomed in the pros.
Johnny Manziel crashed and burned, then crashed again at the professional level. The obnoxious, arrogant, and spoiled Heisman winner from Texas A&M received a rude awakening in the NFL. Taken 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2014, the former A&M quarterback was a shell of his former self in the pros. Gone were the electrifying runs, impossible throws, and impressive victories.
Gone was “Johnny Football,” the man that seemingly reinvented Texas A&M football. Gone was the quarterback who became the first freshman in NCAA history to win the Heisman Trophy, the man who upset top-ranked Alabama, the man who would become the first freshman to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.
Instead, the dual-threat quarterback brought in a bad attitude to the Browns, coupled with a drinking and partying problem. The result? Injuries, obscene gestures, and poor play. The result of all that? A total of 15 games played in the NFL before being released from the Browns. Out of a job and with no other willing suitors in the NFL, Manziel took a few years off to address his personal issues before attempting a comeback in the Canadian Football League.
As of 2018, his NFL stats consisted entirely seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“I don’t expect people to look at my story and feel bad for me. A lot of what I did was self-inflicted,” Manziel told USA Today in 2018. “I’m at a point now where I can look back, I can reflect and realize that I was one way. That was wrong. What can I do moving forward because I can’t change how I was.”
Robert Griffin III
When Robert Griffin III (RG3) entered the NFL in 2012, he was looking like the exact opposite of a bust. A dynamic runner and passer, Griffin was one of the league’s most exciting quarterbacks. People were thrilled to tune in every Sunday to watch the Redskins and their second overall pick light up defenses with his legs and arm, leading Washington to the playoffs.
Coming out of Baylor, Griffin was hyped up as the new and improved Michael Vick, except with a better arm. During Griffin’s senior year — his Heisman winning campaign — the quarterback led the Bears to the best overall record in school history, finishing the season 10-3. With that record, the Bears earned an invite to play in the Alamo Bowl. The Battle of the Alamo, for those of you who are curious, was a major battle in Texas between the Americans and the Mexicans.
Fittingly, this Alamo Bowl was an epic shootout between Baylor and the University of Washington. Griffin and the Bears emerged victorious by a final score of 67-56. He finished his Heisman-winning season with 47 total touchdowns and only six interceptions. When Washington took Griffin second overall, they expected big things. At the outset, Griffin did not disappoint. But over time, Griffin — and his aversion to sliding and avoiding hits — became plagued by injuries.
Different parts of his body began to fall apart. The wheels fell off ,so to speak, and one of his greatest weapons — his legs — became almost useless. In total, Griffin lasted three seasons in Washington, with each season being worse than the last. After being cut, Griffin signed with Cleveland, managing to play in only five games. Still bouncing around the league, Griffin must prove to his doubters that he’s still an effective quarterback than can stay healthy enough to have a meaningful impact on his team.
Tim Tebow is such a tough call when considering Heisman busts. To his credit, Tebow was fairly effective at the professional level when given the chance in 2011. That is the key part. When given the chance. After an electrifying four years at the University of Florida, Tebow turned pro. Considering he was a two-time national champion, near two-time Heisman winner (he won in 2007 and placed third in 2008), and one of the most prolific players in college football history, Tebow should have been pegged as a certain lock for the first round.
However, skeptics were quick to point out his awkward, flawed delivery. Other pundits believed his release wouldn’t cut it in the pros and he’d be more suited to play a different position (tight end or running back were possibilities). Somehow, despite his winning ways and impressive leadership qualities, questions swirled regarding his place in the draft and overall NFL potential.
Boom, Bust, and Baseball
When draft day did finally arrive, Tebow was taken 25th overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2010 NFL Draft. Tebow was one of many questionable picks Josh McDaniels had as a head coach. Two seasons and 14 starts later, Tebow was out of Denver. Traded to the Jets. Why? He was a winning quarterback. Improbably, he defeated the Steelers with a perfect overtime touchdown pass in the playoffs. He had 18 touchdown passes, 12 rushing touchdowns and just eight picks. However, have a fumbling problem, coughing up the ball 14 times in his two seasons with Denver. And the lure of Peyton Manning was too great for John Elway to pass up. As a Jet, Tebow saw minimal action and was released after one season, his last in the NFL.
Some would say Tebow was never given a fair shot in the pros. He won games and excited players and fans alike. But he never got a chance to shine. Coaches were always uncertain about his ability and wavered regarding his starting status. One week he’d play exceptionally well and the next he’d be holding a clipboard. He still remains one of the greatest “what-ifs” in recent memory.
The only Heisman winner to come out of the University of Houston and the first African-American quarterback to win the award was Andre Ware. With the arrival of new head coach Jack Pardee and his run-and-shoot offense, Ware had one of the most prolific passing seasons in NCAA history. When the 1989 season wrapped up, Ware and the Cougars finished the season ranked 14th nationally with a 9-2 record.
Ware broke or tied 27 different passing records and his explosive offense averaged almost 625 yards per game, a record that still stands. To put things in perspective, Ware was the man behind the biggest thrashing in NCAA history when Houston annihilated SMU 95-21. However, the nation was hardly able to see Ware put on show each Saturday.
Lack of Awareness
Houston, a team on probation, was barred from televising their games and was prohibited from playing in a bowl game. Despite these crippling sanctions, Ware drew national attention and beat out Indiana running back Anthony Thompson in what was, at the time, the fourth-closest Heisman vote in history. Ware elected to skip his senior season and head to the NFL. He’d be taken by the Detroit Lions 7th overall in the 1990 Draft.
Pegged to be the future of the Lions and quite possibly the league, Ware never found his stride in Detroit. The run-and-shoot offense didn’t factor into his play and Ware only received garbage time minutes. In his four years in the NFL, Ware only started six games and played in a dismal 14 total. He passed for five touchdowns and threw for eight interceptions.
The University of Miami is one of the most decorated college football programs in history. Commonly referred to as “The U,” Miami has had two Heisman winners (both quarterbacks), won five national titles, and consistently produces some of the NFL’s flashiest players. Their second and most recent Heisman Trophy winner was quarterback Gino Torretta.
A two-time national champion, Torretta was a member of “The U” during their heyday, albeit as a less-flashy member. During the 1991 season, Torretta lead the Canes to a perfect season and National Championship. The following season, Torretta would again lead his team to a perfect regular-season. This time, however, the Canes would fall to Alabama in the National Championship Game.
To the Bench
Despite the loss, Torretta’s 1992 season would go down in the record books as one of the best ever for a Miami signal caller. His senior (Heisman) year, Torretta amassed over 3,000 yards passing and 19 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. Those numbers were nearly identical to his previous season, the major difference being the national championship, or lack thereof.
At the professional level, Torretta didn’t see the same success as he did in college, mostly because he didn’t see the field. In his five seasons in the league, Torretta was a permanent fixture on the bench. A Heisman-winning clipboard holder. His NFL stats? A meager two games, five completions, one touchdown and one pick. Then again, what could you expect from a guy drafted in the seventh round.
Danny Wuerffel’s 1996 season was simply amazing. It was also one of the best seasons for Gators fans in Florida’s illustrious history. To frame Wuerffel’s run to Heisman winner, let’s start in 1995. Wuerffel and the Gators stormed through the Southeastern Conference en route to a perfect season and spot in the national championship game.
The National Championship Game would be far from perfect, with the Gators losing to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 62-24. For the season, Wuerffel passed for 35 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Going into the 1996 season, Wuerffel and the Gators’ expectations were sky-high, and the team did not disappoint this time.
No Gator Chomp
In his senior year, Wuerffel threw for over 3,600 yards, 39 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while leading the Gators to an 11-1 regular season record — their only loss coming to bitter rival Florida State. Those numbers did prove to be enough for a Heisman trophy, beating out Iowa State running back Troy Davis. Then, with seemingly all of the pieces falling into place, Florida managed to get a spot in the National Title Game against the only team to defeat them that season: Florida State.
During the highly-anticipated rematch, the Gators throttled the Seminoles 52-20, capping off an incredible season for the quarterback. At the pro level, Wuerffel, a fourth-round pick in 1997, was essentially relegated to the bench for the majority of his six year career. He finished his career with 12 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions in just 25 games played.
At 28-years-old, Chris Weike became the oldest Heisman winner in history. A quarterback at Florida State, Weinke led the Seminoles to three consecutive BCS National Championship games. In 1998, the ‘Noles were defeated by Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. In 1999, Florida State went undefeated through the regular season and defeated Michael Vick’s Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sugar Bowl to claim the program’s second national title.
The next year, the ‘Noles would appear in their third straight title game, this time losing Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. So how did a 28 year-old win a Heisman and appear in three straight title games? Baseball. Out of high school, Weinke decided to play professional baseball and was drafted in the second round of 1990 MLB Draft. He would ascend to Triple-A, but could never break through to the Majors.
With a verbal agreement from Florida State that Weinke would be a scholarship athlete, the choice was clear: retire from baseball and play college football. As a 26-year-old sophomore, Weinke lit up the ACC, a sign of good things to follow. Four seasons later, Weinke, a senior, led the nation in passing with over 4,000 yards. Despite the National Championship loss, he finished his career with a 32-3 record.
The professional ranks would be less forgiving on the almost 30-year-old. Weinke was drafted in the fourth round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Panthers. He’d spend four seasons in Carolina, with his rookie season standing out for his lackluster 1-14 record. After one season in San Francisco, Weinke hung up his cleats with a dismal 2-18 record, punctuated by his 15 touchdowns to 26 interceptions.
Breaking records and ankles was Eric Crouch’s specialty at the University of Nebraska. A dual-threat quarterback that shredded defense through the air and on the ground, Crouch became the face of college football in 2001 when he won the Heisman Trophy. With over 1,000 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground, paired with over 1,500 yards and seven touchdowns through the air, Crouch was one of football’s original dual-threat quarterbacks.
Playing for Nebraska, Crouch had the eyes of the nation on him week after week, and the resilient QB did not disappoint. During his junior and senior seasons, Crouch led the Huskers to consecutive two-loss seasons. His senior year, where he’d win the Heisman, Crouch led his team to the National Championship Game (Rose Bowl).
Wideout, then Out
There, Nebraska’s explosive offense would be shut down by Miami, ultimately losing the game 37-14. After four stellar years and numerous records belonging to Crouch, the quarterback entered the NFL Draft. Considered too small to play quarterback and athletic enough to play receiver, teams considered Crouch a wild-card pick, someone capable of transitioning to a new position in the pros.
Crouch, however, wasn’t on board with this plan and was dead set on passing the ball. Crouch would be taken in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft by St. Louis but would never play a regular-season down. Injuries and a lack of desire to play receiver forced Crouch to retire early from the NFL.
Back-to-back devastating knee injuries. Back-to-back National Championship Game losses. It’s easy to feel sorry for former University of Oklahoma star quarterback Jason White. The man suffered through two devastating knee injuries, but White kept on bouncing back. He had to deal with losing two consecutive title games, but White kept his chin up.
But not everything in White’s long career at Oklahoma was miserable. He won 2003 Heisman Trophy Award and was a two-time Davey O’Brien Award winner. With virtually no knees to run on or scramble with, White was a sitting duck out of the shotgun formation on each play. But with a good enough offensive line and some impressive talent around him (Adrian Peterson), White threw for 40 touchdowns and just 10 picks.
White Doesn’t See the Light
Although it would end in a seven-point loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl (that year’s National Title Game), White would earn the Heisman Trophy. The next season, White, once again a Heisman hopeful, would finish third in the voting behind teammate Adrian Peterson and winner Matt Leinart from USC.
White threw for 35 touchdowns and just nine picks, but again faltered in the title game against USC, this time in blowout fashion by a score of 55-19. With no knees to speak of, White was a long shot to make an NFL roster and became just the third Heisman winner to go undrafted. White signed with the Titans but retired before stepping on the field.
This one is good for both Ohio State AND Michigan fans. For Ohio State fans, reveling in the success of Troy Smith at the college level is a nice way to reminisce about one of the most exciting Buckeyes ever.
During his 2006 Heisman winning season, Smith led the Buckeyes to a perfect regular season. He threw for 30 touchdowns and only five picks. The perfect season, and overwhelming dominance Smith and the Buckeyes exerted on their opponents, earned him 86.7% of the Heisman vote, the second highest ever. Right now, Michigan fans are cringing, but soon they’ll be feeling good about themselves.
In the BCS National Championship Game against Florida — Smith’s final game as a Buckeye — the Gator defense would chomp down on the explosive quarterback. Smith would be sacked numerous times, turned the ball over, and never found his stride in a 41-14 blowout.
After that game, Smith’s draft stock plummeted and he fell to the fifth round of the 2007 Draft before the Ravens scooped him up. In Baltimore, Smith was a perennial backup, and after three years he was traded to the 49ers where he played for one season. He hung up his cleats with eight passing scores and five interceptions.
The definition of a flash in the pan, running back Rashaan Salaam broke onto the NFL scene with force. After three solid years at Colorado, Salaam was NFL ready. In his senior year (1994), the running back rushed for over 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. At the time, Salaam was one of only four running backs to join the 2,000 yard club. The Buffaloes finished the season with an 11-1 record, capped off by a convincing victory in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl over Notre Dame.
Salaam is also notable for throwing one of the greatest blocks in Colorado history. As quarterback Kordell Stewart wound up to launch a desperation Hail Mary pass in the final seconds against Michigan in 1994, Salaam picked up a pursuing defensive end, giving Stewart enough time and space to step into the desperation throw.
The Buffalo Must Go
With no time remaining on the clock, a Michigan defensive back tipped the ball into the hands of a diving Michael Westbrook who caught the ball in the end zone for the game-winning score. Post Fiesta Bowl victory, Salaam opted to skip his senior year and jump to the pros. The Chicago Bears took the former Buffalo with the 21st pick in the 1995 NFL Draft and the move looked like a great one.
Salaam rushed for over 1,000 yards and found the end zone 10 times his rookie season. But the injuries also started to find Salaam, and three seasons later, the former star would be out of the league with a career total of 14 touchdowns. In 2016, Salaam took his life in Boulder, Colorado, just blocks away from the stadium he called home for three years.
Ty Detmer one of the most famous players to come out of Brigham Young University and is the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner. During his Heisman-winning junior year, Detmer produced the most yards and total offense in school history by slinging 41 touchdowns and amassing over 5,000 yards through the air.
His defining moment came in 1989, in a nationally televised game against the defending champion and top-ranked Miami Hurricanes, Detmer and the Cougars pulled off a thrilling 28-21 upset behind his 400-yard, three-touchdown performance. The season, however, would end in a disappointing loss to Texas A&M in the 1990 Holiday Bowl.
Not the Lion King
The following season, Detmer continued to perform at a high level and finished third in the Heisman voting. By the time his prolific college career was over, Detmer broke 59 NCAA records and tied three others. However, one big knock on the star quarterback was his size. Standing at only 6-feet and roughly 175-pounds, most NFL scouts thought his size, combined with Detmer coming from a small, non-power conference school, would hamper his ability to make plays at the next level. And they weren’t entirely wrong.
Taken in the ninth round of the 1992 NFL Draft by the Packers, Detmer bounced around the league for eight seasons playing for five teams. Detmer only started more than 10 games once during his career and only threw for double-digit touchdowns once. He finished his career with 34 touchdowns and 35 picks.
Not the worst on this list, Detmer’s NFL career was far from memorable. It’s tough to imagine how someone could light up the NCAA for three years and then virtually disappear at the next level. To this date, Detmer is the last Heisman winner to come from a school that doesn’t play in a major conference (BIG 10, PAC 12, SEC, ACC, BIG 12).
The only player to win the Heisman Award twice, running back Archie Griffin led a prolific four-year career at Ohio State University, becoming one of only two players to start in four Rose Bowls. Griffin burst onto the scene as a freshman and saw his productivity increase each year. During his junior year (1974), Griffin totaled over 1,700 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns.
Griffin, a small yet powerful back, led the Buckeyes to a one-loss regular season and a birth in the Rose Bowl against USC. For his efforts he’d be awarded the Heisman. In that game, the Trojans managed to bottle the nation’s best runner and narrowly escape Pasadena with a one-point victory of the Buckeyes. Generally, the season following the Heisman has the potential to be a major letdown.
It happens all the time, but Archie Griffin was determined to reverse tradition, or at least hold it off. In his senior year campaign, Griffin tallied over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and scored four times- not a huge number by any means. But he helped Ohio State go undefeated through the regular season and earn a slot in the Rose Bowl. Different Rose Bowl, different year, same result. Ohio State and their standout running back would again fall to a team from Southern California, this time losing 21-10 to UCLA.
With nothing left to prove (or no years of eligibility left, your call), Griffin went pro. With the 24th pick of the 1976 NFL, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Archie with high expectations. Griffin lasted seven years in the league, and although he wasn’t labeled a massive bust, he never managed to run for over 700 yards in a season and only found the end zone 13 times, seven of which came on the ground.
Devin Hester might have been the most explosive kick returner of the 2000s, but his game and moves must have been modeled after Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers. An elite, speedy, and shifty runner, Rodgers played both running back and receiver for the Huskers as they put themselves on the national radar as one of America’s most dominant teams of the 1970s. But his biggest impact may have come on special teams returning kicks and punts.
Called The Jet, Rodgers was an integral — if not the biggest — factor in Nebraska having back-to-back undefeated seasons that culminated in the school’s first two national championships. In the 1971 Orange Bowl, the Huskers beat LSU by five points, and in the Orange Bowl the season after, Nebraska demolished Alabama 38-6.
All Thunder, No Lightning
But it was the 1972 season where Rodgers fully established himself as the most dangerous man in football. On the way to his Heisman Trophy (which was also Nebraska’s first), Rodgers racked up nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and found pay dirt 17 times. Although Nebraska wasn’t able to pull off their third straight undefeated season, Rodgers and the Huskers did get an invitation to their third-straight Orange Bowl, and the result was predictable. The Huskers shucked Notre Dame 40-6. When his impressive career at Nebraska ended, Rodgers owned numerous offensive records and was a highly coveted NFL prospect.
Rodgers, for some reason, wasn’t keen on playing in the NFL out of college, and although he was drafted in the first round by the Chargers, he elected to play in the CFL. In Canada, Rodgers proved himself to be one of the league’s best players, albeit against lesser talent. After four seasons of CFL ball, Rodgers jumped into the NFL to play for the Chargers. Lasting only 17 games because of injury, Rodgers only managed to gain 234 yards receiving and didn’t score any touchdowns.
Many people strictly think of Steve Spurrier as the “Ol’ Ball Coach” standing on the sidelines with an oversized visor and khaki pants. After all, he was the winningest coach in history at the University of Florida and South Carolina, and retired from coaching the second-winningest coach in SEC history. But what people don’t remember is how good of a football player Spurrier was.
A quarterback for the University of Florida, Spurrier holds the dubious distinction of being named the only MVP of the Sugar Bowl despite losing the game. The following season, Spurrier and the Gators would go on a revenge tour and the quarterback would throw for 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns. More importantly than his stats, he’d avenge the crushing bowl loss the prior season by beating Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Spurrier finished his Florida career as one of the NCAA’s all-time great passers and capped off his career with a Heisman Trophy in hand.
Stick to Coaching
With the third pick in the 1967 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers decided to take the hot-handed quarterback. Hyped up as a pure passer and offensive genius, Spurrier’s time in the NFL (including coaching) was dismal. Spurrier, to his credit, lasted 10 seasons in the league but never broke though as a star.
He passed for only 40 touchdowns and 6,800 yards, and had only one season where he threw for double-digit touchdowns. For reference, Jameis Winston, not considered elite by any means, had 50 touchdown passes by the end of his second year. But Spurrier made up for it as a college coach, leading Florida to the 1999 national championship.
In 1967, Gary Beban ruled college football. The UCLA star quarterback took home every major award, including the Heisman Trophy. The only Heisman winner in UCLA’s history, Beban guided his team to an impressive 10th ranking nationally and a 7-2-1 record, one of those losses coming to O.J. Simpson’s USC Trojans in what many people consider the greatest college football game of all time.
Beban’s Heisman numbers are considered minimal by today’s standards, but at the time the dual-threat quarterback was explosive, rushing for 11 touchdowns and throwing for eight more. In the 1968 NFL Draft, the Rams took the local quarterback with the 30th overall pick — at that time a second round pick.
But Beban was traded to the Redskins and was stuck on the bench behind future Hall of Fame signal caller Sonny Jurgensen. Frustrated with his role on the team, the former elite quarterback retired after two seasons with only five games played and 30 total yards gained- that’s including passing, rushing, and receiving.
“I think it was a natural extension of having played sports and football for a very long time that I wanted try playing on the professional level,” Beban told the real estate magazine, Blueprint, in 2015. “It became a very important experience for me, because it was really the first time that I had not been successful.”
This one is a hard one because Sam Bradford has had some very successful years in the NFL, but considering how much money he’s been paid and how little he has to show for it, he’s also the league’s greatest robber and disappoints year after year, putting up mediocre numbers while somehow preserving his starting role. Coming out of Oklahoma, Bradford was considered the top quarterback prospect.
After all, he had a prolific, yet injury plagued, career at Oklahoma. During his Heisman season, Bradford threw for an astonishing 50 touchdowns and just eight picks. He led his team to the National Title game where they fell to Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators 24-14. Interestingly enough, it was Bradford who bested Tebow in the Heisman race but not in the big game.
Robbing the Bank
At the pro level, Bradford, taken first overall, has failed to live up to the hype. He’s been set back by injuries, has questionable arm strength, and doesn’t seem to be a natural leader. But teams keep ponying up the money for his services. In total, Bradford has made $129 million. For all that money, one would expect some playoff victories, maybe a Pro Bowl. Nothing. Just the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and some cringe-worthy, over-sized jersey sleeves.
Bradford began the 2017 season as the starting quarterback in Minnesota, only to be replaced by Case Keenum, who led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. Bradford’s next stop was Arizona, where he began the 2018 season as the starter for the Cardinals. But once again — and perhaps for the final time — Bradford lost his job, this time to rookie Josh Rosen.