By MARK KNUDSON
As soon as you saw Louisville’s Lamar Jackson make a series of astounding plays early in the season against Charlotte and Syracuse – when he passed for seven touchdowns and scored six more rushing – you knew this was a special football player. His highlight reel runs were tailor made for a Heisman Trophy highlight video.
Then he went out and torched Florida State with four more rushing touchdowns in a dominating Cardinal win in week three, and his status as the Heisman favorite was cemented. Some voters had already made up their minds.
But just like last season, when too many voters decided that Alabama’s Derrick Henry had locked up the award after the Tide beat LSU, they ended up being wrong. They selected the wrong winner for the wrong reason.
Lamar Jackson should not have won the Heisman Trophy. Deshaun Watson should have.
Jackson didn’t vanish after the FSU game or anything. In fact, he kept right on putting up great stats during ACC play, including a strong three TD performance in a loss at Clemson. Jackson did nothing to dissuade voters who had already anointed him…up until the season’s final two games, which ended up being damaging Cardinal defeats. For some reason, that did not end up mattering. Maybe they weren’t paying attention.
USA Today’s Nicole Auerbach wrote, “Despite struggling during his final two games of the year – a lopsided loss to Houston, and then turning the ball over four times to fall to in-state rival Kentucky – Jackson was able to pile up such jaw-dropping numbers and such a Heisman cushion, those results didn’t sink him.”
And that is precisely the problem. Jackson won the Heisman Trophy based on “jaw dropping numbers” from early in the season. Voters voted on individual statistics, not results. And statistics alone should not decide who wins the Heisman.
Rather, the standard should simply be “a great player that makes a good team great.” Those stats take care of themselves.
Football is a team game. Wins and losses in big games – and a particular player’s impact on them – should be a large part of the equation. Is this player irreplaceable? Can this player put a team on his back and take them to places they’d never reach without him? Does he help his team win big games they otherwise could not?
By that standard, Jackson fell short. By the same standard, Watson stood tall.
It’s not just that Watson won the big head-to-head match-up. Most observers believe that Clemson has better football players than Louisville, and that Jackson was the only reason that game was close. Tough to argue that. But ask yourself this: Where would the Tigers be without Watson? Would they have won 11 games? Won the ACC? Beat Louisville and/or Florida State? Most importantly, would #2 Clemson be in the College Football Play-off without Deshaun Watson?
The answer is no. And those things should trump Jackson’s numbers.
On November 16th, Louisville sat at 9-1 and was ranked in the Top 10. They had a better than good chance at playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl game and a decent chance at making the play-off. Then the next night, they got drubbed by Houston. Like his team, Jackson had a lousy night in a very important game.
The following week, with a big time bowl game still a possibility, Jackson coughed up the ball four times and the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Kentucky team, dropping them to #13 in the final CFP rankings and relegating them to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
Despite this dreadful finish – which coincided with Watson leading his team to big wins over South Carolina and Virginia Tech in the ACC title game – those voters who vote on stats alone (Jackson’s 51 total touchdowns were a useful tool in swaying less observant voters) and had made up their minds early got their way. The guy who faltered down the stretch, whose team lost two games they needed to win in large part because he played poorly, won the most prestigious individual award in sports.
So what happened to “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” anyway?
There’s a lot of argument about whether or not the Heisman should be an “MVP” type of award, or should it simply go to the ‘most outstanding player’ each year. The real question is how do you separate those two things? Isn’t part of what makes a player ‘most valuable” and/or “most outstanding” his or her ability to step up and play their best in the biggest moments?
Deshaun Watson did. Lamar Jackson didn’t. That’s why Watson should have won the Heisman Trophy.