Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel made history Saturday night, becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in the history of the 77-year-old award. Freshman weren’t eligible to play until 1972, but that’s still a first in the last 40 years.
Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel had an interesting article late last week about past freshmen who, if there hadn’t been a stigma about voting for such a young player, might have had a chance to win the award. He ranked them, in fact. At No. 1? Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick in 1999.
Let’s take a look at that year. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne, who broke the career rushing yardage mark, won the award going away, beating, in order, Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton, Vick, Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington. Obviously this took place in an era before quarterbacks ruled the voting every year (11 of the 13 winners since have been quarterbacks).
The voting wasn’t close. Dayne got 586 first-place votes. Hamilton got 96. Vick got 25. The point totals — 2,042, 994, 319 — were similarly spaced out.
I think there’s been some revisionist history to say that Dayne won the award strictly for his career achievement. I don’t think that’s the case. (Full disclosure: I was a junior at Wisconsin at the time who covered the team on a part-time basis.) Dayne ran for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns that year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He led the Badgers to a 9-2 regular season record, a share of the Big Ten title, their second straight Rose Bowl appearance and an eventual No. 4 national ranking, in addition to breaking Ricky Williams‘ career rushing record.
His rushing total that season was second nationally by 16 yards to TCU’s LaDanian Tomlinson. Dayne’s 6.1-yard average was tied for third nationally. And he did it against Big Ten competition, back when that meant something. I can also personally attest that Barry Alvarez removed Dayne early from several blowouts, to the extent that many fans thought doing so would cost Dayne the career rushing record.
Vick’s stats weren’t nearly as eye-popping. although as any Virginia Tech fan will tell you, the quarterback’s impact went far beyond stats. Vick, who did rank No. 1 nationally in quarterback rating, threw for 2,065 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for another 585 and eight touchdowns, numbers that seem paltry compared to today’s era of dual threat quarterbacks (then again, who do you think they grew up wanting to be?).
Even the other quarterbacks up for the award had better stats. Hamilton threw for 3,060 yards and 29 touchdowns, with another six scores on the ground. Brees, foreshadowing his NFL career, threw for 3,909 yard and 25 scores, albeit on 554 attempts. Pennington, against less than stellar competition, threw for 3,799 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Granted, none of them put together a highlight package quite like this. Vick had a way of impacting a game like no other player in the country, which can’t be discounted. And he did lead Virginia Tech to the BCS title game, with a big helping hand from a standout defense.
As Mandel noted, if the voting had taken place after the Hokies’ appearance in the BCS title game, when Vick stole the show in a near upset of No. 1 Florida State, it might have had a much different look. But all voting takes place before the bowl games. So you can’t factor that in.
Same for NFL success. Obviously Vick has gone on to have a much better NFL career than the two players ahead of him on the list, which makes the vote look more laughable in hindsight. Dayne was slow and, given his size, not a particularly tough runner in the pros, a first-round bust who never lived up to expectations. Hamilton, because of his diminutive size, was a borderline NFL player who got more playing time in NFL Europe and the AFL. But again, you can’t factor that in.
Of course, this whole argument would be moot if the award frontrunner, Florida State receiver Peter Warrick, didn’t wander into a Dillard’s with a scheme to get a huge discount, leading to a two-game suspension. But simply looking at the body of work for the 1999 regular season — and knowing full well that this will be a highly unpopular opinion on a Virginia Tech blog — I still think Dayne was deserving of the award, despite Vick’s accomplishments.