How Heisman-Finalist Quarterbacks Have Changed Over The Years

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It's the season for wildly premature Heisman speculation, and considering quarterbacks have won all but two Heismans since 2000 (Mark Ingram and Reggie Bush being the exceptions), a few quarterbacks and their gaudy stat lines will be in the running this year. But just how far have the goal posts moved on Heisman hopefuls in the last few decades?

Quarterback stats have inflated throughout the past 15 years, obviously. Many teams have switched to spread and no-huddle offenses allowing them to boost tempo and run more plays, and rules aimed at "targeting" and horse-collar tackles have made life harder on defenders. But while it's obvious star quarterbacks have seen gaudier number over time, the degree to which their stats have improved isn't discussed as much. So we gathered statistics from Sports Reference for quarterbacks who got invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony the past 15 years. We then broke them down into 5-year categories (2009-2013, 2004-2008, 1999-2003). Below is a table comparing the 5-year cohorts.

YearComp%Pass YardsRush YardsPlaysTotal TdTotal YardsYards Per Play

In the past five years Heisman finalists actually threw for about 2 percent fewer yards than they did in the preceding five years. But during that time they've more than doubled their rushing production, and a 7.7 percent increase in their total yards. That's possible because, despite running more, which usually yields fewer yards per play than passing, there's been a 5.5 percent increase in the total number of plays these QBs run. Most of these trends were already underway as seen in the changes from 1999-2003 to 2004-2008.


While quarterback stats have tended to increase over time, there's one stat that's actually declined if we look back a bit further—yards per play. Going back to 1990, we see that quarterbacks in the early 1990s gained more yards per play than quarterbacks do today. Which if a reflection of the different style of football that was played in that era. As finalist quarterbacks in the 1990s rarely ran the ball and nearly all their plays were passes.

By the mid-2000s, quarterbacks were running the ball more, which lent more fluctuation in yards per play among finalists each season. For example, run-heavy quarterbacks like Jordan Lynch and Collin Klein have low yards per play while pass-heavy quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Andrew Luck have high yards per play. Having multiple pass-heavy finalists one year followed by multiple run-heavy finalists the next produces variation.

What's apparent is that many of the most effective college football quarterbacks (those who became finalists) started to show a new style of play around 2005 and have continued on this path ever since. Passing yards and touchdowns have sort of leveled off, but the quarterback rushing production that took off during this time has continued to increase. You saw it in '05 with Vince Young, who did something no other quarterback had ever done when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 3,000 yards. But by 2012, Johnny Manziel was all ready the fifth player to accomplish this feat (Chandler Harnish, Colin Kaepernick, and Dan Lefevour are the other three). Below is a chart that shows how rushing yards have increased for quarterback finalists. The numbers Young put up in 2005 were just a sign of things to come.


It's not like Young was the first quarterback to rush for a bunch of yards, but he was the first to both run and pass this effectively. For a while, Michael Vick was seen as the ideal embodiment of a dual-threat quarterback. And while he was fantastic in 1999 when he finished third in Heisman voting, he rushed for about 400 yards fewer than Young did in 2005 (Vick 682, Young 1050) and had about 50 percent fewer total yards (Vick 2747, Young 4086) than Young did. And yes, Eric Crouch had more rushing yards when he won the Heisman in 2001 than Young did in 2005 (Crouch 1115, Young 1050), but Crouch only threw for about half as many yards as Young did (Crouch 1510, Young 3036).


Young's dual threat was clearly more potent than his predecessors, and Young was followed by Tim Tebow also put up a baffling combo of run-pass stats boosting him to become the first underclassman Heisman winner. In the last five years this style, of having about 300 passing and 150 rushing attempts a year, really caught on among top quarterbacks as Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, and Johnny Manziel went on to win Heismans by putting up running back-like yards in addition to their impressive passing stats.

Heisman Ceremonies in the early 2000s tended to feature drop-back guys like Chris Weinke, Ken Dorsey, and Carson Palmer. Later on in that decade, dual-threat guys like Tebow and Young torched defenses unlike previous mobile quarterbacks while ridiculous passing numbers were being dropped in the spread-happy Big 12 (Chase Daniel, Colt McCoy, and Sam Bradford account for much of the increase in passing yards and completion percentages from Heisman finalists in 1999-2003 to 2004-2008). Now, finalists tend to be known for their rushing abilities as much as for their passing skills.


To get invited to New York, a quarterback will need about to account for more than 500 plays and accumulate about 4,000 yards, a fifth of which are likely to come on the ground. Jameis Winston seems like a likely candidate given he won the award last season. But other quarterbacks who came back after winning the award were unsuccessful at repeating (Jason White, Matt Leinart, Tebow (twice!), Manziel). Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty, and Brett Hundley have the talent and play in systems favorable to putting up the necessary numbers. But betting on anyone is a crapshoot at this point, especially since the last two winners were freshmen replacing first-round drafted seniors. But even if a new face ends up winning the award again, we have a pretty good idea of what their game will look like.

Top Image: Streeter Lecka / Getty Images Sport