When Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy in 2007, the victory marked a seminal moment in the award’s history. Tebow’s ascension kicked off a trend of underclassmen winners: Four of the next six players to claim the trophy were redshirt freshmen or sophomores. But Tebow’s triumph also marked the start of another Heisman era, one largely defined by dual-threat quarterbacks.
Six quarterbacks won the Heisman between 2000 and ’06, but only one rushed for more than 250 yards. That was Nebraska’s Eric Crouch, who scampered for 1,115 yards during his ’01 campaign. Since Tebow in ’07, however, four of the last six Heisman-winning quarterbacks have rushed for 644 yards or more. As a group, those four players averaged 1,018 rushing yards. Heisman voters have become enamored with running quarterbacks who thrive in up-tempo spread offenses.
Another running passer, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, is the overwhelming favorite to win the trophy on Saturday. A victory by the Ducks star would serve as further proof that the ability to run and pass has become a prerequisite for the award.
“I think it really helps because it makes it harder on defenses,” Tebow told SI.com about the trend last week. “It makes you more of a dynamic player in college football. Is there a place for the pocket passer? Absolutely. You can be super successful and win championships as a pocket passer. But I think in college football, with the way that things are moving, you’re able to be more dominant when you’re able to use your arm and your legs to beat teams.”
So, what makes a Heisman quarterback in 2014? Recent winners like Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford and Florida State’s Jameis Winston have demonstrated drop-back passers are hardly extinct, but it’s no secret that dual-threat quarterbacks have taken the awards circuit by storm. That’s why we’ve broken down the most recent Heisman winners to fit that bill -- Tebow, Auburn’s Cam Newton (’10), Baylor’s Robert Griffin III (’11) and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (’12) -- and averaged their numbers from their respective Heisman seasons to establish a statistical profile for top candidates. We also analyze how Mariota stacks up.
*Note: Numbers used are players’ stats when Heisman ballots were due and do not include production from bowl games.
• Dual-Threat Average: 230.5-333 passing (69.2 percent), 3,284.5 yards (9.9 yards/attempt), 29.3 touchdowns, 6.5 interceptions
• Mariota: 254-372 passing (68.3 percent), 3,783 yards (10.2 yards/attempt), 38 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks can make plays with their legs, but are also efficient passers. The last four dual-threat winners had an average completion rate of more than 69 percent and averaged 9.9 yards per attempt. They also averaged nearly 30 touchdown passes with fewer than seven interceptions; Griffin boasted the best touchdown-to-interception ratio, with 36 scores to only six picks.
But Mariota is even more effective. He threw for 3,783 yards this fall -- more than all but Griffin (3,998) -- and averaged 10.2 yards per attempt, the latter of which leads all FBS quarterbacks. Mariota’s 38 touchdown passes are more than all four previous dual-threat players threw during their Heisman-winning seasons.
Mariota also takes care of the ball better than any recent Heisman quarterback did. He has thrown only two interceptions in 2014, which came in wins over Cal and Stanford. He helped the Ducks post a turnover margin of +1.31, third nationally.
“The reason why I really like him is he doesn’t hurt his football team,” Tebow said. “I think that is something that’s very underrated in college football. The reason why [the Ducks were] able to blow out so many teams is because he doesn’t hurt their team. He doesn’t give other teams momentum. He still has only two interceptions on the year, and that is really impressive. It is more important to not throw picks than it is to throw touchdowns.”
Mariota is likely best known for his mobility, but the numbers make it clear: He is set to become one of the most effective passers in recent Heisman history.
• Dual-Threat Average: 195.25 carries for 1,018 rushing yards (5.2 yards/carry), 17.5 touchdowns
• Mariota: 117 carries for 669 rushing yards (5.7 yards/carry), 14 touchdowns
The ground game is where modern Heisman quarterbacks separate themselves from past winners. Tebow, Newton, Griffin and Manziel averaged more than 1,000 rushing yards as a group. All but Griffin had at least 19 rushing touchdowns.
However, Mariota’s overall rushing production falls short of that standard. Oregon’s star carried only 117 times this season for 669 yards, fewer than all but one recent dual-threat Heisman winner (Griffin). Instead, true freshman tailback Royce Freeman (1,299 yards) carried the bulk of the rushing load for the Ducks.
Still, though he might lack the rushing quantity, Mariota more than makes up for it in quality. His ability to run this year was ruthlessly efficient. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry -- a far better average than Tebow and Griffin, and comparable with that of Newton -- and became a bigger scoring threat with his legs late in the year. He scored seven of his 14 rushing touchdowns in the season’s final four games.
• Dual-Threat Average: 10.25 wins, two losses
• Mariota: 12 wins, one loss
Only one of the previous four dual-threat Heisman winners (Newton) played for a team with a better record than Mariota’s Oregon squad. As of the voting deadline the Ducks were a robust 12-1, with a Pac-12 championship victory and a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The four previous dual-threat Heisman winners came from teams averaging a little more than 10 wins.
Recent history has made it clear that competing for a national title is no longer absolutely necessary to contend for the Heisman. Five of the six quarterbacks who won the award between 2000 and ’06 went on to play in the BCS championship game, while Griffin and Manziel played in the Alamo Bowl and Cotton Bowl, respectively. Yet team performance certainly plays a factor, and Oregon’s success -- coupled with Mariota’s incredible statistics -- further bolsters his résumé.
Put simply, a Heisman winner in the modern era must be an offensive machine. The last four dual-threat quarterbacks to hoist the trophy each compiled at least 3,900 yards of total offense and 43 total touchdowns, and Winston threw for similar totals -- 3,820 yards with 38 scores -- in Florida State’s first 13 games last year.
Mariota’s 2014 season fits the mold of recent winners. His 53 total touchdowns are more than Tebow, Newton, Griffin or Manziel had during their Heisman-winning campaigns, and his 4,452 yards of total offense -- an Oregon single-season record -- falls right in line with their average. His two interceptions would also be the fewest of any Heisman-winning quarterback of the modern era.
Mariota is expected to win by a landslide, and the stats show exactly why that is.