- A great quarterback who makes his team great and is great person off the field, too—what's not to like about Deshaun Watson as a Heisman Trophy candidate?
Deshaun Watson amassed 4,443 yards of total offense in 2016, fourth-most in the country, as the undisputed offensive fulcrum for a Clemson team that won its league, lost just once along the way and earned a second straight trip to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers’ wizened, do-everything junior quarterback also will graduate in two and a half years, and his contributions to Habitat for Humanity are well chronicled and earned him a spot on the AFCA Good Works Team. In short: He was really good for a really good team and appears to be a really good person when he’s not being a really good quarterback. Even shorter: He hits all the notes a Heisman Trophy winner is supposed to hit.
So in a vacuum, it’s incredibly easy to make an argument that Watson should bring home college football’s top honor after finishing third in the voting a year ago. Votes aren’t tallied in a vacuum, of course, and the production becomes a bit more complicated to contextualize when set against the accomplishments of the other primary contenders. But even that shouldn’t disqualify Watson out of hand. His path to another spot as a repeat Heisman finalist was hardly preordained, and he nevertheless performed well enough in the klieg-lit spots to earn a return trip to New York.
Clemson’s offense ranks 11th nationally in Football Outsiders S&P+ metric, and that’s with a run game that, for much of the season, was not as reliable as it was last fall. Watson can and should claim a great deal of responsibility for that efficiency, especially considering a schedule full of defenses capable of exposing weakness. Consider: Seven of Clemson’s 13 games featured opponents with defenses that, at the end of the regular season, ranked in the top 30 nationally per the S&P+ metric. Five were in the top 20. Against those seven stout defenses, Watson completed 65.9% of his attempts with an average of 295.7 passing yards per game, totaling 23 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The Tigers won all seven of those games. When Watson’s team needed him to produce against formidable opposition, he delivered.
Any concern over his overall efficiency as a passer seems a bit post-fact, too. He threw 15 interceptions in 487 pass attempts this year. He threw 13 in 491 attempts last season. His quarterback rating in 2016: 154.0. His quarterback rating in 2015: 156.3. He’s been effectively the same passer from season to season. Unless you insist upon dramatic leaps in efficiency with every additional year of experience, it’s basically inaccurate to propagate an argument that Watson is more mistake-prone now. If his numbers through the air were Heisman-worthy a year ago, they’re Heisman-worthy today.
It is fair to closely inspect the rushing numbers that plunged. Watson ran for 1,105 yards a year ago and just 529 this season. But even that might not be his fault. His carries dropped from 207 to 129, suggesting Clemson’s offensive staff might have been more inclined to protect their most valuable asset through play calling. Even more ammo for that thought: Watson recorded double-digit carries in five of the seven games against those S&P+ top 30 defenses, notching five of his six rushing touchdowns in those outings. When Clemson didn’t need to deploy Watson as a runner, it didn’t. When it did, it did. And Watson produced in those circumstances.
Ultimately a vote for Watson is a vote for the comprehensive picture of a Heisman Trophy winner: The quarterback whose numbers were terrific, if not as eye-popping in some departments as what other candidates mustered. The quarterback who delivered his team one championship and the chance to play for another. The quarterback who, as far as anyone can tell, goes out of his way to be a good citizen.
It’s possible the others check those boxes, too. But, in this space, we’re talking about the case for Deshaun Watson to hoist the Heisman. In almost every conceivable way, it doesn’t require much effort to make that argument.