The Phenomenal, Forsaken Heisman Defense of Lamar Jackson

Alton Strupp/The Courier-Journal

What if I told you the sequel could be even better than the original?

There is a college football player who has been his team’s starting quarterback for the past three seasons. His past two years, though, have been some of the best in the sport.

Here are his numbers from 2016 and 2017, respectively. Before I show you this table, I am obligated to tell you that the player started all 13 games for his team last season and has only gotten to play in 11 games this year.

2016 56.2 3,543 30 9 1,571 21
2017 59.8 3,273 23 6 1,287 17

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those numbers are ridiculous. It also doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, in many respects, this individual is having a better season this year as opposed to his 2016 campaign.

And, unless you don’t believe in reading headlines because they contain spoilers, you’ve already figured out that the player I’m talking about is 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. And again, he very well may be having a better season this year than last year.¬†Oh, snap!

Jackson won the Heisman Trophy a season ago due to a profound lack of other award-worthy options. The alternatives to Jackson last season were Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson (15 interceptions), Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers (no legitimately great stats), Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, who put up exorbitant numbers in a conference that, as a general rule, does not play defense, and Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook, who had a great season that largely piggybacked on his quarterback’s success. Jackson faded down the stretch a season ago, as he barely averaged over 200 yards passing in the final five games of the year (Louisville lost its final three contests last season). Despite Jackson’s rough November and December, he was still able to bring home the hardware, and his Heisman victory was particularly impressive when you consider that he led the race from week three on.

This year, Jackson is having a better statistical year but has not received the same amount of attention or respect. Why is this? The answer is twofold.

First, Jackson was already fighting an uphill battle as a defending Heisman winner. Out of the 82 Heisman Trophy winners since 1935 (and yes, that includes Reggie Bush), only 26 were underclassmen when they won the award. Furthermore, just 13 of these players returned to college to defend their title, with some of the most recent examples being Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, and Tim Tebow. Only one returnee, Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, won the award in back-to-back seasons (1974-1975). Jackson would have done well to simply make it back to New York as a finalist for this year’s Heisman. but the numbers he’s put up this year should put him back in the conversation for the award in most circumstances. This, though, is not a regular situation.

The other, major negative for Jackson’s 2017 Heisman candidacy is the lack of success his team has had in spite of his absolute brilliance. While you may think that a great player would be able to overcome his team’s ineptitude and win a major award like this, that is not necessarily the case. Louisville currently finds itself at 7-4 with their annual rivalry game against Kentucky to close out the season tomorrow. The last Heisman winner to take home the hardware on a four-loss team was Oklahoma fullback Steve Owens in 1969. In those 48 years, college football has evolved so much that many offenses have simply gotten rid of the fullback. And let’s say that, hypothetically, Kentucky defeats the Cardinals tomorrow, as they did last year (you probably forgot about that because you were too busy watching this at the exact same time). If you want to find a Heisman winner on a five-loss team, you would have to go all the way back to 1956, where you will find Notre Dame and Packers legend Paul Hornung, who starred on the 2-8 Fighting Irish that season. The Heisman Trophy is, rightly or wrongly, one of the most team-centric awards in sports. While that may not be fair, this precedent is not on the side of a Jackson repeat.

This, of course, is not to say that the Louisville junior should take home the hardware. Baker Mayfield has thrown for 543 more yards this year on 49 fewer pass attempts and should be the clear favorite for the award, in spite of his profanity and, well, Michael Jackson-esque gesture toward the Kansas sideline last week. But if Heisman voters view Mayfield’s actions as a disqualification for giving him the award, Jackson should be next in line to win. That’s how good he has been this season.

This is also not the first time a Heisman Trophy winner has come back to have a better year the season after. Johnny Manziel put up better numbers in 2013 than he did in 2012¬†only to finish fifth in the Heisman voting that season. Manziel had the best overall numbers of the four quarterbacks (Jameis Winston, A.J. McCarron, Jordan Lynch) but his Texas A&M Aggies finished just 8-4 that season. If there is a precedent for the season Jackson is having after being college football’s best player a season ago, it belongs to Johnny Football, and it’s a bad sign for the Louisville star’s candidacy.

Lamar Jackson, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be heading to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He won’t get the award, but you should appreciate him just for completing the long road back from last year’s victory.

Many others have failed in their defense of the Heisman Trophy. Lamar Jackson has been a smashing success.