- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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There was a time -- like pretty much the last 50 years -- when a Heisman Trophy wasn’t a very good thing for a quarterback to have on his résumé as he entered the NFL.
When Baylor’s Robert Griffin III gets taken early in next week’s NFL draft, he could be the latest piece in the trend of turning around the apparent curse on quarterbacks who won the Heisman. It has started to change only recently, but all of the sudden it’s looking like the trophy isn’t an anchor guaranteeing NFL mediocrity or obscurity for a quarterback.
Look back at 2010 winner Cam Newton. He was last year’s offensive rookie of the year for the Carolina Panthers and set all sorts of rookie passing (and rushing) records. There’s big hope in St. Louis that 2008 winner Sam Bradford can get back to the promise he showed as a rookie after struggling through a rough 2010 season. Then there’s 2007 winner Tim Tebow. He couldn’t throw spirals in Denver, but he won games. That at least created a market for Tebow to get traded to the New York Jets, where it remains to be seen if he’ll ever be able to win the starting job away from Mark Sanchez.
But there’s at least hope that Griffin, Newton, Bradford and Tebow can go on to have long and prosperous NFL careers. Before they came along, there were decades of evidence that suggested quarterbacks should just quit the game after winning the Heisman.
They had little to no success in the NFL.
And remember Jason White?
I honestly did not at first. I had to go back and look up White, who won the trophy not all that long ago. He won it in 2003 while putting up some gaudy numbers at the University of Oklahoma. White didn’t even get drafted and quit football altogether after a short training-camp stint with the Tennessee Titans. He never even played in a regular-season NFL game.
Guys like White, Smith, Crouch, Wuerffel, Ward, Torretta, Detmer, Ware and Sullivan all had some things in common. In general, they were able to win the Heisman because they put up big statistics at programs where they were surrounded by elite players. They also had limitations -- usually in size, speed or arm strength -- that prevented them from being taken very seriously by NFL talent evaluators.
But those same evaluators also missed on some Heisman winners who seemed to have what the NFL wanted. Remember Matt Leinart?
He came from one of those football factories (USC), where he was surrounded by guys like Reggie Bush, but Leinart was supposed to be the one whose college success could transfer to the NFL. That’s why the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the first round. But Leinart was nothing short of a tremendous disappointment.
When he flopped, it looked like there really was something to the Heisman Curse.
Prior to Tebow, Bradford, Newton and Griffin, you’ve got to look at a list of 18 quarterbacks who won the Heisman before you find one who really made it big. You’ve got to go all the way back to Roger Staubach, who won it for Navy in 1963. He went on to have a great career for the Dallas Cowboys and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since Staubach won the Heisman, other quarterbacks have had to settle for just getting into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Sure, there have been a few Heisman winners to come out and have some success. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls, but his career didn’t really take off until he landed with the Raiders after mediocre stints in New England and San Francisco.
Vinny Testaverde had an extremely long NFL career and the longevity led to some impressive career statistics. But Testaverde never had the kind of career so many people imagined when he was coming out of the University of Miami and taken No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987.
But Newton, Griffin, Tebow and Bradford finally might be able to put a stop to the near-half-decade drought of Heisman Trophy winners truly excelling in the NFL.
“Cam Newton is the best thing to ever happen to Robert Griffin III,’’ former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke said as we discussed this year’s crop of quarterbacks back in February. “Just like Drew Brees is the best thing to happen to [Wisconsin draft prospect Russell Wilson]. Cam showed that a big, athletic quarterback that can run can be great in the NFL. Brees showed that a guy that’s not 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5 can throw for 5,000 yards in an NFL season. We all know the NFL is a copycat league. Cam’s success and Drew’s success helps the draft stock of guys like Robert and Russell.’’
Ironically, Weinke’s name is another one on that Heisman list. His story might be the most unique of all the Heisman-winning quarterbacks. Weinke enrolled at Florida State after giving up a minor-league baseball career. He won the Heisman in 2000 and seemed to have the talent of a classic drop-back passer, but the fact he would turn 29 in his rookie training camp, pushed him into the fourth round of the 2001 draft. The Carolina Panthers took him and he started under coach George Seifert as a rookie, but never could quite won over John Fox, who took over the next year.
Weinke spent the next five seasons as a backup in Carolina and finished his career in 2007 with San Francisco.
These days, Weinke has carved a niche as a quarterback guru. He is the director of football operations at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He has worked extensively with Newton and some other quarterback prospects over the past few years.
Weinke says he’s seen the game change just since his playing days ended. Like just about everyone else, he says the NFL has become more driven by quarterbacks. He says natural talent is a prerequisite for NFL success and he points to guys like Newton and Griffin, saying they could be a new prototype. And he goes back to his point about the NFL being a copycat league.
“People are always looking for what works,’’ Weinke said. “Cam obviously had a fantastic rookie season. So people look at Robert and say he can do the same thing because the skill sets are similar.’’
For Griffin, Newton and Bradford -- and perhaps even Tebow in his own way -- maybe the skill sets are so good that it no longer matters if a quarterback is lugging around a Heisman Trophy.