The Last 15 Heisman Trophy Winners: Who's Been the Best Pro?

By Marc Uhlmann
August 27, 2011 5:10 pm
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If I asked you to name the Heisman Trophy winner with the most successful National Football League career over the last 15 seasons who comes to mind? Obviously, the jury will be out on Cam Newton and Mark Ingram who are the past two winners. They will make their professional debuts this fall. So that narrows it to 13 former winners.
 
Such a debate is always subjective due to school and team loyalties, overall statistics and so on, but I found this interesting. It has really made me wonder if winning the Heisman Trophy matters anymore.
 
We can probably throw Reggie Bush out of the equation. His Heisman Trophy has been vacated meaning he is no longer recognized as the winner even though we all saw him get it at the presentation. Be that as it may, Bush has had some electrifying moments in the NFL, but I don’t know if we can truly call him successful yet.
 
Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had a sensational college career, but never amounted to much in the NFL. A low-to-the-ground, bruising runner, Dayne’s lack of breakaway speed hurt his professional career. Jason White of Oklahoma was the 2003 Heisman Trophy winner but went undrafted by the NFL and now owns several businesses in Oklahoma. He never took a snap for a professional team.
 
So that leaves us with nine winners remaining since 1997. Eric Crouch of Nebraska was the 2001 winner and the all-time offensive leader at Nebraska. Running mostly an option attack, most experts believed Crouch would never play a down in the NFL at the quarterback position and they were right. The St. Louis Rams drafted him in the third round as a wide receiver. Crouch would eventually move to safety while playing in NFL Europe and finished his career in Canada as a quarterback.
 
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith came from literally nowhere to claim the 2006 Heisman Trophy after leading Ohio State to a 12-0 record and a spot in the National Championship game against Florida. Smith was abysmal in that game completing four of fourteen passes with an interception, a fumble and was sacked five times. He wound up being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round and now plays in San Francisco. Many believe he has actually hung on longer than they expected in the NFL. Smith’s poor national title game and his lack of height dropped his draft stock like a rock.
 
I imagine you’ve heard of Tim Tebow, the former Florida quarterback and arguably the world’s greatest human? He won the Heisman in 2007 and is now in his second year with the Denver Broncos after being their somewhat controversial first round pick in 2010. The final analysis is still some years away on whether Tebow becomes successful in the NFL so I have to give him that. Unfortunately, it isn’t looking good as he is now the third-string QB in Denver.
 
Going back to the year 2000, Florida State’s Chris Weinke won the Heisman Trophy at the age of 28. Weinke was a big, strong-armed QB who had many experts intrigued with his potential success at the next level. Not everyone was sold though especially because of his age. He was selected in the fourth round by the Carolina Panthers and threw more passes in 2001 than any other rookie. He gave way to Jake Delhomme who guided the Panthers to a near upset of New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Weinke would watch from the sidelines. His career would eventually end in 2007 after a one-year stint in San Francisco.
 
During USC’s return to prominence, QB Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in his junior campaign and passed up the opportunity at being drafted among the top five in the following seasons’ NFL Draft. Leinart’s senior season was actually better than his prior one in the eyes of many, but he lost out to fellow Trojan Reggie Bush and finished third behind Vince Young of Texas. Leinart was eventually drafted 10thby the Arizona Cardinals but his career has been mostly as a back-up. His lack of arm strength is often cited as his major weakness. Leinart now backs up Matt Schaub in Houston.
 
The one other past Heisman Winner the jury is still out on is Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford. Now with the St. Louis Rams, Bradford’s senior season at OU was his worst nightmare as he was injured in the opening game. Bradford was still selected first overall and had a solid rookie season with the Rams who don’t have a ton of talent around him. I need to see a few more years of Bradford before I can make any decisions.
 
This leaves us with the final three to choose from. For some of you, it is really quite simple. We have Michigan’s Charles Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Winner. Ricky Williams, the ’98 winner from Texas and Carson Palmer of USC who won the award in 2002.
 
In narrowing down to the final two, Ricky Williams gets the boot. Despite two real good seasons in three years in New Orleans, Williams bizarre personality wore out its’ welcome. In his next stop at Miami, he led the NFL in rushing his first year there but Williams’ marijuana use caused him to “retire early.” With failed drug test rumors swirling, he retired in 2004, but eventually returned in ’05. He then was suspended for the 2006 season after another drug issue. After a stint in Canada, Williams returned to the Dolphins in 2007 but sat out injured most of the year. He now plays for Baltimore in a back-up role.
 
While Williams has had great flashes of brilliance in his career, the fact that he has missed so much time eliminates him from contention in my opinion. Better than most of the candidates I’ve discussed, Williams still falls short of being the most successful Heisman Winner over the last 15 years.
 
Drum roll please…. It’s closer than you might think, but I have to go with Charles Woodson over Carson Palmer as the most successful past Heisman Winner of the last 15 years. While Woodson has five seasons on Palmer, he has also shown more consistency and has achieved more accolades than Palmer.
 
The easy argument would be to say that Palmer has played for some pretty bad Cincinnati Bengals’ teams and that is true, but he also has had some very productive years in the Queen City as well. Palmer was selected to two Pro Bowls before retiring this year after the Bengals chose not to meet his demands for a trade. My honest feeling is that Palmer was not the same quarterback after his unfortunate knee injury in the 2005 playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, he had a Pro Bowl season in 2006 returning quicker than many thought he would, but the confidence in the pocket was lacking in my opinion.
 
By pure statistics and awards, Charles Woodson should reign supreme here and does. Seven times he has been selected to the Pro Bowl. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998 after being drafted with the fourth overall pick by the Oakland Raiders. He was also named to the AP All-Pro-Team six times and selected as Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. Most recently, he added the title of Super Bowl Champion to his resume despite breaking his collarbone during the Green Bay Packers’ win over the Steelers.
 
Go back to Woodson’s Heisman candidacy for a minute though. Many claim his win was the first to truly come down to media hype and politics as he was the first primarily defensive player to win the award. Add to that the fact he finished ahead of the pre-season favorite, Tennessee’s Peyton Manning for the Heisman, and you have all kinds of controversy. Don’t forget however, that Woodson was an excellent punt returner and occasionally played on offense as well.
 
As I stated in the opening, this is the type of debate that can truly have no end. Arguments can be made for several of the last 15 Heisman Trophy Winners while some were extremely easy to set aside for the argument. What is certain is that winning the Heisman does not ensure anything when it comes to success in the professional ranks. Some would even go so far as to say it has become a curse. For my money, only Charles Woodson has all the qualifications to truly be called “the most successful Heisman Trophy Winner of the past 15 years.” 

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By Marc Uhlmann
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2 years ago
Are you serious? Charles Woodson has been one of, if not the best corner in the league for a long time in this league.... None of the other Heisman Trophy winners over that time period even come close..... although I think Palmer's success was more due to the receivers he had. Although eccentric and sometimes mentally unstable, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, T.J. Houshmanzada, and the late Chris Henry were one of the best receiving corps in the league. His performance took a consistent turn down hill ever since T.J. left and Henry died. I'd beg to differ with you, that Ricky Williams, despite all the issues he had, which was later attributed to an anxiety disorder, was far more successful in his time in the league. He had three injury filled seasons in which he still put up impressive numbers there, then in Miami, was the league rushing leader, and had several more outstanding seasons with the Dolphins. I think #1 in a blowout is Woodson. #2 Ricky, and #3 Palmer, in a much closer battle.
2 years ago
As I said in the article, the topic is very subjective. I don't disagree with you about Woodson being #1, but Williams has been far too inconsistent in my opinion and that's why I gave it to Palmer. I respect the issues Ricky had with both his anxiety disorder and his addiction. Had he been able to play consistently each year, he would have easily had my vote for #2.

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