Tuesday, August 12, 2008

College Football News Archives: Old Monday Morning Quarterback Columns, First Installment

We now begin a stretch where we'll post old editions of the MMQ, one of my two feature-length in-season columns for CFN. Numerous readers have lamented the inability to see archived editions of the MMQ and its companion column, The Weekly Affirmation, and this blog was designed--in many ways--to provide access to just such material. Over the next few weeks, you'll get to see all the columns in the vault, dating back to the very end of the 2005 regular season. -MZ

Monday Morning Quarterback, December 5, 2005

Heisman Trophy Edition: The Men and their Teams

I am a repentant parent today. I also feel like the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.

This past week was a difficult week, because the aftermath of Vince Young's poor emotional response to a tough day at Texas A&M (on Nov. 25) presented this columnist with a thorny set of issues:

1) Should poor on-field performance and poor sideline behavior be separated, or should both elements be taken into account as a combined package? More specifically, should Young receive extra criticism for that bad emotional game against A&M, or should his "one bad day at the office" include both on- and off-field dimensions of his afternoon against the Aggies? If you value the former answers, as I did in the 48 hours after the 40-29 Texas win, you would view Vince Young to be the second most outstanding player in America. But if you think the latter answers are more appropriate, VY deserves to remain in the conversation with Reggie Bush.

2) Because Bush had--in the mind of collective media opinion--taken command of the Heisman race by the time VY stepped onto Kyle Field, should Young be punished for trying to deal with political and emotional elements that were beyond his control and, moreover, not entirely legitimate or justified? Should VY be discounted for the Heisman only because he was stepping into an environment where Bush was, suddenly and abruptly, catapulted to the head of the Heisman pecking order on the strength of one great game against Fresno State?

3) When the focus on the Heisman Trophy becomes particularly intense--in the final few games of the season--should the nature of the players' performances be valued more than their performances in September and October? Some would say that a player's performance under pressure should dictate to the selection of the Heisman winner, while others would cite season-long consistency as the true benchmark for the award.

These and other very complex, difficult questions coursed through my synaptic nerves in the days following a column last Monday in which I sharply criticized Young for one game, one bad day at the office. I was disappointed in Young's on-field play, but I was even more critical of what was poor emotional leadership. It was so shocking to see this superb team leader suddenly thrown into an alternate mental universe, and as a result, I felt it important to focus on VY's lack of leadership against Texas A&M. A bad on-field performance can always be accepted, but a bad off-field performance isn't as easy to digest. With this in mind, I felt like a disappointed parent, a person who admires a young man so much that my criticism--when finally leveled--was presented with what I felt at the time to be a necessarily extra bit of force and bluntness. It's said that we as human beings get particularly angry only at those we care about, and to an extent, this was my reaction to VY's out-of-body experience at Kyle Field. I so greatly respected Vince Young the person up until the A&M game that, when he had his bad hair day, I had a hard time accepting his fall from grace.

But after a week of considered thought and reflection, I'm a repentant parent.

Yes, VY still did get caught up in the Heisman chase--the substance of my analysis was proven to be correct, and I stand by it: Young did indeed pout against A&M. But in the same breath, it must be stated that my emphasis on the significance of VY's emotions was clearly and undeniably exaggerated. If a guy is allowed "one bad day at the office" (as mentioned above), that bad day needs to include emotions in the larger, overall package. On that one specific point, my analysis from Nov. 28's Weekly Affirmation was flawed, and it affects the way this Heisman Trophy race--as a matter of football merits, not politics or media buzz--should be determined.

The John Heisman Memorial Trophy is a prize shrouded in politics, media bias issues, hype, statistics, and the material successes of the teams bearing the foremost college football players in the land (or should we say, the foremost offensive skill position players in the land?). To truly ascertain the winner of this award--not as a matter of political analysis, but on the raw football merits--one has to take a very detached view which accounts for a bigger picture that can transcend statistics. And when one does this, one must concede that the horse race between Reggie Bush and Vince Young is, as they said on election night in 2000, "too close to call."

In the process of assessing the seasons Bush and Young have put together, it’s very hard to determine clear points of separation between the two. Bush returns kicks and catches passes but doesn’t throw (that’s Young’s job). Bush is the all-around stud, Young the dynamo who plays at football’s most demanding position--quarterback. Bush and Young both account for a lot of yards and points. They have both made signature plays in their teams’ biggest games: Young making the big-time touchdown pass to Limas Sweed against Ohio State, Bush popping off big runs against Notre Dame and Fresno State. USC has played a much tougher schedule, but Texas has been much more consistent in demolishing its opposition. Bush has disappeared in some games, while Young--as the ringleader and field general for Texas’ dazzlingly athletic offense--has been more consistent on a weekly basis. Bush, at his best, is unquestionably the more spectacular and overwhelming football force, but he is also a running back who doesn’t bear the mental burden that teammate Matt Leinart must shoulder every Saturday. Bush is more awesome than Young, but Young has many more responsibilities to deal with as the nerve center of the entire Texas offense. Reggie Bush finishes some plays for USC; Vince Young initiates every play for Texas. Bush has an awesome offensive line to create gaping holes for him; Young often has to make something out of nothing when a play breaks down.

Another thing that makes this Heisman race--like many competitions in the award’s history--so difficult to call (again, on the merits, and not as a matter of politics; Reggie Bush will decisively win the award because of the workings of the "media industrial complex" that hurts college football the way the military industrial complex hurt America after Dwight Eisenhower's warnings went unheeded by succeeding presidents) is that there is no definitive set of criteria for establishing what it truly means to be the most "outstanding" college football player. Is it an MVP award? Is it a raw statistical award? Given some of the outrageous votes in recent Heisman history, is this an award for the (white-skinned?) quarterback of the BCS No. 1 team entering the BCS title game? Is this an award for the best senior quarterback of a high-profile program? Is this an award for the best player on an undefeated team? Is this an award for which sophomores can’t be considered? Is this an award for which defensive players can’t be considered? Is this an award for which wide receivers must take third priority behind running backs or quarterbacks?

Whoops… we’re getting into the political analysis of the Heisman. Let’s steer it back to football (but keep in mind the politics of the award all the while).

The problem with college football discussions these days is that there’s no objective set of criteria on which all football observers can unanimously agree. Everyone will have a different take or point of emphasis.

In the race between Reggie Bush and Vince Young, there are two very clear schools of thought. The difficulty lies in the attempt to value one school above the other.

The school of thought supporting a Bush victory (and goodness knows, this decade has seen a lot of controversial Bush victories in close elections; this would be another one of them) is the Charles Woodson school. Woodson--deservedly, in my mind--won the 1997 Heisman because, in a number of big games, he made all of Michigan’s biggest plays. Whether it was a clutch kick return or interception, Woodson was there to define, affect and shape Michigan’s season-making victories in an authoritative way. He wouldn’t get 25-30 touches of the ball, but Woodson put a definitive stamp on every big Michigan win. He wasn’t a monstrous force in all eleven games--as has been the case with Bush this year for USC--but whenever his team needed him, Woodson stepped up in a big way, making plays that were as aesthetically pleasing and athletically spectacular as they were significant. Woodson made jawdropping plays that simultaneously carried his team to the college football mountaintop. That’s a mark of unmistakable football greatness. Peyton Manning didn’t deserve the ’97 Heisman because he didn’t have Woodson’s record of big-game excellence. Manning wasn’t able to beat longtime nemesis Florida, and even when his Vols reached the 1997 SEC Championship Game--only because of subsequent Gator stumbles--Tennessee littered the Georgia Dome with mistakes against Auburn before escaping with a sloppy 30-29 win.

From that last point, one can see why Vince Young has a strong case to overtake Reggie Bush’s somewhat Woodson-like portfolio. In Young’s biggest games, the quarterback of another UT school wearing orange--this one in Austin and not Knoxville--did manage to deliver the big plays needed to get his team to win. Young made the money throw to Sweed in Columbus. He catapulted his team past Oklahoma, even though the Sooners were down this year. He rallied his team from 19 down at Oklahoma State. Young’s position relative to Bush is stronger than Manning’s position relative to Woodson in 1997--not as a matter of the politics of the award, but as an extension of raw football merit.

But let’s take a closer look at Young, and the school of thought that bolsters his Heisman candidacy: the Danny Wuerffel school. Wuerffel was a quarterback who, at the time of his 1996 award, was already recognized as the spiritual leader of the Florida team that reached the bowl alliance title game that season. Wuerffel outpolled a raw production stud in Iowa State’s Troy Davis, and a big intangibles guy in Arizona State’s Jake Plummer, because the Florida signal-caller had the most balanced portfolio among the three leading candidates for the trophy that year. Davis was a stats guy, Plummer the leader who made clutch plays yet lacked glowing numbers. Wuerffel, however, provided a great mix of both tangible and intangible elements, racking up numbers all while holding his team together against formidable opposition. Whereas Davis and Plummer had one leg to stand on, Wuerffel had two. It’s this kind of profile that Vince Young brings to the table. By virtue of being a quarterback, Young is both a leader and a producer, someone who has inspired his teammates while also playing some pretty impressive football. And unlike a guy such as Plummer--who made key plays for that ’96 Arizona State team but who didn’t dazzle in the really big games (ASU’s defense, not Plummer, won a season-defining game against Nebraska that season)--Young has been dynamic in the biggest moments of his team’s biggest games.

So in the end, you have a fundamental choice to make when comparing Reggie Bush and Vince Young: do you choose the devastating impact and supreme athleticism of Bush in a handful of games where he has cranked out eye-popping numbers, or do you value the season-long leadership of Young, which has been accompanied by a less flashy but more consistent kind of production? Do you value Bush’s three impossible-to-top nuclear outbursts (Arizona State, Notre Dame, Fresno State) that were as clutch as they were spectacular, or do you value Young’s season of solidity, accented by a big pass in Columbus, a cathartic conquering of Oklahoma, and a comeback in Stillwater?

It’s not an easy choice. Where to find a tipping point or something special that can make a difference in this contest?

For me, I lean ever so slightly to the Danny Wuerffel school over the Charles Woodson school--not because of this year, but because of the bigger picture. The Heisman is about making smart football assessments of value and production, but if comparisons in those areas don't reveal a discernible point of separation, one has to look at other factors. One of them is history.

Those who do vote for a Heisman winner (and no, I don’t have a Heisman vote) are entrusted with selecting a person who deserves to go down in the annals of college football history as one of the sport’s all-time greats. Recognizing such greatness demands an ability to have perspective beyond numbers (which would favor Bush), and even beyond game-day impact (which would favor Young).

With this in mind, one needs to recall--admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight--how special Danny Wuerffel is in Florida football history and the history of college football in general. Never before or after Wuerffel has the Gator program experienced the same level of success. Wuerffel was the one man who came along at the right time under the right coach to win four SEC titles (some in tandem with Terry Dean, but nevertheless built partly on his efforts). He was that special kind of person whom no one could have seen dominating his sport at the beginning, and whom no one could have possibly hoped to duplicate when his career was done. I sense this is and will be the case with Vince Young at Texas.

Some fine quarterbacks have played in Austin in recent years, but it’s been Vince Young--with both his leadership and his athletic ability--who has rather singlehandedly taken the Longhorn program to the next level. He has masked Mack Brown’s coaching deficiencies and changed the culture of Longhorn football in ways that are impossible to fully express or appreciate. When Young leaves--after the 2006 season, not this year--he is likely to leave as great a shadow over the Texas program as the one Wuerffel left in Gainesville.

Now, one could say the same thing for Bush, with some justification. On the basis of pure talent, Bush is more of a "one-of-a-kind" specimen than Young. But Young is that rare figure who is both a unique athletic force and a singular spiritual leader. Matt Leinart has been the spiritual leader in Troy, Bush the highlight maker who has no peer in his sport. Vince Young, though, has a lot of the qualities possessed by both of USC’s Heisman candidates, the runner who could win the award and the quarterback who, after winning last year’s trophy, seems guaranteed to finish third--no higher or lower--in the balloting this season.

So it’s Vince Young by an eyelash… and a nod to history. Having made this personal verdict, I feel like the aforementioned Paul Wellstone.

The late senator from Minnesota was the kind of guy whose convictions were unshakable, and whose commitment to his principles was total in its ferocity, consistency and courage. Wellstone was a man whose lasting focus was on justice, no matter how fully the rest of society looked the other way. If there was anyone in the United States Senate who was most likely to be the one dissenting vote in a 99-1 tally on the floor of the upper chamber of Congress, Wellstone was that man. Living in the wilderness didn't stop Paul Wellstone from airing his views about "the way things ought to be."

Neither will I allow the same thing to happen with the 2005 Heisman Trophy.

As a matter of predictive analysis (who will win the award as a matter of reading the tea leaves and the prevailing winds of popular opinion and evolving politics), Bush will take the award. There's little question about it. But as a matter of recommendation-based analysis (which deals with the more honest and substantive question, "Who SHOULD WIN the award?"), I will stand up and say, with the conviction of Paul Wellstone, that Vince Young should be the Heisman winner for this season. The repentant parent in me agrees with that verdict.

With all this having been said, though, a few important postscripts are in order: by saying that Vince Young is the man propping up the Texas program, I’m also making the statement that USC--bolstered by both Bush’s huge plays and Leinart’s leadership (and a stud O-line)--is the more balanced and complete team that stands to win the Rose Bowl. I think it's worth noting that if you favor USC or Texas in the Rose Bowl, your Heisman vote--if not for Jerome Harrison or another player who's made something out of (little to) nothing in 2005--should go to the player on the other team. Notice that I'm not using the word "must," which makes such a decision binding or mandatory; I'm only saying "should." If you can give me a real good counter-argument to this particular line of reasoning, I'm all ears.

By voting for Vince Young, I’m making the statement that his level of excellence has been that important to Texas’ on-field successes. Had I chosen to vote for Bush, I’d ironically be saying that I view Texas as a team complete enough to have gone undefeated this year without the full measure of Young’s contributions.

See, even after the decision has been made in this or any other nail-biting Heisman Trophy vote, the controversies still linger. This is an impossible choice, but with an eye (of Texas) toward the past, it’s Vince Young by the margin of a Bevo nose, a repentant parent's heart, and the courage of a deeply-missed senator who cast many votes in the face of certain defeat and overwhelming numerical opposition.

No comments:

Post a Comment