I've said this before, but it bears repeating: The Heisman Trophy is the most interesting individual award in sports because it is the most purposefully nebulous award in sports. There is no explicit criteria for voters beyond their own geographical and positional and choleric biases; there is no proscription at all, other than the fact that the Heisman should go to the best college football player in the country. This means that the Heisman is driven, more than any other accolade, by the narratives we impose on it. This means that the Heisman often doesn't go to the best college football player in the country, but to the player with the best story arc in the country.
And so it's been sort of heartening to see those arcs shift to make room for the 21st century. It used to be that an underclassman was generally disqualified from consideration merely for being an underclassman; it used to be that a senior quarterback/running back with a solid career resume on a strong team was a near-lock to win the thing in a default year (witness the Ron Dayne/Chris Weinke/Eric Crouch bloc around the turn of the century). But those narratives no longer hold: Only one senior (Troy Smith) has won the Heisman in the past nine seasons, and four of the last six winners have been freshmen or sophmores (another, Cam Newton, was a junior who had essentially never played FBS football before).
It's almost like the storylines have flipped. Heisman voters now seem to appreciate a fresh tale more than a played-out one, which I guess could be seen as yet another piteous reflection of the erosion of our nation's collective attention span, but it's also breathed life into an award that often felt as it were purposefully inclined to the staid choice (why, hello there, Ty Detmer). If this season were taking place in some Lewinsky-addled retroactive '90s alternate universe, AJ McCarron would have locked up the Heisman weeks ago, but in most straw polls, McCarron is barely in the top five, eclipsed instead by three quarterbacks given to the spectacular. Maybe that's unfair to McCarron, who actually is far more spectacular than he's given credit for, but mostly, it's because this is a watershed moment for college quarterbacks.
Which is why I think it's important we get this right. Which is why I think, barring injury or late-season decline, the choice for the Heisman is pretty obvious, and the only thing holding most voters back from seeing the obvious choice is the fact that the same guy won it last year.
I mean, I realize it's not a simple call: I've never seen anyone who looks more like a machine-stamped hybrid of a tailback and a quarterback than Marcus Mariota, and I believe Jameis Winston will probably wind up having the best and longest career of this entire generation of current quarterbacks, and I think McCarron, merely because he fits the rusty convention of the drop-back passer, is weirdly underrated.
But I continue to believe that Johnny Manziel is the most exciting and unpredictable and paradigm-shifting college football player I have ever seen in my lifetime. Two weeks ago, against Auburn, he threw for 454 yards and nearly led a last-minute comeback despite wrenching his throwing shoulder. Last week, while still in obvious pain, Manziel threw four more touchdown passes in a blowout win over Vanderbilt. That the Aggies have yet to score fewer than 41 points in a game, but have lost twice, is entirely a reflection upon their defense; that Manziel has thrown eight interceptions this season is a reflection of his own adventurousness.
For that very reason, there is no quarterback in the universe I would rather watch right now than Manziel. It's obvious he's a far better player than he was last season, less given to flee with his feet, more observant, more poised. Every time he steps into a seam in the pocket, ball outstretched at his side, body flopping from side to side like a skittering knucklebone, I expect something implausible will occur. When he hurt his shoulder against Auburn, a friend texted and asked what would happen if Manziel started throwing left-handed, and it didn't seem as farfetched as it should have. When he didn't finish that game with a spectacular scramble and game-winning touchdown pass, but with a sack, it felt like a letdown, even though he ended the day with a passer rating of 198.2.
And, of course, this is the problem with Johnny Football in 2013: To certain people, his narrative feels played out. He had a chance to beat Alabama, and he didn't. He had a chance to improve upon his team's performance last season, and he hasn't. He was a tabloid story, and now he isn't. He does not fit any of the traditional Heisman narratives, or any of the new ones: He is not a senior quarterback on an undefeated team, and he is not a newcomer on a team that has surpassed expectations. He is a guy who emerged from out of nowhere, played great, got too much attention, didn't always handle it gracefully, and now is playing even greater. He has created an entirely new storyline, and the easy thing for the voters to do now is forget him. Which would be a mistake, because few college careers have been less forgettable than Johnny Football's, and because a lot of Heisman narratives look terrible over time, but you can never go wrong with casting a vote for transcendence.