Imagine that you are a voter for a major film prize. The award is supposed to go to the best actor in the country in that particular year, and yet there is a consensus feeling among the voters that the award should not merely reflect artistic excellence, but should also take into account box-office success. There are several candidates, but your choice is down to two men: The first (who won the award last year) is a loose cannon, a Russell Crowe-type who delivered a self-conscious bravura performance in a Charlie Kaufman-scripted film about a college student who develops a friendship with a Jewish rap star that may or may not be real. The second actor is new on the scene, and delivered a near-flawless performance in a conventional star-laden biopic about a driven young man that indicates -- if he can overcome his own legal troubles -- he may someday become the greatest actor of his generation.
The first actor's performance was braver and riskier and occurred under more difficult circumstances than even last year's performance did. However, the first actor's film did not live up to studio expectations, and the second actor's film was the highest-grossing movie of the year.
Is the bottom line enough of a factor to make you change your vote?
I realize that we are not speaking of movies here, or any other equivalent form of art. I realize that this is sports, and so the bottom line will always be a standard for judgment of an artist's accomplishments, because the bottom line is at the forefront of everything in sports. This is why Jameis Winston will win the Heisman Trophy in a landslide on Saturday night in New York City. If Florida State had lost to Clemson, Jameis Winston would be known as a very good quarterback who nearly wound up in prison.*. But Florida State beat Clemson by five touchdowns, and Florida State pummeled everyone else on its schedule, and Florida State is the only undefeated FBS team in the country.
Jameis Winston is not necessarily the best player in the country (at least, not yet), but he is unquestionably the best player on the best team.
Therefore, Jameis Winston will win the Heisman.
*Here is the obligatory asterisk that will accompany Winston's name for an indefinite amount of time. As one law professor told Slate's Emily Bazelon, "These are really disturbing and difficult cases for the criminal justice system." I generally don't believe moral clauses should factor into artistic evaluations, but I also understand that the issue of rape is several million times more consequential than anything to do with Heisman Trophy voting, and so I'm going strictly by the parameters of football here.
Johnny Manziel, 2012: 68 percent of passes completed in 434 attempts (13 games), 3,706 passing yards, 5,116 total yards, 47 total touchdowns, nine interceptions, 22 sacks, one 400-yard passing game, 155.3 rating.
Johnny Manziel, 2013: 69.1 percent of passes completed in 391 attempts (12 games), 3,732 passing yards, 4,418 total yards, 41 total touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 19 sacks, four 400-yard passing games, 170.4 rating.
Jameis Winston, 2013: 67.9 percent of passes completed in 349 attempts (13 games), 3,820 yards, 4,013 total yards, 42 total touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 23 sacks, one 400-yard passing game, 190.1 rating.
Texas A&M BCS computer strength of schedule average, 2013: 23
Florida State BCS computer strength of schedule average, 2013: 60.2
Texas A&M scoring defense rank, 2013: 88
Florida State scoring defense rank, 2013: 1
In 1956, Oklahoma and Tennessee both went undefeated in the regular season. The Sooners won the national championship, led by halfback Tommy McDonald, and the Volunteers finished second, led by halfback Johnny Majors.
Majors finished second in the Heisman voting. McDonald, splitting votes with his teammate (and fourth-place finisher) Jerry Tubbs, wound up third. The winner was Notre Dame's Paul Hornung, whose team was not ranked in the top 25 that year, because Notre Dame finished 2-8.
I know this was Notre Dame in the 1950s, and I know mid-20th century Notre Dame is Exhibit A for media-bias conspiracy theorists, but I can think of no feasible scenario where a player on a two-win Notre Dame team -- or any other team -- would win the Heisman Trophy today. If a player on a two-win team ran for 2,400 yards and also made 100 tackles at linebacker (and also kicked three 40-yard field goals), he would finish no better than second.
For a good stretch in the 1980s, the Heisman seemed to go to the player who best captured the national imagination. Doug Flutie's Boston College teams were never elite, but he won the trophy because he seemed to defy his own body's limitations. Bo Jackson received protest votes at the highest levels during his senior season, but he won the trophy because he was the most explosive athlete of his generation, even though Auburn finished 8-4. Barry Sanders' Oklahoma State team went 10-2, but that was good enough, because Barry Sanders was Barry Sanders. Andre Ware played for a 9-2 Houston team, but his statistics were mind-bending.
At some point in the 1990s, the award shifted. At some point, the default thinking became that the award should be bestowed upon the best player (usually the best quarterback) on the best team. The Heisman became the equivalent of the NFL's MVP award. Like much of college football, it essentially became professionalized.
The Johnny Manziel of 2012 (like the Robert Griffin III of 2011) managed to defy that trend. He did so, in part, because he was a fresh face, and because he (like Griffin) revived a moribund program almost singlehandedly. He did so because his team was good enough, because he managed to confound the best team in the country, and because he was, without doubt, the most purely exciting quarterback of his generation.
The Johnny Manziel of 2013 was anything but fresh. By the time he played Alabama in September, it felt as if he had already washed through the TMZ news cycle. It felt as if he were as tired of himself as we were of him. And yet he was still a better football player than in 2012. In his two pre-November losses (to Auburn and Alabama, maybe the best two teams in the country), he threw for 918 yards and nine touchdowns. He hurt his shoulder against Auburn, and then he played one poor game against LSU and one average game against Missouri, and those happened to be his final two games of the regular season. He is guilty of poor timing, and timing now seems to have as much to do with winning the Heisman Trophy as it does with, say, Oscar voting.
Because of that timing, Manziel has accomplished something that would have seemed unfathomable back in September: He is now underrated.
Maybe you believe that Jameis Winston should win the Heisman Trophy. Speaking strictly in football terms (see * above), it's not a terrible decision -- Jameis Winston can be very exciting, too. Maybe you believe that awards should reflect the accomplishment of one's team. (Or maybe you believe that Forrest Gump was three times as good as Pulp Fiction.) All of this is subjective, just as culture is subjective, and from a subjective standpoint, I enjoyed Johnny Manziel's 2013 performance more than I enjoyed Jameis Winston's 2013 performance. Hell, I enjoyed it more than any performance by any college football quarterback I have ever watched, even if the ending fizzled. It was messy, and it was pretentious, and it was overly ambitious, and it was still the most imaginative artistic display I have ever witnessed on a football field.