In the last installment of Top 10 Thursdays, we ranked the top 10 NFL players who were Heisman Trophy winners. This week, we decided to flip it, and list the top 10 NFL disappointments who were Heisman Trophy winners.
As with most of these things, some parameters needed to be established. We felt that it wouldn’t be a fair analysis if we considered everyone all the way back to the first award presentation in 1935. In those early years, the NFL was still struggling to establish itself. In reality, college football was more popular than pro football in the 1930s. And both of those took a backseat to baseball in terms of fan interest.
Because of that, pro football salaries were generally not that enticing. Often you would find that some of the best college players, including many of those early Heisman Trophy winners, opted for a livelihood in another profession, or if they started an NFL career, they quickly found that it was best to move on to something that provided a better future for them. In addition, military service commitments, especially during WW II, interrupted or derailed many NFL careers.
Indeed, that theme continued, albeit to a lesser extent, into the 1950s. For example, the 1951 Heisman winner, Dick Kazmaier, a running back out of Princeton, was drafted by the Bears but decided not to sign with them. Instead, he chose to attend Harvard business school. And the 1958 winner, running back Pete Dawkins from Army, wasn’t even drafted by an NFL team because his intent was to go on and make the Army his career – one that turned out to be a very distinguished career.
But things would soon change. The 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, prompted an explosion in popularity of the sport. The exciting comeback win by the Colts in overtime was viewed by an estimated 45 million people nationwide – and they got hooked.
The creation of another league, the eventual merger of that league with the NFL, and very lucrative network TV contracts soon followed. And of course, player salaries exploded to the point where other opportunities just weren’t going to compete with a possible NFL career (SEE EXCEPTION BELOW).
So, with all that in mind, we decided that the pool of candidates who should be considered for this topic should be limited to those who won the Trophy from 1960 on. We felt that would make this a reasonable “apples to apples” comparison. Additionally, we would like to note that in compiling this list, we didn’t just strictly compare each player’s NFL statistics. We also considered the hype and the expectations they brought with them to the NFL.
So, without further ado … aaah wait! That exception! Many would suggest that 1993 Heisman winner, Charlie Ward, should be on this list. And that is understandable. But since he chose to pursue a career in the NBA, was not drafted by an NFL team and had no intent to give the NFL a try, we summarily dismissed him from consideration here. But, rest assured, had he given the NFL a shot, we feel quite confident that he would have ended up somewhere on this list! Let’s just call it a DIS–Honorable Mention!!
Crouch, the 2001 Heisman winner, had an outstanding career at Nebraska. He was a triple option quarterback who recorded nearly 8,000 total yards in his four years with the Cornhuskers.
However, NFL scouts considered his small size (under 6 feet – under 195 pounds) and the lack of arm strength to be liabilities and therefore he was not projected as an NFL quarterback. However, because of his outstanding athleticism, he was viewed as a viable wide receiver prospect.
In the 2002 draft, the Rams selected Crouch as a wide receiver in the 3rd round. Crouch never totally embraced the idea that he could not be a quarterback in the NFL. Nonetheless, he made the effort to transition to the new position in the off-season and during training camp. However, after suffering a significant injury in the first preseason game of that rookie year, the discouraged Crouch left the team on his own volition. Crouch subsequently tried to catch on with the Packers and the Chiefs as a defensive back but that experiment failed, and he never ended up playing in the NFL.
Given the fact that he came to the NFL attempting a position change and the fact that the attempt was short-lived, some may the fairness of including Crouch on this list. But, by virtue of his 3rd round selection as a wide receiver, there clearly was a reasonable expectation that he could make it in the NFL at that position.
Certainly, there have been numerous examples through the years where athletic, college quarterbacks have made very successful transitions to the NFL wide receiver position. However, Crouch’s reluctance to fully go along with the idea of making such a switch combined with his willingness to call it quits so quickly, was certainly a disappointment to the Rams and their fans.
Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 after helping to lead the Florida Gators to the national championship that year. Despite the very impressive passing statistics that Wuerffel put up during his four years at Florida, he wasn’t drafted until the 4th round of the 1997 draft, when the Saints took him with the 99th overall pick.
In his three seasons with the Saints, Wuerffel only started six games and never gave any real notice that he would be their long term answer at quarterback. He bounced around the next two years with the Packers and the Bears, only getting an opportunity to do kneel downs in one game with Green Bay. He finished up his NFL career with Washington in 2002, playing for his college coach, Steve Spurrier. While he saw some playing time with the Redskins, the results were pretty unremarkable.
During his six years in the NFL, Wuerffel appeared in a total of 25 games, 10 of which were in a starting role. He completed a total of 184 passes on 350 attempts and threw for a total of 2,123 yards. He had 12 touchdown passes in his career to go along with 22 interceptions.
Although Wuerffel was just a mid-round pick, the success he had at Florida suggested that there was a good possibility that he could enjoy, at a minimum, a solid and productive NFL career. It did not play out that way, and as a result, he comes in at #9 on our list.
Smith won the 2006 Heisman with the second-highest margin of voting points in the history of the award. During that senior season, Smith set an Ohio State record for touchdown passes (30) and he led the Buckeyes to the BCS National Championship game.
After losing the National Championship game badly to Florida and also because of concern about his relatively small size, Smith’s draft stock began to drop. As the 5th round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2007 draft, he was the eighth quarterback taken that year.
Smith saw very limited action his rookie year until he got to start the last two games of Baltimore’s very dismal season. In the final game, he led the Ravens to a victory over the Steelers and gave a slight hint that he could compete for the starting job in the future. But, when Joe Flacco arrived on the scene in 2008 and helped lead the Ravens to the playoffs that year, Smith’s hopes for a future with the Ravens were pretty much dashed.
In 2010 Smith moved on to the 49ers. He had some pretty up and down performances in six starts with San Francisco that year. As it turned out, that was the last regular-season action he would see in an NFL uniform.
All told, in his four NFL seasons, Smith appeared in 20 games, eight of which were starts. In his career, he had 121 completions on 234 attempts, and threw for a total of 1,734 yards, eight touchdown passes and five interceptions. Even though he was a mid-round selection, it would not have been unreasonable for fans to expect better numbers than that from someone who had such a successful college career and who was a runaway Heisman Trophy winner.
Johnny Rodgers certainly had a lot of hype following him after winning the 1972 Heisman Trophy award during his senior year at Nebraska. As a running back, wide receiver, and return specialist, Rogers set an NCAA all-purpose yardage record during his three seasons with the Cornhuskers. He returned seven punts and one kickoff for touchdowns during his college career.
Expectations were high for him to bring that exciting level of play to the NFL. No one was more excited for that to happen than San Diego Chargers fans after the Chargers made Rodgers their 1st round pick in the 1973 draft.
But, Rodgers got a very lucrative contract offer from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, so he decided to take his game north of the border. Rodgers became an instant superstar in the CFL, and he ended up playing four years with Montreal.
In 1977, at what seemed to be the height of his career, Rodgers decided to sign with the Chargers. His time in San Diego was marred by injuries however. Part way through his second season with the Chargers, his career was ended by a knee injury.
When he was healthy enough to be on the field, the Chargers used Rodgers as a wide receiver and a kick returner. For his career, he had 17 receptions for 234 yards and no touchdowns. He did not have any touchdowns on returns and overall his return numbers were just mediocre.
As a result, the four-year delay in getting Rodgers into a Chargers uniform was not worth the wait. So in effect, you could say that Rodgers disappointed the Chargers fans on two separate occasions.
Ware, out of the University of Houston, won the Heisman Trophy in 1989. Playing in a run and shoot offense, Ware put up some prolific passing numbers with the Cougars that year.
In the 1990 draft, the Detroit Lions selected Ware in the 1st round – #7 overall. Expectations were high that Ware would help turn around a franchise that had just endured its sixth straight losing season.
During Ware’s four seasons with the Lions, the team made two playoff appearances. The problem was however, those teams were led by Rodney Peete and Eric Kramer. Indeed, during his four years with the Lions, Ware served mostly as the third string quarterback behind those two guys.
In his career, Ware only started six games and only appeared in a total of 14 games. His final career numbers show that Ware completed 83 passes on 161 attempts for 1,112 yards. He threw five touchdown passes and he was intercepted eight times
Clearly, Ware’s game did not transition well to the NFL. His inability to produce on the field combined with the lofty expectations he brought with him to the NFL, certainly make Ware a worthy candidate at the #6 spot on this list.
Sullivan was a three-year starter at Auburn University. During his senior season in 1971, Sullivan threw for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. That year, he won the Heisman Trophy by just edging out Ed Marinaro, the running back out of Cornell.
Sullivan was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1972 draft by the Atlanta Falcons. At just 6 feet in height and weighing less than 200 pounds, Sullivan’s size was a concern going into the NFL. And it appears that concern was well-founded.
In his four year career with the Falcons, Sullivan only started five games, all of which were losses. In those four years, he completed a total of 93 passes in 220 attempts (42.3%). He threw for a total of 1,155 yards and five touchdowns to go along with 16 interceptions.
Even though he was not an overwhelming Heisman winner, the fact that he was the 40th player taken overall in the 1972 draft suggests that there was the belief that Sullivan could have a successful career at the next level. As evidenced by his far from stellar numbers, Sullivan did not earn such recognition and instead made his way onto this list at the #5 spot.
At first blush, looking at Torretta’s NFL track record, you would think that this 1992 Heisman winner out of the University of Miami would be higher on this list. And, in truth, many people who compile a list like this certainly do have Torretta ranked higher.
Torretta had a sensational career with the Hurricanes. He led them to a co-national championship his junior year. In his Heisman Trophy-winning senior season, he led Miami to what amounted to a national championship game against Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl. The Hurricanes suffered a 34-13 thumping by Alabama in that game.
Most people believe that it was Torretta’s dismal performance in that losing effort against the Crimson Tide that caused his draft stock to crash and burn. Whatever the reason, it was clear that NFL teams did not believe there was a high likelihood of Torretta succeeding in the NFL, as evidenced by his 7th round selection by the Vikings in the 1993 draft.
The results certainly validated that. Torretta saw no action his rookie year with the Vikings. The next season he moved on to the Lions and then bounced to the 49ers and the Seahawks, before calling it a career in 1997 after a one-week stint with the Colts.
During his five-year journey through the NFL, Torretta only saw the playing field once. That appearance came in the final game of the Seahawks 1996 season, a win over the Oakland Raiders. Torretta did manage to throw a 32 yard touchdown pass in that game. His game/career stats were five completions on 16 attempts for 41 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception.
Certainly, Torretta’s body of work screams, “disappointment”, especially coming from a Heisman Trophy winner who had such a successful college career. But, giving a fair amount of weight to the low expectations for Torretta coming into the NFL, we could not bring ourselves to rank him much higher on this list.
Huarte, the 1964 Heisman winner out of Notre Dame, is an interesting story. He was drafted in the 6th round of the 1965 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. In the AFL draft that year he was taken in the 2nd round by the New York Jets
The interesting part is that the Jets’ 1st round pick in 1965 was Joe Namath. Surprisingly, Huarte chose to sign with the Jets instead of the Eagles. The fact that he was offered a $200,000 salary, which was big money back then, surely helped to persuade him to go to New York. While it was certainly a coup for the AFL to sign the high profile Namath and the Heisman Trophy winner, it didn’t turn out to be such a good thing for Huarte.
Huarte apparently believed that he had a shot at beating out the gimpy-kneed Namath and holdover Mike Taliaferro for the starting job with the Jets. That didn’t happen. Huarte ended up as the 3rd string quarterback that year and he never saw any action with the Jets.
In 1966, Huarte was traded to the Patriots. He spent two years with the Patriots and then bounced around the next four years with the Eagles, Chiefs and Bears. Huarte always served as a backup quarterback – getting only one start in his career. He actually only appeared in a total of 24 games. For his career, Huarte completed 19 passes in 48 attempts for 230 yards. He threw one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
Given his relatively high profile as a Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner and the fanfare that accompanied his move to the next level, it was anticipated that Huarte would enjoy great success as a pro. Because he never came anywhere close to accomplishing that, Huarte’s name will always be included in any discussion about the top Heisman busts.
Baker, out of Oregon State, won the Heisman Trophy in 1962, his senior season. That year he threw for over 1,700 yards and ran for over 500 yards. He was an outstanding scholar/athlete who also played basketball for the Beavers. In fact, he helped lead them to the NCAA Final Four in 1963.
Baker was selected as the 1st overall pick of the 1963 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. Staying on the West Coast and bringing with him the excitement that normally accompanies a Heisman winner, Baker and the Rams had high hopes for the move to the pro ranks.
But Baker was a left-handed, dual-threat quarterback coming to a league where right-handed, pocket passing quarterbacks were the norm. In some ways, Baker was like a fish out of water – a quarterback who was perhaps three or four decades ahead of his time.
Baker was given the starting assignment for the Rams season opener his rookie season. It was a disaster, with Baker throwing three interceptions in a loss to Detroit. It turned out that it would be Baker’s last start in his three-year NFL career. Baker saw little action the rest of that 1963 season and the following year the Rams made an ill-fated attempt at converting Baker to the running back position.
For his career, Baker appeared in a total of 24 games. He completed 12 passes in 21 attempts for 154 yards. He didn’t throw any touchdown passes but he did throw four interceptions. And he did rush for 210 yards on 56 attempts.
Given how successful Baker’s college career was and the fact that he was a #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, his failure to produce on the field surely results in Baker being considered a “bust”. Indeed, many people point to Baker as being the biggest Heisman bust of all time.
But by most accounts, the Rams organization was pretty dysfunctional at the time Baker arrived on the scene. Over the years, some people have suggested that, had Baker gone to a more stable organization and then properly developed, he could have had a fairly successful career as an NFL quarterback.
One person taking that position was Baker’s college coach, Tommy Prothro, who eventually moved on from Oregon State to have a very successful head coaching stint with the UCLA Bruins. Ironically, Prothro became the head coach of the Rams for a couple of seasons in the early 1970’s, well after Baker had retired. We’ll give Baker the benefit of the doubt on that and bring him in at the #2 spot on our list.
And now … the #1 Heisman Trophy winning disappointment …
Beban, known as “The Great One” during his career at UCLA, won the Heisman Trophy in 1967, just edging out O.J. Simpson for that honor. He had an outstanding career as a three-year starter at UCLA, leading the NCAA all three years in passing yardage. In his Heisman winning senior season, he led the NCAA in seven different passing categories.
Beban is probably best remembered for the part he played in the 1967 UCLA vs. USC game, recognized as one of the greatest college games of all time. The game, pitting the Beban-led Bruins against the Trojans led by Simpson, their junior running back, was essentially for the national championship that year.
Despite playing in that game with torn rib cartilage, Beban passed for over 300 yards and two touchdowns. But he was upstaged by Simpson, who had a 64 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, a score that ended up being the game-winner in a 21 – 20 USC victory.
In spite of the impressive statistics put up by Beban in 1967, he wasn’t drafted until the 2ndround of the 1968 draft – going to the Washington Redskins as the 30th overall pick. It was a somewhat curious pick by the Redskins in that veteran Sonny Jurgensen was well entrenched as the starter in Washington. Beban only had three brief appearances in his rookie season, and threw just one pass – an incompletion.
In Beban’s second season, Vince Lombardi took over as the head coach of the Redskins. Playing behind a future Hall of Famer, Beban never saw the field that year. And while there was talk of converting him to running back, that experiment just never materialized.
Beban retired prior to the start of the 1970 season, having thrown only one NFL pass. And thus a career that seemed to have so much promise when Beban came out of college, ended before it really ever got started.
Even though Beban was “just” a second round draft choice, there was every reason to believe that he would have a very successful NFL career, based on what he accomplished in college. It is not entirely clear why Beban called it quits after just two years. Perhaps the desire just wasn’t there or perhaps he recognized that he didn’t have the ability to quarterback in the NFL.
Whatever the reason for his departure from the game, Beban ended up barely being a blip on the NFL radar screen. And that is why he takes top honors on our list of Heisman-winning NFL disappointments!