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Original Issue


The cardboard envelope I had been expecting arrived at my house in mid-November, priority mail, from the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. Inside was a single sheet of paper with the words HEISMAN TROPHY TRUST in gold lettering across the top, and a picture of the famous stiff-armed statuette in the upper left corner. "We are truly grateful for your support in selecting the most outstanding college football player in the United States for 2011," the letter read. Lower down there was an online password to use in order to cast my official Heisman ballot.

I slipped the letter back into the envelope and placed it in a safe location, which I cannot reveal to you for obvious security reasons. Should the confidential information fall into the hands of hackers, we could be in danger of the Heisman going to a long-snapper from MIT. But I can tell you this: I am one of the 926 people—870 media members and 56 former winners—who will elect this year's recipient. That means I bear roughly one tenth of 1% of the responsibility for deciding who will be called to the podium in New York City when the results are announced this Saturday. So, yeah, I'm kind of a big deal.

And it's a duty I take seriously. I watch games, analyze statistics and talk to coaches and other media members to help me form an educated opinion. Still, in the back of my mind, and undoubtedly in the minds of other voters, is the knowledge that I am doing this research in order to vote on an award that cannot with any certainty bestow the title it promises: the best player in college football.

The winner doesn't deserve that blanket designation, not when offensive linemen and defensive players have as much chance of winning the Heisman as Herman Cain has of being named Husband of the Year. The only winner in the era of the one-way player who didn't play quarterback or running back or wide receiver was cornerback Charles Woodson of Michigan, and he won in 1997 as much for his punt returns as his pass coverage. I have no problem voting for the best skill position player at a BCS school, which is what the Heisman has become. But if the award is to be considered more than that, there need to be changes involving both the process and the people.

Start with the human element. Voters, as a whole, have become as programmed as an iPhone app. There used to be the stereotype of the out-of-touch scribe who voted every year even though he had stopped following college football around the time Bear Bryant stopped coaching it. It wasn't a myth; when I was a young newspaper reporter, an older colleague offered to let me fill out his ballot, telling me he wouldn't know most of the candidates if they were throwing 50-yard bombs in his backyard. But the Heisman Trust, which supervises the award presentation, has done a fairly thorough job of weeding out the unqualified.

The problem is that the clueless voter seems to have been replaced by one who follows a pat formula that values so-called "Heisman moments" and prime-time TV exposure. Every time a broadcaster or Heisman pollster suggests that the electorate will change its mind based on a single big play, or because Joe Tailback had an impressive performance on a national telecast as opposed to a regional one, we voters should feel insulted. Instead, we're more likely to do exactly what he predicted. A plea to my fellow voters: Don't be hypnotized by the shiny object. Think body of work, not Heisman moment. Don't let one play or even one game make you forget all that has come before.

It would also help if voters gave more than lip service to defensive players. There was an encouraging sign two years ago when Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finished fourth, but Suh would have had to pick up ballcarriers and toss them into the stands in order to actually win. (No, it's too late, Ndamukong. Put that running back down, now!) Of course it's hard to evaluate the "non--skill position players"—even the description is an insult—because their performances aren't as easy to quantify.

Here's where some better numbers would help. "If there were a statistical method of comparing players regardless of position, it would revolutionize the sport," says Chris Huston, a Heisman voter who runs the respected website. I can't believe I'm suggesting this, because I think baseball has been overrun with new statistics, but college football needs its own Bill James, someone to devise an advanced metric like baseball's WAR (Wins Above Replacement). With that kind of absolute measurement, maybe Stanford guard David DeCastro and Alabama tackle Barrett Jones would have as much chance to win the Heisman as the players they block for, Cardinal QB Andrew Luck and Crimson Tide running back Trent Richardson.

But for now I have to rely on the conventional method of choosing a winner. "It's a little bit of an odd way to pick the best player in a sport that has an odd way of picking its champion," says Huston, "so it's pretty congruous in that way." In other words, at least the Heisman voting system isn't nearly as screwy as the BCS's.

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