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Worst performing Heisman Trophy winners in NFL history

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November 17, 2021
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Worst performing Heisman Trophy winners in NFL history

The annual Heisman Trophy is the most coveted award in college football. First awarded to the best player in 1935, even casual football fans recognize the names of some Heisman Trophy winners, from current superstars like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, and Jameis Winston to NFL retirees like Roger Staubach, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and Barry Sanders.

But what about the busts? BestOdds looked at every winner of college football’s most prestigious award since 1950 who sought to play professional football and ranked them based on Approximate Value scores, which provides a statistic used for comparison between both offensive and defensive football players. Ties were broken by the number of professional games played by the winners throughout their careers.

The Bottom 15 includes quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers. Some left college early to reap NFL rewards—only to reap a fraction of their expected riches—and one didn’t play in the NFL until he was 27. Although too early to call, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith, may join the bottom ranks as well once the season ends. But none of these players fully lived up to their potential as Heisman Trophy winners once they reached the NFL.

Some were injured soon after college, but most simply didn’t perform as well as expected, or their coaches didn’t give them the opportunity to shine. They were heroes who became zeroes, at least in the eyes of their NFL teams’ fans. Almost all of these players pre-date betting on college football but one can imagine their fandom had they not.

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#15. Howard Cassady

- Approximate Value score: 6
- NFL games played: 84

Howard “Hopalong” Cassady led Ohio State to a national title in 1954 and won his Heisman the following year as a combination running back/defensive back. Besides “hopping” for 2,466 yards for the Buckeyes, he never allowed a single reception on defense in four years. He spent eight years in the NFL, mostly for the Detroit Lions, as a little-used running back and receiver. He ran for 413 yards in his first season and caught 25 passes in his second, but his stats deteriorated until his retirement at 29.

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#14. Danny Wuerffel

- Approximate Value score: 6
- NFL games played: 25

Danny Wuerffel was as brilliant as the Florida sun when, from 1993 through 1996, he threw for 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns for the Florida Gators, leading them to a national title and earning the 1996 Heisman. But he played like a drowned gator in the NFL. He completed less than half of his passes in three years for the New Orleans Saints and passed for fewer career yards during his six-year NFL career than he did as a Florida freshman. Some mean-spirited NFL fans called him “Danny Awful.”

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#13. Troy Smith

- Approximate Value score: 6
- NFL games played: 20

Troy Smith probably wouldn’t have won the 2006 Heisman if the honor was voted on after—rather than before—the NCAA National Championship. He played so poorly in that game that  when his Ohio State teammates lost to Florida 41-14, that he was only drafted by the NFL in the fifth round. He lasted just four years in the NFL, mostly as a backup quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, and completed only eight career touchdown passes.

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#12. Terry Baker

- Approximate Value score: 6
- NFL games played: 18

Terry Baker was ahead of his time. Long before the era of running quarterbacks, he earned the 1962 Heisman as a dual-threat quarterback/running back for Oregon State with 23 passing touchdowns and 15 rushing touchdowns. He even led the Beavers to the Final Four as a point guard when he played basketball for Oregon State. But the Los Angeles Rams, even after making him the first overall pick in the draft, never took advantage of his versatility. As a quarterback backup and running back, he was used only sparingly, his NFL career lasting only three seasons.

5 / 15
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#11. Andre Ware

- Approximate Value score: 5
- NFL games played: 14

Andre Ware broke a major barrier as the first Black quarterback to win the Heisman in 1989 after throwing for major-college records of 44 touchdowns and 4,699 yards for the University of Houston in 1989. In all, he broke 26 NCAA records. But after the Detroit Lions picked him in the first round, they made him their third-string quarterback, so he started only six games in four years, laboring in the shadow of quarterback Rodney Peete and superstar running back Barry Sanders.

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#10. Johnny Rodgers

- Approximate Value score: 4
- NFL games played: 17

Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers was the first wide receiver to win the Heisman. In college, he was also a running back and returned seven punts for touchdowns. Altogether, the Nebraska star gained a then-NCAA record of 5,586 yards in three seasons. After winning the Heisman in 1972, he led the Cornhuskers to an Orange Bowl win over Notre Dame by scoring five touchdowns—three running, one receiving, one throwing. But after spending four seasons in the Canadian Football League, he played in only 17 NFL games for the San Diego Chargers as a kick returner before an injury ended his playing days.

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#9. Johnny Manziel

- Approximate Value score: 4
- NFL games played: 14

Johnny Manziel earned the nickname “Johnny Football” during his 2012 Heisman season for Texas A&M. That year, he was the first freshman in NCAA history to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000—and the first freshman to win the Heisman. But after the Cleveland Browns made him a first-round draft pick, his performance both on and off the field was shaky; reports of heavy drinking, rude behavior and a sloppy work ethic were widespread. Ultimately, he left the NFL after just two seasons with the Browns, completing 147 passes in eight starts.

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#8. Alan Ameche

- Approximate Value score: 3
- NFL games played: 70

Alan “The Iron Horse” Ameche galloped 3,212 yards as a University of Wisconsin-Madison fullback while doubling up as a linebacker on defense, which inspired his nickname and earned him the 1954 Heisman. The cousin of actor Don Ameche, who won the 1986 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Cocoon,” made a splash at UW by starring in the 1953 Rose Bowl and then for the Baltimore Colts (now Indianapolis Colts) by scoring the winning touchdown in overtime in the 1958 NFL Championships, predecessor of the Super Bowl. But despite earning 1955 NFL Rookie of the Year honors and four Pro Bowl berths, his career was cut short by injury after only six NFL seasons.

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#7. Pat Sullivan

- Approximate Value score: 3
- NFL games played: 30

Pat Sullivan was unstoppable for the Auburn Tigers, throwing for 6,284 yards to earn the 1971 Heisman. He was also named MVP of the 1971 Senior Bowl. But after the Atlanta Falcons took him in the second round, he was relegated to backup status, ultimately completing only 42.3% of his NFL passes in four years for Atlanta. His 16 career interceptions compared to only five touchdown passes, which contributed to an ugly 36.5 NFL career quarterback rating.

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#6. Joe Bellino

- Approximate Value score: 2
- NFL games played: 35

Joe Bellino did it all for Navy, running for 834 yards, catching 15 passes, throwing two touchdown passes and even averaging 46 yards as a punter. He also led the Midshipmen to the Orange Bowl. But after winning the Heisman in 1960, he was only drafted in the 19th round because of the Naval Academy requirement that graduates serve four years as officers. Finally entering professional football as a rusty 27-year-old, he played for the American Football League’s Boston Patriots. He was limited to 30 rushes for 64 yards in three years before exiting the league.

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#5. John Huarte

- Approximate Value score: 1
- NFL games played: 24

John Huarte flipped the script for Notre Dame. Starting as quarterback only in his senior year, he helped turn a 2-7 team into a 9-1 national championship team that lost only one game, a 20-17 nail-biter, to University of Southern California. That netted him the 1964 Heisman. But his professional football career went nowhere as he played for six teams in 10 years in three different leagues—the American Football League, the National Football League and the World Football League—but only started one game for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and threw only 48 total passes.

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#4. Gary Beban

- Approximate Value score: 0
- NFL games played: 5

Gary Beban is a prime example of Heisman voters getting it wrong. He was picked in 1967 after a solid season—1,359 passing yards—for the 7-2-1 UCLA Bruins. But he languished on the bench behind Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen during his two seasons for what's now known as the Washington Football Team, throwing only one pass in two years before leaving football behind. Side note: A running back who did go on to fame, and infamy, finished second to Beban in the Heisman voting, but O.J. Simpson did win it the next year.

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#3. Gino Torretta

- Approximate Value score: 0
- NFL games played: 2

Gino Torretta was the real deal at the University of Miami. His 7,690 passing yards helped lead the Hurricanes to two consecutive undefeated seasons that produced national titles in 1991 and a near-miss in his 1992 Heisman-winning year. Still, largely because his final collegiate game was a stinker—a 34-13, three-interception loss to Alabama—the Minnesota Vikings only drafted him in the seventh round. He later played in only one NFL contest, a 1996 Seattle Seahawks game when he threw for 41 yards and a touchdown.

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#1. Eric Crouch (tied)

- Never played in NFL

Eric Crouch showed he had mad skills while at the University of Nebraska, passing for 1,510 yards and rushing for 1,115 yards in 203 carries during his 2001 Heisman year. But the St. Louis Rams didn’t draft him in the third round to take over quarterback duties from Marc Bulger or Kurt Warner. Instead, he was brought in to be a wide receiver—but he was injured before ever playing in an NFL game. He did play for NFL Europe’s Hamburg Sea Devils, where he made 25 tackles as a safety in 2005, and then one season in Canada.

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#1. Jason White (tied)

- Never played in NFL

Jason White isn’t the only Heisman Trophy winner to flop in the NFL, but he may be the poster child. He threw for 7,922 yards in four years at the University of Oklahoma, including 40 touchdown passes during his 2003 Heisman season. He earned more Heisman votes that year than Super Bowl champion quarterback Eli Manning and future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald. But he played one additional year for the Sooners, which didn’t go as well, and no team drafted him. He never played a down in the NFL.

This story originally appeared on BestOdds and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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