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Heisman headache

Fitzgerald is the top choice in a bedeviling voting process

Posted: Friday December 5, 2003 3:58PM; Updated: Friday December 5, 2003 3:58PM
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Before the weekend is over I will go the Web site established for Heisman Trophy voters and cast my ballot for that award. It's a (barely) technologically advanced version of the same process I've been going through for 15 years. I try to take it seriously because the players deserve as much. But even after a decade and a half, I find Heisman voting a positively bedeviling process, with little to separate very good players in any honest fashion.

For those unaware of the process, voters (too many, by the way, more than 950 altogether) are allowed to name three players on their ballots and rank them first, second and third. First place is worth three points, second is two points and third is a single point. Pretty simple. Simpler than the BCS, and for this I guess we can be thankful.

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That is, however, the only saving grace in the process for those who try make an enlightened choice. There is no criteria. All it says on the ballot is, "My First Choice to receive the Heisman Memorial Trophy awarded to the outstanding college football player of the United States ... " That's it. Just "outstanding." It doesn't say he has to play offense or defense (or both). It doesn't say he has to play for a national championship contender or an unbeaten team. Just plain "outstanding."

The three names I'm going to put on my ballot, in alphabetical order, are WR Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh, QB Eli Manning of Mississippi, and QB Jason White of Oklahoma. Since I am certain to get ripped by readers as soon as I put them in 1-2-3 order, let me first say this: The fact that I've chose to put these three on my ballot means I think they're all great.

Among the players I will not put on my ballot are:

* RB Chris Perry of Michigan, because he was mediocre in the middle of the season when Michigan was struggling and because I think quarterback John Navarre was more important to the Wolverines.

* QB Matt Leinart of USC, because I think the Trojans, by November, had matured into a multi-faceted machine. Leinart was good, but so were wideouts Mike Williams and Keary Colbert, the young running backs and the Wild Bunch II front four.

* QB B.J. Symons of Texas Tech because -- go ahead, strike me down for saying this -- I think his statistics are just a little inflated. I agree it takes talent and guts and creativity to pile up passing yardage and touchdowns the way he has, but I think if you throw it enough, and you're good (if not a Heisman Trophy finalist), you'll get the numbers.

* QB Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio), because his performance all year has been just a tick behind the top guys, even though there's a good chance the NFL will deem him the best of the lot.

* TE Kellen Winslow of Miami, because he just didn't put up any numbers at all. I mean, as you'll see below, I'll vote for a guy who is best seen to be appreciated, but he has to have some stats. Winslow, another future NFL great, was a victim of quarterback Brock Berlin's ineffectiveness, which is too bad.

* RB Maurice Clarett of Ohio State, because, well, you know.

As for the top three, the discussion I had with myself went like this: White is the quarterback on the best team in the country and has huge numbers. Manning is the most talented quarterback in the country -- with the possible exception of Roethlisberger. Fitzgerald is a wide receiver for whom statistics will not measure up, forcing some other form of analysis.

[Aside here: I had a conversation with a track and field coach earlier this week. He was talking about the nature of his sport, which is damned by doping scandals so often because its athletes' achievements are so easily measurable. Somebody runs just a little too well and they are suspected of cheating. "Football isn't like that," said the coach. "It's more intangible."]

Damn right it's intangible. For every statistic that measures greatness, there are 10 qualities that can't be measured. So this year, I'm voting for a guy who's the best at things you can't quantify: Fitzgerald. Not that he has no stats. Fitzgerald caught 87 passes for nearly 1,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. He set an NCAA record by catching at least one touchdown pass in 18 consecutive games. All of which is nice.

But two other things impressed me more. One is the way Fitzgerald played. His catches are mini-dramas in themselves, air ballets played out in full pads. In a loss to West Virginia, he made two sensational catches -- one for a touchdown, despite a pass interference call on the defense. He blocked ferociously all year.

The second reason is that he was a dominant player from a position -- wideout -- that is dependent on so many other people: The quarterback, the offensive line, the other receivers. His team lost four games and he was double-teamed all year (and triple-teamed, too) and yet he was an unquestioned star. Amazing. And he did it with class, re-introducing the public to the practice of handing the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown.

Last week West Virginia linebacker Adam Lehnortt told a story about Fitzgerald. "Near the end of the game, we're beating them pretty good," Lehnortt said. "They break long run and I'm chasing the play. Fitzgerald cracks back on me and pops me pretty good. He was still playing hard. Good for him. But the thing is, he took me up high. He could have legally gone right at my knees out in the open field, but he didn't. That's what kind of guy he is. Believe me, there are guys who would have hit me low, for sure.''

I think Fitzgerald is the best player in the country. He gets my No. 1 vote.

Manning and White are a tossup for me. White's numbers are better, but so is his team. By far. Manning was more integral to a Mississippi program that has come all the way back from the depths. And the SEC was much tougher than the Big 12 this year. So I'm putting Manning second, by a hair, with White third.

And then I'll start sweating next year's vote.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.

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