The History of Heisman Winning Quarterbacks in the NFL

Kyler Murray is a controversial prospect in this draft. Some say he’s too small. Some say the new NFL is a shorter quarterback’s league. Others say that Murray doesn’t love football, and he’s only using it for money while he negotiates with the MLB’s Oakland A’s. No matter what, the argument always comes back to the same point.

“Well, he won the Heisman Trophy.”

The NFL merger was on June eight, 1966, and since then, 27 different quarterbacks have won college football’s most prestigious award. So to determine if Murray’s draft stock should be affected by winning the illustrious trophy, I took a closer look at everyone that’s won it since the merger.

The History of Heisman Winning Quarterbacks in the NFL

Quick disclaimer, Roger Staubach, who ended up being a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, won the award in 1963, and is not an example of someone who didn’t play to the same standards on the next level.

Steve Spurrier, 1966.

38 starts, 13-24-1, 597/1151, 6,778 yards, 40 touchdowns, 60 interceptions.

Yes, THAT Steve Spurrier. The same Steve Spurrier that coached the Florida Gators, Washington Redskins, South Carolina Gamecocks, and the brand new Orlando Apollos. He actually started his career as a punter, as the 49ers already had a decent starter in John Brodie. He’s been a great coach, but a great quarterback? No.

Gary Beban, 1967.

Zero starts, 0/1, zero yards, zero touchdowns, zero interceptions.

Gary Beban was a second round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in 1968, but was traded to the Washington Redskins before the season even started. He sat behind Sonny Jurgensen for two years, before being released. Beban ended up with more career rushing yards (18) and receiving yards (12), than passing yards. That’s a no.

Jim Plunkett, 1970

144 starts, 72-72-0, 1943/3701, 25,882 yards, 164 touchdowns, 198 interceptions. 1971 AFC Rookie of the Year, 1980 Comeback Player of the Year, Super Bowl XV MVP.

Jim Plunkett’s NFL story is a complicated one. Unlike Spurrier and Beban, even the most casual NFL historian knows Plunkett’s name. After all, he won two Super Bowls as the starting quarterback of the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. To date, he remains the only eligible quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls without being enshrined in Canton. Why not?

Well, because Plunkett was like the Nick Foles of the 1980’s. He wasn’t always the best quarterback, but he was the guy who could convince his teammates to play, and lead the team to victory. It didn’t work out for the New England Patriots or San Francisco 49ers, but he made his 8 years with the Raiders count. Good? Sure, but he wasn’t necessarily great, and he certainly didn’t do anything for the team that drafted him.

Pat Sullivan, 1971.

Four starts, 0-4-0, 93/220, 1,155 yards, five touchdowns, 16 interceptions.

Pat Sullivan played sporadically for the Atlanta Falcons in the early 1970’s, but he never really got a run as a starter. He lost every game he started and threw three times as many interceptions as touchdowns. Safe to say, Sullivan doesn’t make the list of great Heisman winning quarterbacks.

Doug Flutie, 1984.

66 starts, 38-28-0, 1177/2151, 2,151 yards, 86 touchdowns, 68 interceptions. Pro Bowler (1x), 1998 Comeback Player of the Year.

Doug Flutie’s name is one that’s been thrown around a lot lately, because of how much he and Kyler Murray have in common. They’re both smaller guys that worked that much harder to make big plays happen anyway. Unfortunately for Flutie, he played in the time of Giants, and he never stood a chance. The closest he ever came to being a real starting quarterback in the NFC was in 1998, when he started 15 games for the Bills, before losing his job to Rob Johnson, aka RoboSack.

Flutie was exciting, but sadly he also fails to make a big enough impact to be classified as a great quarterback.

Vinny Testaverde, 1986.

214 starts, 90-123-1, 3787/6701, 46,233 yards, 275 touchowns, 267 interceptions. Pro Bowler (2x).

Vinny Testaverde is another complicated case, just like Flutie and Plunkett, he wasn’t always great, and he wasn’t good for the team that drafted him, but he had spells where he was good. He had the best season in Baltimore Ravens history in 1996, throwing for 4,177 yards and 33 touchdowns, but he failed it up with another mediocre season.

And that kinda sums up his career. He’d go somewher,e play well for a while, and then completely implode. If Jim Plunkett was the original Nick Foles, Vinny Testaverde was the original Ryan Fitzpatrick. Another great college passer, another so-so pro quarterback.

Andre Ware, 1989.

Six Starts, 3-3-0, 83/161, 1,112 yards, five touchdowns, eight interceptions.

In a way, I feel that Andre Ware played a small part in Patrick Mahomes falling all the way to ten. That might seem nonsensical, but Andre Ware was the first air raid or, I guess, run and shoot gimmick quarterback in college football, and after the Detroit Lions spent a first round pick on him, they realized it doesn’t translate well to the NFL. It’s crazy to think that Mahomes has thrown most of Ware’s career in a single game on multiple occasions. Another bad quarterback.

Ty Detmer, 1990.

25 starts, 11-14-0, 546/946, 6,351 yards, 34 touchdowns, 35 interceptions.

Ty Detmer’s pro career never really happened. He wasn’t drafted until the ninth round, and then he sat behind Brett Favre for a couple of years before getting a chance with the Eagles in 1996, which he botched horribly. He bounced around the league for a few years before retiring in 2003.

Gino Torretta, 1992.

Zero starts, 5/16, 41 yards, one touchdown, one interception.

A seventh round pick, Gino Torretta played in one game during his NFL career, a 28-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in 1996 where he completed 31% of his passes, throwing a single touchdown and interception while accumulating 41 yards. He retired after the 1997 season and joins the growing list of Heisman winners that didn’t make the leap.

Charlie Ward, 1993.

Charlie Ward might’ve been a good football player, we’ll never know. He chose to play basketball instead, spending most of his career with the New York Knicks.

Danny Wuerffel, 1993.

10 starts, 4-6-0, 184/350, 2,123 yards, 12 touchdowns, 22 interceptions.

A fourth round pick in 1997, Danny Wuerffel flopped in the NFL. He never really got his shot to be a starter in the league, but when he did play, he struggled, never finishing a season with more touchdowns than interceptions. The funny thing abotu Wuerffel? Is that he won the award as the starting quarterback of the Florida Gators. His head coach? The first winner on this list, Steve Spurrier.

Chris Weinke, 1996.

20 starts, 2-18-0, 386/709, 3,904 yards, 15 touchdowns, 26 interceptions.

Unlike most of the players on this list, Chris Weinke had a real shot as a starter, and it just didn’t work out. The Carolina Panthers drafted him in the fourth round back in 2001, and at 29 years old, they couldn’t afford to let him develop. He started 15 games as a rookie, completed about 50% of his passes and threw more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (11).

Eric Crouch, 2001.

Here’s a crazy stat. At 6’0, 205 pounds, teams didn’t believe Crouch was big enough to play quarterback in the NFL. He was a great athlete, but just not big enough. Somewhere, 6’0, 209 pound Drew Brees and 5’11, 206 pound Russell Wilson are breathing a sigh of relief that their careers turned out the way they did. However, Crouch never got to play quarterback, and the extent of his pro playing time came as a safety in NFL Europe.

Carson Palmer, 2002.

181 starts, 92-88-1, 3941/6307, 46,247 yards, 294 touchdowns, 187 interceptions. Pro Bowler (3x), Second-team All-Pro (2015).

Now here’s a quarterback that everyone can purse their lips and nod about. Carson Palmer wasn’t the best quarterback of the 2000’s, but he wasn’t bad either. Injuries derailed a very promising start with the Cincinnati Bengals, his time with the Oakland Raiders was dysfunctional, and while he returned to form with the Arizona Cardinals, he was never really consistent enough to rely on. However, he’s still arguably the best quarterback to win the Heisman (since 1966), and proves that sometimes, the award winner can succeed in the NFL.

Jason White, 2003.

Jason White wasn’t even drafted by a NFL team, and never took a single snap. Some say he just didn’t throw an NFL ball, some say teams were scared off by his injuries, but the Oklahoma Sooner icon never got a chance to play at the next level. Don’t worry Sooner fans, there are familiar names ahead, and at least one of them is promising.

Matt Leinart, 2004.

18 starts, 8-10-0, 366/641, 4,065 yards, 15 touchdowns, 21 interceptions.

Matt Lienart and his teammate, Reggie Bush, were the faces of Pete Carroll’s dominant USC teams. He seemed like a sure thing, and he was a celebrity before he even set foot on a NFL field. Unfortunately, that stardom didn’t translate to his play. He didn’t have a NFL arm, and his biggest problem was his teammate, Kurt Warner, had a career resurgence and stole his job. Leinart bounced around the NFL after losing his job to Warner in 2007 but never got another chance to be a starter.

How weird is it that Leinart’s college teammate, Matt Cassel, who never started a game in college, would end up starting more pro games, throwing for more yards and touchdowns?

Troy Smith, 2006.

Eight Starts, 4-4-0, 121/234, 1,734 yards, eight touchdowns, five interceptions.

Troy Smith was a bit of a curious prospect. The Ravens drafted him in the fifth round out of Ohio State University in 2007, but only let him start two games before drafting Joe Flacco in the first round. Smith backed Flacco up for two years before bolting to San Francisco, where he did start six games for the 49ers in relief of Alex Smith. He wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive though, and he spent the rest of his playing career in the United and Canadian Football Leagues. Curiously, Smith is one of three Heisman winning quarterbacks on this list to back up Joe Flacco.

Tim Tebow, 2007.

16 starts, 8-6-0, 173/361, 2,422 yards, 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions.

The crazy thing about Tim Tebow was that he came in with all the hype in the world, and unlike most busts, who lose hype as their career derails, he seemed to pick up steam. Tebow Time was a sports sensation in 2011, and many people forget, but Tebow actually beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. Unfortunately, his refusal to play other positions, as well as his inability to actually play the quarterback position ended his professional football career. These days, he’s trying to make it as a baseball player while working for the SEC Network.

Sam Bradford, 2008.

83 starts, 34-48-1, 1855/2967, 19,449 yards, 103 touchdowns, 61 interceptions. 2010 NFL Rookie of the Year.

Sam Bradford’s career was weird. Injuries plague him, starting in college and carrying through to the pros, he never really seemed to get set. Even when he was healthy in St. Louis, he never seemed to take that next step, and then he just inexplicably kept getting starting jobs with the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, and Arizona Cardinals. He’s a mystery. Was he good but he couldn’t stay healthy, or was he just adequate and he redefined the word finesse.

Cam Newton, 2010.

So far- 122 starts, 68-53-1, 2321/3891, 28,469 yards, 182 touchdowns, 107 interceptions, 4,808 rushing yards, 58 rushing touchdowns. 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowler (3x), First-Team All-Pro (2015), 2015 Offensive Player of the Year, 2015 MVP.

Cam Newton is the only man on this list to have won the NFL’s MVP award as of this writing, and while some would argue he’s not an elite quarterback, there’s no question that he’s been extremely productive. If every Heisman winner was as good as Cam Newton, I bet they’d be taken number one every year.

Robert Griffin III, 2011.

So far- 40 starts, 15-25-0, 768/1216, 9,004 yards, 42 touchdowns, 26 interceptions. 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Pro Bowler (1x).

Robert Griffin the third, aka RGIII, came into the NFL with all the hype in the world. He, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson made up one of the better quarterback groups in recent memory, and after a fantastic season for Baylor and an impressive combine, teams were salivating to pick RGIII. Mike Shanahan’s Washington Redskins traded up to the second overall pick to select Griffin, and his rookie year was incredible. However, it ended with injuries, something that would plague the rest of his career.

He never really returned to rookie form, and couldn’t even make the Cleveland Browns roster. These days, he backs up the departing Joe Flacco and another running quarterback that will appear later on this list.

Johnny Manziel, 2012.

Eight starts, 2-6-0, 147/258, 1,675 yards, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions.

Johnny Manziel’s career was a car crash on and off the field. It took forever for Manziel to even get on the field, and when he did, he didn’t impress. Bad play, combined with off the field issues led to the Cleveland Browns releasing him in 2016. He hasn’t played in the NFL since, but has unsuccessfully attempted to revive his career in the Canadian Football League.

Jameis Winston, 2013.

So far- 54 starts, 21-33-0, 1183/1922, 14,628 yards, 88 touchdowns, 58 interceptions. Pro Bowler (1x).

Jameis Winston has shown signs of being a talented quarterback over the years, but he’s never really broken through. This year, he couldn’t even secure his job against Ryan Fitzpatrick, but at least he’s always managed to throw more touchdowns than interceptions in all four of his seasons. He’s had two 4,000 yard seasons, and maybe under Bruce Arians, he can break out in 2019. Still not convinced he’s great, but he’s not the worst either.

Marcus Mariota, 2014.

So far- 55 starts, 27-28-0, 1015/1605, 12,004 yards, 69 touchdowns, 42 interceptions, 1,270 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns.

Marcus Mariota hasn’t really found his footing as a pro quarterback yet. In 2016, it looked like he was getting there. In only 15 games, he had 3,400 yards and 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Since then, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and he’s almost thrown more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (24). 2019 is going to be a huge year for Mariota, or the sunshine of Trevor Lawrence poking over the horizon might be too tempting to pass up.

Lamar Jackson, 2016.

So far- Seven Starts, 6-1-0, 99/170, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 695 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns.

The jury is still out on Lamar Jackson, but after an explosive rookie season, Jackson already has some doubters. He did some incredible things as a rusher, but he showed that his passing game still needs some work. Lamar has every opportunity to prove he’s worth the first round pick that Baltimore spent on him, and in all fairness, he did lead his Ravens to the playoffs, which is more than the next winner can say about his team.

Baker Mayfield, 2017.

So far- 13 starts, 6-7-0, 310/486, 3,725 yards, 27 touchdowns, 14 interceptions.

To say the jury is still out on the man that should’ve been last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year is an understatement. Baker Mayfield broke Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson’s touchdown record in three fewer games. It’s still early, but the future looks bright for Cleveland’s field general.

Kyler Murray, 2018.

Will Kyler Murray be more like Cam Newton and Carson Palmer or more like Doug Flutie and Johnny Manziel? That remains to be seen. If Kyler Murray does declare for the NFL draft, and he’s not just using it to twist the arm of the Oakland A’s, a huge part of whether Murray succeeds or fails will be who drafts him and how much he wants it.


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