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Joe Burrow: the greatest Heisman turnaround ever?

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And was there any way we could’ve seen any of this coming?

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In the year immediately prior to winning the trophy, each Heisman-winning quarterback has usually been one of three things:

  1. A full-time starter who’d been among the previous season’s best QBs (Baker Mayfield, Troy Smith, Danny Wuerffel, Ty Detmer, or Pat Sullivan). These were obvious college elites who’d become obvious Heisman winners.
  2. Not starting yet, but displaying truly special talent at one level or another (Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow, or Cam Newton). Not really surprising winners. Some had garnered Heisman hype back in high school.
  3. Not starting yet or super highly coveted prospects, but also maintaining clean slates, statistically speaking (someone like pre-2012 Johnny Manziel ... again, with emphasis on “statistically”). Big surprises, but only because they were relatively unknown. Few would’ve picked them to eventually win it, but few would’ve had particular reason to actively write them off, either. How can you doubt somebody you’ve never heard of?

And then there’s another category with almost no names. These are the Heisman-winning QBs who, in the years immediately prior to their wins, were average-at-best FBS quarterbacks.

They’d already given you reason to disregard their chances of becoming all-time stars. Unless you had an incredible eye and uncommon ability to parse context, you almost certainly struck these names from your list of players who might soon become the best in the country.

There are arguably only two or three Heisman-winning QBs who fit this description. Here’s a statistical look at every winner who was basically a full-time starting QB in the season prior to his win, showing how each player had ranked among his seasonal peers the year before:

How Heisman QBs ranked among their season peers the year PRIOR to winning

QB's pre-Heisman year Completion % Yards/attempt Adj. yards/attempt Passer rating Yards/rush among QBs
QB's pre-Heisman year Completion % Yards/attempt Adj. yards/attempt Passer rating Yards/rush among QBs
2016 Baker Mayfield 1st 1st 1st 1st 53rd
1989 Ty Detmer 2nd 1st 1st 1st 62nd
1970 Pat Sullivan 3rd 1st 1st 1st 1st
1995 Danny Wuerffel 5th 1st 1st 1st 77th
2003 Matt Leinart 13th 9th 4th 3rd 87th
2005 Troy Smith 19th 3rd 2nd 4th 7th
1985 Vinny Testaverde 11th 2nd 5th 5th 59th
1969 Jim Plunkett 5th 8th 8th 6th 22nd
2013 Marcus Mariota 31st 5th 4th 7th 1st
1999 Chris Weinke 11th 11th 11th 7th 87th
1988 Andre Ware 18th 43rd 16th 12th 49th
Non-Burrow average 19th 14th 12th 13th 35th
1966 Gary Beban 28th 5th 11th 16th 5th
1991 Gino Torretta 39th 13th 7th 17th 30th
1965 Steve Spurrier 18th 25th 17th 18th 12th
1992 Charlie Ward 35th 34th 34th 26th 2nd
1983 Doug Flutie 62nd 15th 14th 28th 6th
2010 Robert Griffin III 7th 30th 29th 29th 12th
2001 Carson Palmer 35th 53rd 55th 59th 58th
2018 Joe Burrow 77th 50th 42nd 64th 34th
2000 Eric Crouch Bad* Mediocre* Mediocre* Mediocre* 2nd
1961 Terry Baker Bad* Mediocre* Mediocre* Bad* 1st
Includes only QBs who were full-time(ish) starters the year before they won the Heisman * Did not throw enough passes (14+ per game) to rank in Sports Reference’s data, so I eyeballed how their rate stats stacked up. I also didn’t include any pre-1960 QBs because very few threw 14+ passes per game in those years. The trend pretty much held even back then, though

Each of these things was reasonable at the time: In February 2019, Burrow’s Heisman odds were 200-1, tied with Florida’s Feleipe Franks, Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle, and Mississippi State’s Keytaon Thompson at the bottom of the Westgate’s list. Two football games later, he moved into the top five. He then became the outright favorite in mid-October.

It’s arguable that Joe Burrow’s individual narrative upgrade is the most dramatic by any Heisman QB since at least 1962.

The only other contenders for such an odd distinction would be Palmer, Crouch, or someone from back when football’s passing game was still emerging from the caves (1962 winner Baker is arguably in this latter group).

  • Palmer’s pre-Heisman ratings were slightly better, relative to his peers, than Burrow’s. And Palmer was in his fifth year at USC and second season under Pete Carroll, having demonstrated pretty steady improvement overall. Burrow barely played at Ohio State before transferring to LSU, suggesting little of the arc toward eventual greatness — even before we factored in LSU’s relative lack of QB success this decade.
  • Nebraska’s Crouch remains a fascinating case: a truly ground-focused QB who won a modern-era Heisman. Definitely not a Burrow-style uptick, as Crouch’s adjusted yards per attempt went from a mere 6.4 to an even, well, merer 6.3 (largely due to throwing more INTs than TDs).
  • At Oregon State, Baker’s AY/A jumped from 4.6 in his pre-Heisman year to 8.9, which would be pretty good even today. Baker described that rough 1961 as a transition year from head coach Tommy Prothro’s single-wing offense to something more modern.

That last note is pretty instructive when it comes to Burrow’s leap, right?

Was there any way we could’ve foreseen Burrow’s enormous improvement?

Not to anywhere near this degree. But in hindsight, a few positives suggested he’d have a much stronger second year at LSU.

The most obvious: Ed Orgeron continued to demonstrate he’s actually great at change, despite old stigmas to the contrary. Entering 2019, LSU brought in new ideas and moved from the Les Miles era’s under-center, two-back offenses to a three-wide shotgun attack heavy on RPOs and light on extra pass blockers. Said Burrow in March:

This is the kind of offense I’ve run since I was 13, 14 years old, so this is what I know, so I can have a lot of input in it and tell them what I like. I think we are all fired up.

Looking back, that wasn’t just the usual spring ball hype. Burrow was specifically referring to this offense as the one he grew up in.

I also wonder if we made a bit too big a deal of his 2018 completion percentage. It’s an important stat (duh), but it came to define his entire season in kind of a weird way. Let’s note 2018 Burrow only threw five picks in 379 throws despite facing SP+’s #1, #6, #7, #8, #14, #17, #21, #47, #49, and #56 defenses.

Oh right, that: 2018 Burrow led an outdated offense against seven top-25 defenses and three others better than average. Opponent-adjusted numbers say LSU’s 2018 passing game held up decently. It ranked 46th in SP+ — not great, but better than its 64th in raw passer rating.

2018 Burrow was pretty good when he had time to throw and receivers getting open (this sounds like the faintest praise, but some quarterbacks can’t handle those basics). In LSU’s 2018 offense, he struggled when under any kind of strategic or tactical duress and would often lock onto one receiver before making an all-or-nothing throw.

In the 2019 revamp, he files through his options with a rare mix of decisiveness and patience, and even on third-and-17, the defense is still in danger.

Somebody, at some point, was going to unlock LSU’s obscene talent. Entering 2019, if you predicted a surge for LSU’s offense, you were laughed at for buying the latest round of hype.

But with Orgeron’s reworked staff insisting long past spring ball that change had finally arrived for real, there was some reason to suspect things really were going to look different this time.

After years of loaded, frustrating LSU offenses, it’s nice to see the skills of Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase and all-purpose bowling ball Clyde Edwards-Helaire simply not going to waste, let alone shining alongside Burrow. It’s almost like making up for lost time.

Entering the season, if one person had told you Burrow would be 2019’s best player, and a second person told you it’d be some random sophomore surprise, you’d probably be more likely to believe the second.

We’ll take the thing we don’t know over the thing we think we already know. Sometimes, it’s fun to remember we can’t ever know all that much anyway.