Monday, February 15, 2010

Why I voted for Toby Gerhart for Heisman Trophy

In my 14 years as a Heisman Trophy balloter, I have never bought into the Heisman Hype.
I saw Joey Harrington’s $250,000 10-story billboard in Times Square. I’ve heard stories about life-sized posters, CDs, videos, even leafs (for Ryan Leaf) being delivered to Heisman voters. I still have the 1:24 scale DeAngelo Williams’ cast-die race car sent to me somewhere in my garage that the University of Memphis mailed to promote him for the Heisman in 2005.
But I must admit I was impressed last week when I got an email from a man my age in Tiburon, Ted Gazulis, a Terra Linda High School and Stanford University graduate. He is a season-ticket holder for the Cardinal and he felt compelled to sell Toby Gerhart all by himself.
The fact of the matter is Gerhart, Stanford’s bruising running back, already was No. 1 on my ballot and nothing or no one changed my mind. I just hope enough Heisman Trophy voters see it that way.
The Heisman Trophy is not a lifetime achievement award. Otherwise, Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy would win it this year.
The Heisman Trophy is not a player-of-the-week award. Otherwise, Mark Ingram or C.J. Spiller or Case Keenum would win it this year.
The Heisman Trophy is an outstanding player-of-the-YEAR award. That’s why I voted for Gerhart. He’s had quite a year, replacing Tiger Woods as Big Man On Campus.
You must remember that there are no designated criteria or an owner’s manual on how to vote for the Heisman Trophy. It’s all subjective. It depends on your point of view. Or what region you come from.
I have been voting on the Heisman Trophy since 1996 and I have established my own five-step criteria for selecting the top three names on my ballot:
1) Impressive overall statistics and impact on team and record.
2) How players perform in the top 3-4 biggest games on their schedule when the spotlight is the brightest.
3) Consistency.
4) Strength of schedule
5) Signature game or play or something unique that sets the player apart or makes him representative of college football.
Gerhart received my first-place vote, worth three points, because he best met the criteria in all five categories.
Statistics and impact on team? The year Gerhart set foot on The Farm -- 2006 his true freshman year --Stanford was a team ranked 115th in the country in rushing with season-ending totals of 781 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Gerhart ended this regular-season this year with 1,736 yards and 26 touchdowns and Stanford finished 12th in rushing, four spots behind Ingram and Alabama’s stable of running backs who played an extra game.
Gerhart led the nation in touchdowns, rushing yards and rushing attempts, 311. He averaged 200.3 yards a game this season against opponents who were ranked in the Top 25. He averaged 141 yards a game and scored 12 touchdowns against the top five rushing defenses in the Pac-10 Conference, all currently ranked among the top 38 rushing defenses in the nation.
Big games? Gerhart rushed for 136 yards and four TDs in the Big Game against Cal this season. With Stanford needing a win to become bowl eligible for the first time in eight years, Gerhart on Nov. 7 rushed for 223 yards and three TDs in a 51-42 win against then sixth-ranked and Rose Bowl-bound Oregon. And, in his only national network TV appearance this season, Gerhart rushed for 205 yards and three TDs against fabled Notre Dame. And I haven’t even mentioned what he did to USC.
Consistency? This is where Gerhart tops all. He didn’t have a bad game. His worst game this season was an 82-yard rushing effort against Wake Forest. That was the only game this season that Gerhart didn’t score a TD. He rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games and for 200 or more in three of them.
Strength of schedule? According to this week’s Sagarin Ratings, which are used in the formula to compute the BCS standings, Stanford is 19th in SOS. Alabama is 20th. Florida is 27th. Texas is 44th. Much has been made of Stanford’s four losses. In three of them, the Cardinal had two-touchdown leads and couldn’t hold them. That’s not Gerhart’s fault.
Signature moment? He threw a TD pass against Notre Dame on fourth down but did you see the replay of Gerhart’s game-winning TD run against the Fighting Irish? He took the fight out of them. There was a Notre Dame safety in the end zone that clearly didn’t even bother to step up and try to tackle Gerhart at the goal line. He just let Gerhart pass by like a truck at a toll stop. Gerhart is the only college football player in the country capable of making other players “smart” while being smart himself – a 3.25 GPA as a management, science and engineering major carrying 21 units this quarter.
Gerhart is bright and funny and articulate and humble and modest, outstanding on and off the field, the ideal student-athlete in the eyes of the image-conscious NCAA. He is the total package as a player worthy of winning the Heisman Trophy.
There were two more spots to fill out on my ballot and I could have listed at least 12 names. Ingram, the Alabama running back who had a great game against Florida in the SEC championship game, jumped back on my ballot after he was a non-factor in the Crimson Tide’s come-from-behind win over Auburn the previous week. He could be considered the best player in the nation. But I’m not convinced that Ingram is even the best player on his own team (I like Julio Jones) or the best runner in his team’s backfield (I like freshman Trent Richardson).
Nick Saban, Alabama’s coach, confirmed that for me in his post-game on-field interview with CBS after the Florida game. He didn’t exactly wholeheartedly endorse Ingram for the Heisman (as Jim Harbaugh did Gerhart), noting that Ingram is “one of the best players on one of the best teams in the country.”
McCoy, Texas’ quarterback, probably had the best chance in my mind to pass Gerhart on my ballot, but he never approached the consistency this season that he did last season when he had much better statistics. McCoy started the season by throwing at least one interception in each of his first seven games then he threw three in his last game against Nebraska in the Big 12 Conference title game. He finished 18th in the nation in pass efficiency.
The two other quarterbacks that I seriously considered – Boise State’s Kellen Moore (39 TD passes, only three interceptions) and Houston’s Keenum (5,449 passing yards with 43 TDs) – had the numbers to win the Heisman or earn a trip to New York, but they didn’t have the strength of schedule. Both Boise’s and Houston’s SOS is in the 90s and I can’t get past that. Ultimately, I put McCoy’s name on my ballot over Moore because Moore didn’t compete with the week-to-week pressure and expectation that McCoy has with Texas.
Ryan Mathews of Fresno State could win the Hides Man Trophy. He may be the most overlooked player in the country. He led the nation in average rushing yards per game (151.27) and averaged 6.8 yards a carry and had he not been injured in the first half of the Nevada game on Nov. 14 and missed the next game he would have topped Gerhart in total rushing yards and 100-yard games. Mathews was every bit as talented as Dion Lewis, who got noticed because he plays for Pittsburgh.
Spiller of Clemson made a late push for the Heisman with a 233-yard, four-TD performance against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game. But we must not forget that a week earlier he had only 18 yards on nine carries (with a long run of five yards) against in-state rival South Carolina. Besides, as far as all-purpose running backs go, I was more impressed with Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed for 1,377 yards and 20 TDs and caught 74 passes for 509 yards.
I am a big Tebow fan, but this season statistically was the worst of his three full seasons at Florida. He wound up 49th in pass efficiency. I like Cincinnati’s Tony Pike, but he missed playing time this season and was nearly benched in the Big East Conference title game and finished 56th in pass efficiency. Teammate Mardy Gilyard saved the Bearcats against Pitt. Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli was a big-play player in leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl, but I had a hard time voting for a quarterback who was 70th in the nation in pass efficiency, just two spots ahead of Greg Paulus.
I am not a big fan of Notre Dame football, but quarterback Jimmy Clausen was on my Heisman radar for a long time. In the end, however, I thought teammate Golden Tate was a better Heisman Trophy candidate than Clausen.
I also thought in November that this season might be a great opportunity for a defensive player to make a case for the Heisman. Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh got plenty of attention at the end but, statistically, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones caught my eye with his consistency and nine QB sacks.
In the final analysis, though, Gerhart was as good as any of them to be considered the most outstanding college player in America. He carried the ball more times for more yards and more touchdowns while carrying his team on his back more than any other player in the country.
It’s as simple as that. As simple as an email.

Offensive linemen top 49ers, Raiders draft needs

Is it me or do we debate the future of pro quarterbacks in the Bay Area with the same frequency and intensity that they debate the future of health care in Congress?
JaMarcus Russell leads his team on an improbable game-winning touchdown drive in Denver, repeatedly signals God in the Mile High City, gets a game ball from his head coach and a little bit of confidence for the first time in months and the Raiders tell him the next day that he’ll stay on the bench if Bruce Gradkowski can run this week or Charlie Frye can recite the alphabet. In other words, unless Tom Cable changes his mind this week, the other quarterbacks would have to be either cripple or concussed for Russell to start this Sunday.
Meanwhile, Alex Smith throws three interceptions in the first half in Philadelphia, gets publicly criticized by his head coach for poor play in the City of Brotherly Love, gets an apology from said coach the next day and earns another chance to start. This is gall.
Well, isn’t about time that both of our pro football franchises draft another QB? This merry-go-round of mediocrity, misery and Monday morning quarterbacking mystery has gone on longer the Chris Cohan Era with the Warriors. Get off the pot or make shift.
The chances of Russell or Smith turning a corner in their NFL careers seems as likely as a toboggan turning a corner going downhill in Tahoe. At some point this weekly argument about the future of our starting quarterbacks has got to run into a giant snowdrift and simply disappear. It’s driving me nuts because the cycle never ends. It’s as annoying as Ned the insurance man in Ground Hog Day.
Let’s just say all the constant whining and wailing about Russell and Smith every single week makes me so sick that I want to name them H1 and N1.
The Raiders have invested three years and about $36 million in Russell and he’s nothing but a third-stringer in their minds right now. He has fallen further and faster on the depth chart than Tiger Woods. Unless Russell gives Al Davis a reason to believe in him and defend him in the next few months – how ‘bout an overhead projector breakdown of Russell re-negotiating down his contract figures? – then Russell is either gone or evolves into the next Alex Smith in the Land of Shawn Hills.
The Raiders have tried to give Russell better coaching and protection and more competition and commiserating to light a fire under him to discover that he’s about as fire retardant as William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
So what’s Davis to do? Draft another quarterback, baby. A Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. It’s soooo Al. He covets Heisman Trophy caliber players like Tiger does mistresses.
It appears that the Raiders, next to last in the league in passing this season, may have a shot to pick 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma with their first selection in the first round, though the Raiders could risk it and wait until early in the second round and 2007Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow of Florida could fall into their laps. Then again, Al Davis didn’t wait for Sebastian Janikowski to slip into round two.
Logically, the Raiders would do better to take an offensive lineman. Either Oklahoma State’s 6-foot-5, 303-pound Russell Okung or 6-foot-5, 318-pound Trent Williams of Oklahoma – the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of tackles in the 2010 NFL draft -- should be on the board when Oakland makes its first pick on April 22. Then the Raiders could select someone such as Texas quarterback Colt McCoy (who completed 73 percent of his passes the past two years) or Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead in the second round and give them a year to develop from the sideline watching Gradkowski play Gradlousy.
Then again, Al loves speed and Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain would bolster a Raiders run defense that ranks 28th in the NFL in stopping the run. Roll tide with Rolando, and roll away Russell Error.
The 49ers have two first-round picks which gives them flexibility to maneuver and move up in the first round to take Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen or Bradford, who passed for 88 touchdowns with only 16 interceptions in his Sooners’ career. But that’s not the call in Singletary’s Show and Tell World.
Realistically, the 49ers sound committed to Alex Smith for one more year so I suppose they could go after Washington’s Jake Locker in 2011 if things get worse. And, unlike the Raiders, the 49ers have a young quarterback (Nate Davis) on their roster they’d like to groom.
That line of thinking means the 49ers will be thinking to improve their offensive line. With the first-round pick the 49ers acquired from Carolina (if the Panthers lose their last two games they could finish as high as eighth in the draft order) the 49ers could have an outside shot at OU’s Williams. If not, they could grab Florida cornerback Joe Haden then maybe pick up Rutgers’ Anthony Davis (6-5, 322 pounds) or Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell (6-7, 310 pounds) in the middle of the first round and follow Samurai Mike’s creed for smash mouth football. The 49ers, even with Frank Gore, are only 26th in the league in rushing.
If the 49ers go offense with their first first-round selection, they might go defense with the second first-rounder and USC safety Taylor Mays could provide some smash mouth in the secondary. The 49ers are 28th in the league in defending the pass. Of course, putting more pressure on the opposing QB has been an Achilles heel in San Francisco, so Georgia Tech 6-4, 275-pound defensive end Derrick Morgan, if he declares for the draft, could give them a pass rusher on the edge.
We’ll have to wait until Feb. 24 to take a serious peek at the 2010 NFL draft when prospective draftees strip down to their underwear at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Until then, it’s JaMarcus and Alex and the revolving door of doubt each and every week.
Enjoy it while it lasts. I’m going to go get my H1N1 shot.

I voted for McGwire ... for the last time

Roberto Alomar spit in the face of an umpire.
That’s probably the most degrading thing anyone could do on a baseball field and one of the most despicable things one man could do to another in life. That’s how most people may choose to remember Alomar.
But it’s probably not going to keep the second baseman from being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week. When qualifying members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- including me -- submit their ballots by Dec. 31, I suspect Alomar will receive the necessary 75 percent of the vote to gain induction into Cooperstown.
Alomar has my vote. He was a 12-time All-Star consecutively, meaning he dominated more than a decade at his position. He won 10 American League Gold Glove Awards. He was a lifetime .300 hitter. He could steal bases. He could score runs. He could prevent runs. He could hit with power. He could hit in the clutch. He may be one of the best all-around second baseman ever in the game and certainly the best at his position in his era.
Case closed.
I’m not going to let one isolated spitting incident with home plate umpire John Hirschbeck 13 years ago cloud Alomar’s Hall of Fame caliber playing career. I would dare guess that most of my fellow 530 plus HOF balloters feel the same thing.
Yet, most of my fellow balloters choose not overlook the one isolated incident two years ago that haunts Mark McGwire and he wasn’t even playing on a baseball field at the time. I just wonder how many BBWAA writers would vote McGwire into the Hall of Fame if he had not never appeared in front of a Congressional panel and made a fool of himself with his “I’m not here to talk about the past” mantra.
I, for one, have tried to look past that embarrassing moment and tried to remember McGwire for hitting 583 career home runs and injecting, no pun intended, much-needed life and excitement into baseball in 1998 when the game was reeling and recovering from a work stoppage that cancelled the 1994 World Series. He looked like a natural home run hitter as a rookie in 1987 when he slugged 49 home runs. When he started hitting home runs later his career he didn’t look as natural, though no one seemed to care. Baseball needed a hero and McGwire produced a heroic feat – 70 home runs in a single season.
Then, for whatever reason 10 years later, McGwire agreed to appear before a Congressional panel investing steroid use in baseball. He didn’t flat out lie like others. He didn’t go into deep-rooted denial like others. He knew what he did sent the wrong message to the youth of this country and he wanted to help, but he only hurt himself with his stance and choice of words.
McGwire made a big mistake. But should he not be in the Hall of Fame along with Alomar, who couldn’t for years couldn’t live down the biggest mistake in his baseball career?
Case still open.
Yes, I am among the 22 percent or so of BBWAA members who vote for McGwire for the Hall of Fame. I’m not particularly proud of it. My argument is a hard one to make and defend. Like making an alibi for Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity.
I’m trying to look at McGwire more objectively and not be as judgmental. There is a gray area in my mind. There was a culture that existed in baseball in McGwire’s era that was not discouraged by anyone, any rules or any substantial drug testing. No one individual should be faulted for letting baseball’s dirty little secret get out of control. It was a team effort of deceit.
This is not a black and white issue with me. I don’t see it simply as McGwire cheated therefore he should not be in the Hall of Fame where they are other cheaters, or players who, too, looked for a competitive edge with the means they had.
Baseball is a game of numbers and McGwire put up big numbers that should land him in the Hall of Fame. Those numbers are probably tainted, but I do not know to what degree. I do not know how many other players in that era cheated, too. I do not have all the facts and information I would like to know how performance-enhancing drugs, legal or illegal, affected statistics of the so-called Steroid Era.
As you may have gathered, filling out my Hall of Fame baseball ballot is an agonizing progress. I can check up to 10 names on the ballot and there are 26 on it this year. I will vote for Alomar, McGwire and Andre Dawson, a gifted hitter and fielder and one of only three players in the history of the game with 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases in his career. And he played most of it on bad knees. He was Rookie of the Year in 1977 and National League MVP a decade later.
I could have voted for Edgar Martinez, arguably the greatest Designated Hitter ever. But, though he was essentially paid to do one thing – hit – he had 2,247 hits in his career, far short of the magical 3,000 and more than 1,000 fewer than Paul Molitor.
I could have voted for Barry Larkin, another first-timer on the ballot. But in my mind he falls into the same category as a number of other Hall of Fame candidates – Jack Morris, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Harold Baines, Don Mattingly – truly great players at their positions in their eras but were they dominating for an extended period of time to be deemed Hall of Famers? What sets them apart?
Which brings me finally to Bert Blyleven. For years, I have been on the fence but have resisted voting for him because I ultimately have found it hard to vote for a starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame who has nearly a .500 lifetime record (287-250) and made only two All-Star teams in 22 major league seasons. However, Blyleven is fifth all-time in strikeouts and recorded 262 complete games and 60 shutouts and those numbers jump out at you in this era. Plus, he had a legendary curve ball.
Phil Niekro is in the Hall of Fame primarily because he was a legendary knuckle ball pitcher – who won 318 games, made five All-Star teams in three decades and once led the league in ERA.
I could have voted for Blyleven, but I didn’t. I’m getting closer, yet I’m not quite totally convinced he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But keep in mind one thing: We all can make mistakes. Big ones. Some are forgiven. Others are not.