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When Johnny "Football" Manziel stepped onstage in New York City as the Heisman Trophy winner, he did something previously unthinkable: he became the first freshman ever to win college football’s most prestigious individual award. One would think that, in doing so, Manziel—who turned 20 years old just a few days before the Heisman ceremony—cemented himself as an elite player for all time.
But if you dig through the Heisman archives, you’ll find plenty of trophy winners who didn't exactly live up to their “elite” status—e.g., Gino Torretta, Danny Wuerffel, Jason White—guys who had stellar collegiate careers, or, like Manziel, a single amazing season, but who didn’t keep up their outstanding level of achievement in the pros.
Exactly what makes a player “elite,” anyway? Sometimes it’s timing, or even perception, as much as on-field performance. And can a role player, such as a kicker in football or a sixth man in basketball, truly be elite? Does an elite player need to be a consistent performer, or can he or she be a shooting star? Let’s look at some examples from the past to see.
The Perception Battle: Tim Tebow vs. Michael Vick
He won 48 college games (35 as a starter), led Florida to two national titles and won the Heisman trophy. But as soon as quarterback Tim Tebow graduated, scouts said he was bound to be a tight end, fullback or other role-player—somebody who should be on the field, but not under center.
At Virginia Tech, Michael Vick won 22 college games and one bowl game; made it to a national championship game against Florida State; and was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
Based on production, Tebow was better in college. But now that both men are in the NFL, Vick is considered the better pro. Why?
Vick has been in the NFL since 2001, serving as a starter most of the time and leading two teams (the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons) to the playoffs. Tebow only performed as a starter for most of the 2011 season for the Denver Broncos, where he won a majority of his games but was known for bad on-field decisions and ugly passes. Today he sits behind Mark Sanchez on the New York Jets roster.
But their stories are not over, not by a long shot. Although Tebow is riding the bench, many believe he could perform well as a starter if he were given the opportunity. Vick was sidelined by injury this season, and he may have lost his starting job as a result—or because of sub-par performance on the field.
Team Matters: Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout
Rookie outfielder Mike Trout is the definition of a well-rounded player. He can hit for power, run, throw and play defense. Many thought the young phenom played well enough to earn the American League MVP award in 2012. But he lost out to Miguel Cabrera. Although Trout was more integral to his Angels team than Cabrera was to the Tigers (meaning Trout was worth more wins to his team than any replacement), Cabrera, a veteran, did things this season he’d never accomplished previously. He won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, compiling the highest batting average, hitting the most home runs and driving in the most runs. Almost as impressive, Cabrera changed positions from first base to third base to begin the season, a move that improved his entire team by allowing them to put more talented players on the field.
Cabrera ultimately helped lead his team to the World Series; Trout's team missed the playoffs. While some statistics say Trout should have won the award, Cabrera performed at a higher level for a stronger team, two factors that made him the MVP.
Does Team Matter? Charles Haley and Dan Marino
Charles Haley is not in the Hall of Fame, although in the view of many, he should be. A fierce defensive lineman, he’s the only NFL player to have won five Super Bowls. But some believe his individual performance was helped by his being on two of the most dominating teams of the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. The argument: the timing of his career arc helped push him to elite status.
Dan Marino, meanwhile, never won a Super Bowl. He only made it to the big game once, during his rookie season. He benefitted from playing for a great organization and a Hall of Fame coach, but the team was only consistently good—not great—during most of his career. However, Marino was a no-brainer, first ballot Hall of Famer. Why? His individual stats were so impressive that on his own, he was a truly elite player.
Are Specialists Special Enough? Robert Horry and Adam Vinatieri
Robert Horry has won more NBA championships than Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan. But no one would consider him a better player than those three. A career role player, Horry understood his place on a team. Bill Walton once said of him: "He is the greatest in-bounder in NBA Playoff history." Horry knew his job was to be a defender and a three-point shooter, and by doing his job well, he became one of the best clutch players in league history.
Adam Vinatieri is the definition of a specialist: a placekicker. During an average football game, he probably spent no more than a minute of regulation play on the field. However, when a game was on the line, no kicker performed as well as Vinatieri. He’s the only kicker to win four Super Bowls, two of the wins coming on last-second kicks that he successfully converted. While Vinatieri was by definition a role player, his performance under pressure made him an elite specialist.
Shooting Stars: Johnny "Football" and Marco Scutaro
Let’s not take away anything that freshman quarterback Johnny "Football" Manziel did this season. He took a Texas A&M team that many expected would flounder in college football’s toughest conference, the SEC, and led them to an outstanding 9-2 record, including an enormous upset win over top-ranked Alabama on their own field in Tuscaloosa. He is the only freshman to throw for more than 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000. His Heisman win was well-deserved. The question now is, how long and how bright will his star shine?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the career spectrum, 37-year-old journeyman Marco Scutaro began the 2012 season on the Colorado Rockies roster. He was then traded to the San Francisco Giants, where he earned a spot as their starting second baseman. He played extremely well for the eventual World Series champs, earning an MVP Award for his performance in the National League Championship Series. It took a lot longer for Scutaro’s light to shine, but this season it was brighter than ever.
So who is elite? Each in his own way.