Stiff Arm Stats
Statistically speaking, who had the better Heisman campaign: Johnny Manziel or Robert Griffin III?
Two seasons, two transcendent Texas-bred quarterbacks, two Heismans. Life’s pretty good in the Lone Star State.
In consecutive years, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel came from relative obscurity to win the nation’s most prestigious college football award. And in both case, if I may editorialize, they were the easy choice. Quite simply, they were the most statistically dominant player in the country.
Johnny Manziel set all sorts of A&M and SEC records en route to becoming the first freshman Heisman Trophy winner. Robert Griffin III became Baylor’s all-time leader in basically every statistical category, and put up jaw-dropping numbers that dwarfed his competition.
But how do they stack up against one another? Who had the superior statistical Heisman season?
To study this, we need to isolate a few things. First of all, we’re only taking into account games against FBS opponents. We’re not going to reward Robert Griffin III for beating up on Stephen F. Austin, and we’re not giving Johnny Manziel bonus points for helping to hang a combined 117 points on South Carolina State and Sam Houston State.
Secondly – and longtime readers of TexasFootball.com will remember that this is a pet peeve of mine – we’re using rate stats, not total stats. Yes, Robert Griffin III’s 4,000+ passing yards are neat; he also played (or, at least, so far has played) two more games than Johnny Manziel. He shouldn’t get rewarded for that.
So, how do they stack up, given those caveats? Let’s go to the numbers.
Griffin was, pretty clearly, the superior passer, with better numbers on all of the passing statistics. Manziel was, pretty clearly, the superior rusher, with better numbers on all of the rushing statistics. And as far as total impact is concerned, well, they’re about even, with Manziel holding the slight edge on total yards and Griffin holding the slight edge on scoring.
But what about the competition? After all, Manziel plays in the SEC, which has a reputation as the finest defensive league in the nation. Griffin lit up the Big XII, which has a reputation as being a wide-open, devil-may-care defensive league.
And it’s true: not all opponents are created equal. Let’s take a look at their opponents using my favorite nerdy football website (I say that as an endearing term, from one nerd to another), Football Outsiders.
The boys there have a few different metrics for college football, and my favorite among them is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, or FEI. It essentially ranks the efficiency of each unit, adjusted for opponent. You can read all about the nitty-gritty here, but in short: it’s a deep-stat way of ranking both teams and individual units, as opposed to just looking at the number of yards or points they gain or allow.
So, let’s look at the FEI rankings of the defensive units that both Manziel and Griffin faced during their Heisman campaigns, and I’ll be honest, this surprised me:
|Manziel Opponents||FEI Def. Rank|
|Griffin Opponents||FEI Def. Rank|
Yes, that’s right: Robert Griffin III actually faced slightly better defenses than Johnny Manziel. Manziel faced the best overall defense – Florida, the No. 1 defense in the nation (in his collegiate debut, no less) – but both Griffin and Manziel faced three of the top 12 defenses in the nation. And both faced their share of dogs; Manziel feasted on Louisiana Tech and Auburn, while Griffin got the distinct pleasure of taking on Washington and Texas Tech (though he missed much of the Tech game due to injury).
In the end, though, the difference in defenses is relatively negligible. And beyond that, we want to isolate this even further. How did these two Heisman winners perform against the very best defenses they saw?
So, let’s go one step farther. I isolated the statistics for their games against the five best defenses they faced. For Manziel – No. 1 Florida, No. 8 Alabama, No. 12 LSU, No. 54 Missouri and No. 55 Ole Miss. For Griffin – No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Texas, No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 19 Kansas State and No. 27 Texas A&M.
Here are the raw stats for each in those games.
|TOP 5 TOTALS||125||187||1265||6||6||84||375||4|
|TOP 5 TOTALS||120||177||1992||15||5||70||152||3|
And here are how their rate stats look against the top five defenses they faced.
|VS. 5 Best Defenses|
More or less, comparatively, they look about the same. Griffin is still the superior passer (a little less accurate against the best defenses, a little more prolific), while Manziel is still the superior rusher.
As the saying goes, if you torture numbers long enough, they’ll tell you whatever you want. Who was the better Heisman Trophy winner? It’s…close. Very, very close. Agonizingly close. And it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
But one thing is for sure, at least in my mind: there’s absolutely no doubt that both Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III are worthy of being listed among the all-time greats, with their names etched in football history not just in Texas, but across the country.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.