Montreal Alouettes quarterback Johnny Manziel is out of the CFL. But he wasn’t the first Heisman Trophy winner to play in the CFL. The question is how does he compare to the Heisman winners that came before him?
Prior to Manziel, eight former Heisman winners have played in the CFL. It struck me as interesting to see how his short Canadian career stacked up against theirs.
In the interests of fairness he is only being compared here against other quarterbacks who came into the league with a Heisman to their name.
There have been 6 quarterbacks to win the venerable college trophy and play in the CFL. In total 9 Heisman winners have played in the league.
The Non Quarterbacks
Three non quarterback Heisman winners have appeared in the CFL. The first was a Halfback out of Oklahoma who played for Edmonton in 1953. The Second was a Running Back/Wide Receiver out of Nebraska who played for the Montreal Alouettes from 1973-1976. The last non-QB was Ricky Williams out of Texas who played for the Toronto Argonauts in 2006.
Billy Vessels was the first Heisman winner to play in the CFL. Vessels’ first game in the CFL saw him rush 9 times for 41 and catch 2 passes for 52 yards. He also threw a pass for 6 yards.
Over his lone season in the league Vessels would carry 129 times for 926 yards and score seven touchdowns. He also completed 18 of 30 passes for 393 yards and four touchdowns as well as catching 20 passes for 310
yards and one touchdown. He also had 2 kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Vessels was voted the best player in the league in 1953 before heading to the NFL after serving in the army.
Johnny Rodgers was a key part of the Nebraska Cornhusker’s first two national titles. He was also the school’s first Heisman winner.
Rodgers was selected by the Chargers in the 1973 Draft but headed for Montreal instead. He had a successful 4 season in Canada. He was nicknamed the ‘Ordinary Superstar’ & won the Most Outstanding Rookie award.
Rodgers had 216 career carries for 1138 yards and seven touchdowns. He also had 186 catches for 3643 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also helped the Als win the 1974 Grey Cup.
Run Ricky Run
Williams joined the CFL whilst serving an NFL suspension following a second positive drugs test. The Argos would go 10-8 with Williams in the backfield as he amassed 526 yards on 109 carries before injury struck.
Prior to the 2006 Grey Cup, the league announced what came to be known as the ‘Ricky Rule‘. Teams could no longer sign players who were serving an NFL suspension. This was to nullify the NFL and Miami Dolphins irritation that a player could have been injured playing in the CFL whilst still technically under contract to them.
So we come to the crux of it. Who were the Heisman winning quarterbacks in the CFL prior to Johnny Football. And just how do they compare to each other?
Let’s take their careers in chronological order and see how they stack up.
The First Quarterback
His CFL career was limited to going 23 of 36 for 344 yards and 1 touchdown. He also ran 36 times for 120 yards and a touchdown too.
Manziel Comparison: Not as many yards or touchdowns as Johnny, but he did pass a law degree whilst in the CFL.
He finished his CFL with career with 41,355 yards passing and 270 touchdowns. A six time CFL MOP and 3 time Grey Cup champion.
In 2006 he was voted the best CFL player of all time.
Manziel Comparison: Sorry Johnny you just don’t belong in this exalted company!
Andre Ware was the backup to Flutie in 1997. Two Heisman winning quarterbacks on a Grey Cup winning team is a true one off.
He spent three years in the CFL. During that time he threw for 1,532 yards and 10 touchdowns as well as rushing 40 times for 316 yards and a touchdown.
Ware appeared for 3 teams in the league, the Ottawa Rough Riders, The BC Lions & latterly the Argonauts.
Of interest to fans in the UK he was also on the NFLEurope cellar dwellers Berlin Thunder in 1999.
Manziel Comparison: He may have had a short career in the league but it was better than Johnny’s statistically and he picked up a Grey Cup ring – advantage Andre!
Eric Crouch had very little impact in the CFL. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have an interesting career though.
He played for the 2005 Hamburg Sea Devils in NFLEurope. He was a safety on the 5-5 expansion team.
He was on the Argos team in 2006 and 2007. He passed 13 times, completing six passes for 127 yards and one interception. He ran 6 times for 36 yards.
Manziel Comparison: Johnny may have had a short CFL career but it was more productive than the one Eric Crouch put together.
He played for the Montreal Alouettes in 2013 and 2014.
Originally on the practice roster, Smith didn’t get the time to develop that was planned due to injury and poor play ahead of him.
On debut he threw for 247 yards and three touchdowns. It was not the heralding of a new dawn for passing in the league.
The promise shown in 2013 saw the Als offer a 3 year contract. However a poor start for him and Montreal in 2014 saw him released and that was that.
For his career Smith finished with 1873 yards passing and 13 touchdowns. He also ran 23 times for 96 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Manziel Comparison: Eerily similar? The hype, the flash of potential and the eventual let down. At least for Smith it was on the field play rather than off the field issues that made the difference.
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