It never has made sense.
An Archie Griffin or a Charles White would embarrass college defenses, and immediately they would be labeled can't-miss professionals in the National Football League.
But when Griffin and White left college, apparently they also left their abilities behind. You watch them now and nothing happens. A few yards, maybe, but hardly ever the breakaway runs that made their years in college so memorable. And rarely any broken tackles, any thrilling sprints around end where the last defender was eluded with a deft hip feint.
Griffin and White have become average players in a league where some of the best runners have names like Payton, Cribbs, Montgomery and Anderson, names that didn't appear near the top of the Heisman Trophy voting.
White won the Heisman in 1979. Griffin won the trophy twice, in 1974 and 1975. No one else had ever won it more than once.
Is there a Heisman jinx? Hardly, despite disappointments such as Pat Sullivan, John Cappelletti, Gary Beban, Steve Spurrier and Terry Baker. Consider Tony Dorsett (1976), Earl Campbell (1977) and Billy Sims (1978). They made the transition from college to pro without missing a stride or a paycheck, for that matter.
Still, there is a significant difference between how football is played on the college and pro levels. The college game is more flexible, more varied, more adaptable to the players. The pro game demands more defined skills to fit more defined systems. It has little room for the odd running style or the peculiar tackling form.
Put a Charles White in the deep tailback set employed by USC and he is a terror. But put him in the Cleveland Browns' split-back alignment, where he lines up much closer to the quarterback, and the flair is gone.
And don't think only Heisman winners flop in the NFL. The casualty count is much higher for Outland Trophy winners, the players considered the year's outstanding lineman. Whatever happened to Brad Shearer, Rich Glover, John Hicks and Larry Jacobson? They won the Outland in the last 10 years, but only Shearer, a backup lineman for the Bears, is in pro football.
There is a common bond that links these award winners -- the NFL draft, which pops up again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Professional scouts strip the players of the honors, the fanfare, the glamor. For the most part, the scouts seem capable of insulating themselves from the glow of reputations. They just want the facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts: Can these people play?
The answer, for many college superstars, has been a blunt no. That's why some Outland winners have lasted until the third round. And that's why many Heisman winners wait by the phone well into the first round.
What warning signals do scouts see in some college stars that are missed by the casual fan? What do the experts spot in little-known players that cause teams to draft these athletes instead in the first round?
To do their job correctly, scouts must be versed properly in those key elements that usually describe any successful pro: proper quickness, strength, desire, intelligence, instinct. By watching films and putting players through exacting physical drills, they can usually separate legitimate prospects from those who should return to the sandlots on weekends.
Take running backs, for example. The best halfbacks in the NFL usually possess four key characteristics:
THE JET FACTOR -- Although players constantly are being discussed in terms of their 40-yard dash time, that element is misleading. Mike Thomas and Joe Washington both have average 40 clockings, but are dangerous pro runners because of their quickness and acceleration.
The great runners see an opening and then have the ability to burst through it -- jet to it -- before it closes. Watch Walter Payton closely. He doesn't have exceptional breakaway speed -- he was caught from behind on his longest run as a pro -- but he does not need sustained blocks to gain yards. Give him a hint of an opening and he'll take advantage of it with his exceptional start.
LATERAL MOVEMENT -- White and Griffin certainly seemed to burst through holes in college. Indeed, many of Griffin's most thrilling runs were up the middle; he would break through the line of srimmage before defenders could touch him. Yet scouts noticed something else: Neither player could run from side to side in short bursts with the same ability they showed when moving straight ahead.
Scouts have problems defining lateral movement. They'll mumble some words and then resort to hand movement. "It's this," they'll say, moving their hand from left to right very quickly. Zigzag. Here one moment, gone the next. "Quick feet, that's what it is, quick feet," they'll say.
Quick feet may be the most overworked term in scouting, but it does serve a useful purpose. It defines that ability in a runner to scoot down the line of scrimmage and then quickly cut inside a hole. Lesser backs must gather themselves before moving. By then, it's too late.
USE OF BLOCKERS -- How many times have you heard the announcers say, "He used his blockers well on that run"? Scouts notice too, but they notice something else. Is the runner gaining only what the blockers give him, or is he making even more from the opportunity?
If the former is true, then the runner always will need top-rate linemen in front of him. But if he is more independent, he can make do despite blocking breakdowns.
BODY PROTECTION -- One reason some people believe Herschel Walker, the Georgia phenom, should turn pro immediately is because of the punishment his body will take in college. The average playing tenure of an NFL halfback is five years, but the theory says the span could be extended if the body is exposed to fewer college carries.
Yet some runners -- Tony Dorsett, for one -- have entered the NFL relatively unscathed despite heavy duty in college. The reason: They generally were able to avoid the damaging direct hit. But both White and Griffin gained reputations for toughness, which came in part because they delighted in taking on tacklers instead of doing their best to avoid them. The collisions may have excited alumni, but did little for the athletes' football longevity.
If all that is a bit too technical, then a fifth factor should be taken into consideration: the system.
Colleges such as USC and Ohio State traditionally have extraordinary running games featuring quality linemen. Their best runners benefit from excellent blocking and plenty of carries. Put a Joe Cribbs, a blocking back at Auburn, into the USC offense as a tailback and he most likely would have exceeded White's performances. Move White to Auburn and he probably would not have won a Heisman.
Likewise, college defenses often vary considerably from the standard pro 4-3 set. So such a team as Nebraska, which uses a 5-2 alignment, can produce a quality noseguard such as Glover, who proved too small and slow for the NFL despite his dominating play with the Cornhuskers.
Oh, yes, the word this year is that Heisman winner George Rogers won't turn out to be a pro bust. He's a legitimate prospect, although not on the same level with Sims, Campbell or Dorsett. But how many players are?