Heisman Long shot

Dan Wetzel

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The most dominant player in college football has virtually no chance of capturing the sport's dominant individual trophy.

This isn't all that unusual – the Heisman has long been a confounding award – but it does beg the question how football can be both our most popular, closely followed and heavily analyzed sport, while remaining so misunderstood.

"Any discussion of the best football players in the country, if it doesn't include Jake Long, then I think there is something missing in that discussion," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.

Well, there are a lot of discussions that are missing something then, because not too many Heisman lists include Long. And at 6-foot-8 and 315-pounds, the Wolverines senior left tackle would seem difficult to miss – even to historically clueless voters.

Long hasn't given up a sack or been called for a penalty this season. As a run blocker, three different Michigan backs have posted 100 yard games running behind him.

The Wolverines have won seven consecutive games, averaging 31.7 points during that stretch, despite losing at various times both their starting quarterback and running back to injury. It didn't matter with Long acting like Bob Evans, serving pancakes all over the Midwest.

Everyone knows what the Wolverines are going to do and whom they are going to follow, they just can't stop it. Against Penn State they ran 19 of their first 21 rushing plays in the direction of Long's lead block.

How good is this guy? Well, last year Big Ten coaches voted him the league's "lineman of the year." The runners-up were Wisconsin's Joe Thomas and Penn State's Levi Brown. You might've heard of them, they both went in the top five of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Long could be the first pick overall next spring. Mel Kiper has him No. 2 on his draft board behind only LSU defensive end Glenn Dorsey.

Of course, Dorsey is another mega-talent who, like Long, Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, and so many others, has no chance at contending for the Heisman because, well, the voters are idiots.

The Heisman ballot makes no mention of position. It seeks simply the "outstanding college football player in the United States."

But along the way, voters have decided that "outstanding" only applies to quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Since 1949, only Michigan's Charles Woodson, in 1997, broke the streak, winning as a lockdown cornerback, although he had to moonlight as a receiver and kick returner to do it.

The last offensive lineman to finish even runner up was Ohio State's John Hicks back in 1973. Long, no matter how good he is, will be lucky to crack the top 15.

Voters apparently can't fathom choosing someone who doesn't play a "skill position," which says more about them than the players.

The most coveted and difficult to find combination of "skills" in football are the ones Long possesses – the size and strength to move defenders forward (on runs) with the speed and athletic ability to fend them off while stepping backward (on passes).

Such creatures need long arms, light feet, quick reaction and an agility that belies their mass. These aren't big fat guys anymore, the "big uglies." They are freak of nature athletes; incredibly rare.

The proof is in the free marketplace of the National Football League, where the true value of a player is easily identified by their salary.

Forget about highlight shows and public perception, the NFL, with its limited resources (salary cap), will tell you the value of a position by what it will pay the people who perform it. The league will spend more for the most important jobs and even more for those players with the elite skills to excel at it.

As Michael Lewis' brilliant book "The Blind Side" points out, the highest average salary in the NFL for over a decade has been quarterback. The second highest has been left tackle. Yes, left tackle. And the gap closes each year. In 2006, left tackles were three of the five highest-paid players in the league, according to USA Today.

NFL teams know you can always get a wide receiver or a running back (and in some cases QB) but a great left tackle is different. Since most QBs are right-handed, the left tackle protects their back from the opponent's best defensive end, the one whose violent rush can cause a sack, a fumble or even a maiming.

A player capable of not just neutralizing that threat, but creating an offensive one by powering a running attack, is simply invaluable in the game of football. They play defense and offense at the same time. Which is why Long might make more money in salary during his career than any other player in his draft class.

"I'm aware of that," Long laughed about the money his position earns. "That says a lot. It is definitely a position you need (in order) to protect the quarterback's blind side. It is definitely one of the toughest positions to play."

But to Heisman voters, apparently he just plays some anonymous, interchangeable spot that requires little measurable skill.

The guy having a near perfect season at the second most valued position on the field isn't even in the debate over "outstanding."

At this point, since manhandling defenders won't impress voters, maybe he could get a few offensive touches – after all, the guy on the trophy is carrying the ball.

"Three years ago against Michigan State, I recovered a fumble," Long offered.

Did you pick it up and run it in for a touchdown?

"No," he said. "Just fell on it."

That's probably not going to be enough.

"I think if you wanted to look at a 50-play highlight of Jake Long this year it would educate people in a way that they could see (how) one great offensive lineman can impact a game," Carr said.

That's true. Watch this guy for one quarter and it is almost inhumane what he does to the poor kid across the way. But shouldn't "educated" be a prerequisite for the job of Heisman voter?

Really, what Long does is impossible to miss. When he caves in a side of the defensive line or slams a pass rusher to the ground, subtle and nuanced aren't applicable adjectives.

Plus, if there was a position that an individual honor is justified, left tackle would be it. A quarterback needs someone to catch his pass, a receiver someone to throw it to him, a running back a hand off and some blocking.

For the most part Long's job is to physically defeat the man across from him. There are schemes and assignments, but that's about it. Even if every other player on his team stinks, he could still perform this task brilliantly. The best player could actually play on the worst team.

In this case, his team is 7-2 and ranked No. 12 in the BCS standings. Not that his candidacy would be any healthier if the Wolverines were 9-0 and No. 1.

"The Heisman is a skill position trophy," Long said, shrugging his massive shoulders.

That's not what it claims to be though, just what the voters have turned it into. Talk about your blind side.