The offseason addition of quarterback Marcus Mariota provides the Las Vegas Raiders with the latest chapter in a time-honored franchise tradition: Employing Heisman Trophy winners.
Mariota won the award as college’s best player in 2014, shortly before becoming the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. He joined the Raiders this spring, under a two-year contract to ostensibly replace a rogue’s gallery of 2019 mediocrities as the backup to quarterback Derek Carr.
Once NFL football resumes, he will also become the 12th former Heisman winner to don the Silver & Black. This is a team, after all, that has always seemed to have a fascination with Heisman winners — and has never hesitated to take a chance on a player with star potential, from failed first-round draft picks to raw athletes to former starters from division rivals.
And, while some Heisman winners have become Raiders legends, like wide receiver/kick returner Tim Brown, others have failed to make a mark in a short, unmemorable stint with the team.
It remains to be seen if Mariota will follow in the footsteps of Jim Plunkett, who became a Super Bowl champion quarterback, or Matt Leinart, who was never more than a benchwarmer for the team.
These are the 11 other Heisman Trophy winners who have spent time, whether briefly or through the majority of their careers, with the Raiders.
(Photo: Marcus Mariota signed with the Raiders during the offseason after five years with the Tennessee Titans.)
Billy Cannon, Heisman Trophy winner with LSU in 1959
Raiders running back/tight end from 1964-69
The Raiders acquired Cannon, a former first overall AFL draft pick, in a trade with the Houston Oilers in 1964 and utilized him at running back and fullback for one season before moving him to tight end, where he became the team’s starter for several years. By the time he left the organization in 1970, he had caught 97 passes over five years as a tight end despite never serving as a focal point of the offense. He rushed for 338 yards and caught 37 passes in his one year in the backfield. Cannon finished his career with one season with the Kansas City Chiefs. He died in 2018 at age 80.
Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy winner with Stanford in 1970
Raiders quarterback from 1978-87
Plunkett, like Cannon a No. 1 overall draft pick, was signed off the scrap heap after being released by the San Francisco 49ers in 1978 and sat on the bench for two-plus years before taking over as the Raiders’ starting quarterback in 1980 when Dan Pastorini went down with an injury early in the year. Plunkett went on to win two Super Bowls — and one Super Bowl MVP award — as the Raiders’ quarterback, starting for the better part of seven years, despite battling injuries. Retiring after the Raiders released him in training camp 1988, he eventually became a broadcaster for the team.
Marcus Allen, Heisman Trophy winner with USC in 1981
Raiders running back from 1982-92
Before its ignominious end, Marcus Allen’s time with the Raiders was truly glorious. The first-round draft pick in 1982 rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times and more than 600 yards another five times in 11 years, highlighted by a 1,759-yard season in 1985. He was perhaps most famous for his MVP performance in Super Bowl XVIII, when he set a (since broken) record with a spectacular 74-yard run. Late in his Raiders career, he split time with phenom Bo Jackson and feuded with owner Al Davis, finally signing with division rival Kansas City in 1993. Ten years later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bo Jackson, Heisman Trophy winner with Auburn in 1985
Raiders running back from 1987-90
Like a comet, Bo Jackson raced into the Raiders’ world, shone brilliantly for a while, then disappeared almost as quickly as he had come. The top draft pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, he refused to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had chosen him, and re-entered the draft in 1987. The Raiders took him with a seventh-round pick, and allowed him to join the team after the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season. Jackson, a two-sport star famed for his “Bo Knows” commercials, would join the Raiders halfway through each season for the next few years and take over for Marcus Allen as the starting running back. A hip injury in the playoffs in 1990 ended his football career.
Tim Brown, Heisman Trophy winner with Notre Dame in 1987
Raiders wide receiver/kick returner from 1988-2003
Tim Brown burst onto the scene as the sixth overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, proving a threat catching the ball, rushing the ball and returning kicks and punts. Despite a devastating knee injury that wrecked his sophomore season, he would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a sure-handed receiver and punt returner, regularly catching 100 balls in a season and setting team records in most career receiving and returning categories. Brown finished his 17-year career — including one final season with Tampa Bay — just shy of 1,100 catches and 15,000 receiving yards, along with an even 100 touchdowns.
Andre Ware, Heisman Trophy winner with Houston in 1989
Raiders quarterback in 1999
Andre Ware, a record-setting college quarterback, was a draft bust with the Detroit Lions, lasting only four years, primarily as a third-string quarterback. After a stint in the Canadian Football League, the Raiders signed him in 1999, assigning him to NFL Europe in the spring, where he played for the Berlin Thunder. By the time he got to training camp in the fall, however, he was injured and ineffective, and quickly retired.
Desmond Howard, Heisman Trophy winner with Michigan in 1991
Raiders wide receiver/kick returner from 1997-98
Famed at Michigan for his “Heisman” pose after a touchdown, Howard was the fourth overall pick in the 1992 draft. But going into Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997, Howard had never lived up to his college hype despite finding some success as a receiver and, most notably, as a kick and punt returner. But, in the big game, he turned in an electrifying performance, winning the Super Bowl MVP award after a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, and he signed a big-bucks free agent deal with the Raiders in the aftermath. But he caught only six passes in two seasons in Oakland, serving primarily as a return man, and was gone from the team by 1999.
Rashaan Salaam, Heisman Trophy winner with Colorado in 1994
Raiders running back in 1999
The Raiders signed Salaam, along with Ware, for training camp in 1999, and while he had a strong preseason, he failed to make the team. The former first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, who rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie in 1995, bounced around for a while after the Raiders cut him, most notably with a stint in the short-lived XFL in 2001. Injuries and drug problems cut short what had once been a promising career. Tragically, Salaam committed suicide at age 42 in 2016.
Charles Woodson, Heisman Trophy winner with Michigan in 1997
Raiders cornerback from 1998-2005 and safety from 2013-15
Woodson had two tours with the Raiders, first as an electrifying Pro Bowl cornerback in his early years in the NFL, and later — after winning a Super Bowl ring with the Green Bay Packers — serving as a free safety and elder statesman with the team in the years prior to his retirement. The young Woodson, the first defensive player to win the Heisman, was a top draft pick who started from Day 1. He spent eight years as a starting corner and sometime punt returner, starring mostly on sheer talent. After seven years with the Packers, he re-signed with the Raiders and spent three more seasons as a starting safety. He retired at the end of the 2015 season.
Carson Palmer, Heisman Trophy winner with USC in 2002
Raiders quarterback from 2011-12
When starting quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a season-ending injury early in 2011, then-head coach Hue Jackson traded two top draft picks to the Cincinnati Bengals for Palmer, who had been holding out after eight years with the team. Palmer was often ineffective coming off the couch to start, as the Raiders fell just short of the postseason at 8-8 in the year when owner Al Davis died. Given a full training camp and season with the team in 2012, Palmer threw for more than 4,000 yards, but the Raiders went 4-12 under new head coach Dennis Allen and General Manager Reggie McKenzie traded him to the Arizona Cardinals after Palmer declined to restructure his contract.
Matt Leinart, Heisman Trophy winner with USC in 2004
Raiders quarterback in 2012
The Raiders passed over Leinart in the 2005 NFL Draft, opting instead for safety Michael Huff. However, despite his college credentials, Leinart failed to make much impact with the team that drafted him, Arizona, and he signed with the Raiders as a free agent after two years as a backup with the Houston Texans. For Oakland, Leinart backed up his former University of Southern California teammate, Palmer, in 2012. He played in only two games and threw all of 33 passes, and the Raiders chose not to re-sign him for 2013.
Assuming Mariota makes the team in the fall — a safe assumption — he will mark a return to (potential) prominence for Heisman winners on the Raiders. Not only would he be the first Heisman winner on the team’s roster since Woodson retired at the end of 2015, he would be the most recent, as Leinart brought home the trophy a decade before the former Oregon passer, in 2004.
(Editor’s Note: As we work to reboot and redesign the Raiders Research Project for 2020, early-year content may not reflect the final plans for the site in terms of both functionality and content. Please bear with us. ~ Ace)
All photos (except as noted) by Bob Carr Photography; used with permission.