Heisman hijacked? Christian McCaffrey miffed, but not at Derrick Henry

Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson were the Heisman finalists in 2015. All are having solid NFL careers. Julie Jacobson/AP Photo

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The topic of Derrick Henry winning the 2015 Heisman Trophy recently came up when Carolina Panthers running backs coach Jake Peetz explained in his meeting room how Nick Saban coached the backs at Alabama.

It wasn't a conversation Christian McCaffrey, who finished second to Henry, wanted to join.

"Christian was like, 'Don't remind me,'" Carolina rookie running back Jordan Scarlett recalled with a laugh.

McCaffrey still believes he should have won the Heisman during his sophomore year at Stanford, when he broke Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards with 3,684. When the topic comes up, the 23-year-old McCaffrey tries to change the subject.

Many agree he deserved the trophy. Lance Taylor, McCaffrey's running backs coach at Stanford in 2015, called it a "travesty." Former Stanford teammate Solomon Thomas said the fact that McCaffrey didn't win the award was a "disgrace to the trophy."

"Embarrassing, actually," he said.

McCaffrey was reminded of the moment he'd like to forget last week when he was returned to the Bay Area to face San Francisco. It comes up again Sunday with Henry visting Bank of America Stadium as a member of the Tennessee Titans (1 p.m. Sunday, CBS).

While it has nothing to do with how McCaffrey or Henry will perform Sunday, or how they've done in the NFL, it does make for an interesting debate four years later.

Even those who voted understand why losing the award might stick in McCaffrey's craw.

ESPN college football reporter Adam Rittenberg recalled how at the time he had trouble finding media members to appear on his podcast who didn't vote for McCaffrey, as he did.

"At least the national folks," Rittenberg said. "People who watched the entire country year-round and stayed up for some of those late games and really measured who had more to do with their team's success. ... Nothing against Derrick. He had a great year. But it was pretty clear who the best player was."

Nothing personal

McCaffrey's feelings about losing the award are not a knock on Henry or his 2015 accomplishments.

Henry also broke a legend's record. His 1,932 yards rushing topped Herschel Walker's long-standing SEC single-season mark of 1,891. And he did it on 58 fewer carries than Walker had at Georgia in 1981.

Henry was Alabama's go-to player en route to the national title. Stanford lost two regular-season games, including its opener against Northwestern.

That, some believe, played a role in Henry winning the Heisman. Many of McCaffrey's big games also came late at night on the West Coast after many voters on the East Coast were asleep. The "East Coast bias," as some call it.

There's also the perceived SEC bias because Henry played in what is considered college football's best conference.

But ESPN college football writer/analyst Chris Low said he thinks none of this has anything do with why Henry won the Heisman.

"Let's face it, to me the Heisman Trophy has become the best player who is on the best team who makes the biggest plays on the biggest stages throughout the season," Low said. "Remember, Christian went off in the Rose Bowl. Well, the award already had been voted on by then. People forget that."

Bruce Feldman, a senior college football columnist for Fox Sports, had Henry rated No. 1 on his ballot until late in the season.

"It just came back to Henry had a terrific year, but I felt McCaffrey was a generational player," he said.

The vote was close. Henry had 378 first-place votes and 1,832 total points. McCaffrey had 290 first-place votes and 1,539 total points.

"I voted for Henry, but McCaffrey was a guy you knew was a great player," Low said. "It's like every other race; if people want to say he was robbed, talk to the Tennessee people when Peyton Manning didn't win it in 1997."

Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won the award that season. The Wolverines also won a share of the national title. Both Woodson and Manning had long and legendary NFL careers. Henry and McCaffrey can both aim for similar success and longevity.

Mutual respect

McCaffrey is a candidate for NFL MVP this season, ranking second in the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,078 -- 38 behind Minnesota's Dalvin Cook, who has played in one more game. McCaffrey ranks fourth in rushing yards with 735.

Henry isn't in the MVP conversation, but he is having a good season with 581 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He's ranked 14th in yards from scrimmage with 709 in eight games.

Henry and McCaffrey spent time together in New York leading up to the award presentation. Neither is surprised by the success the other is having.

"He's a great player, one of the best players In the league right now," Henry said. "He can do it all, man, running and catching. He's physical in blocking. He's the total package at running back.

"I hope he has continued success, except for against us."

McCaffrey remains a fan of Henry, too.

"I'm not shocked at his success," he said. "You see him on tape, he's a physical phenom. He runs the ball well. And also just a good guy, really hard worker. It's been fun watching him have success."

It just wasn’t fun watching Henry win the Heisman in 2015.

"He gets pretty mad about anything he doesn't win," Scarlett said of McCaffrey. "That's the competitor in him. If he was at Alabama, he definitely would have won the Heisman Trophy. It was a bias in my opinion.

"Now he has a better opportunity in front of him, to be a Hall of Famer."

ESPN Titans reporter Turron Davenport contributed to this report.