Ron Dayne Was a Rare Heisman Running Back Bust

Winning the Heisman Trophy is far and away the greatest honor that a college football player can receive. Yet as great as that honor is, it doesn’t always predict future success. A surprising number of Heisman winners see their skills fall off at the NFL level. Some burn out altogether, while others simply tail off into solid yet unremarkable play.

One of the biggest Heisman busts in recent history was running back Ron Dayne. The University of Wisconsin star simply failed to blossom as an NFL player, instead putting together a disappointing journeyman career before fading away altogether. Here we take a look back at Dayne’s college success and NFL struggles, while trying to account for the unexpected drop-off.

Ron Dayne’s dominant college career

Dayne attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was the Badgers starting running back for all four years. Analysts initially expressed concern about Dayne’s height and weight, saying that at 5’10” and 270 pounds he was both too short and too slow to make a serious impact. Dayne soon proved such critics wrong.

Dayne’s freshman year was especially impressive. He rushed for 2,109 yards on 325 attempts — good for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt. He also scored 21 touchdowns. Dayne’s numbers dropped off a little bit during his sophomore and junior years, but he remained one of the most effective and frequently used tools in the Badgers’ offensive arsenal.

During his senior year, Dayne returned to elite form, rushing for 2,034 yards on 337 attempts, while scoring 20 touchdowns. That performance ultimately earned Dayne both the Heisman trophy, as well as the Big Ten Most Valuable Player and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards.

Dayne still holds the record for the most rushing yards ever, at 7,125 yards, including his stats from bowl games. Although he was never a flashy player, Dayne’s college career established himself as a true workman — a player who could deliver consistent results as often as he was asked to. Most analysts expected that skillset to make Dayne a reliable bet as an NFL star.

Disappointments at the NFL level

The New York Giants selected Ron Dayne with the 11th pick of the 2000 NFL Draft. The Giants saw him as the perfect backfield partner for speedy running back Tiki Barber. Yet Dayne never managed to manifest his skills at the NFL level. During his first season with the Giants, Dayne rushed for just 770 yards on 228 attempts, averaging just 3.4 yards per attempt.

Dayne’s performance — as well as his playing time — dwindled steadily in his following three years with the giants. By the 2004 season, Dayne rushed just 179 yards on 52 attempts.

The Giants didn’t resign Dayne, spent the following year with the Denver Broncos, before ending his career with two seasons as a Houston Texan. Though his numbers improved in his final season, they were still nowhere near his college level.

Accounting for Ron Dayne’s unexpected collapse

Opinions vary as to the reasons for Dayne’s NFL bust. Some commentators claim that Dayne’s numbers at Wisconsin were inflated by a generally lower caliber of competition. Yet the Badgers still played plenty of tough opponents, and Dayne’s numbers were just too good to be written off with an “empty stats” argument.

A better explanation of Dayne’s drop off had to do with his weight. Dayne was overweight and in poor shape for most of his NFL career. Hiding that kind of shortcoming becomes a lot harder when you face top-caliber opponents on a weekly basis. Still, Dayne’s failure at the NFL level struck many commentators as surprising.

The majority of Heisman busts are quarterbacks, with Robert Griffin III, Eric Crouch, and Johnny Manziel being just three of many examples. A running back’s NFL success tends to be much easier to predict. Dayne, however, proved the unfortunate exception to that rule.