The turf at Lucas Oil Stadium is a proving ground for hundreds of college football players at the NFL’s annual Scouting Combine. There, potential first round draft picks and sleepers alike try to sprint, jump, and interview their way onto an NFL roster. It’s the blazing 40-yard dash times and impressive bounds that grab the headlines, but often, it’s their work behind closed doors that boosts (or hurts) a player’s stock.
Team interviews can make or break a prospect’s reputation with organizations. Maxx Williams, the former Golden Gopher tight end, reportedly came across as selfish in combine interviews last year, and his attitude may have turned a few teams off in the process. Eric Kendricks, meanwhile, was described as someone who could walk into a defensive huddle as a rookie and immediately gain the respect of veterans.
Sometimes, the fastest, tallest, and strongest players find themselves falling in the draft. All the weight and speed in the world can’t replace one of football’s most important requirements — cognitive ability. It’s why the Wonderlic Test, as parodied as it may be, remains a crucial aspect of the NFL Draft process and a key into the minds of gridiron greats.
From the time we begin elementary school to the moment we graduate college, we’re tested academically. The SAT and ACT, for example, are exams given to high school students to gauge their understanding on particular topics, from writing to math to proper use of the English language. The Wonderlic takes a different approach, tasking the brain to solve complex problems at a rapid pace.
What we’re measuring is not what you know — that’s what’s being measured on the ACT or the SAT,” said Charles Wonderlic, president and CEO of Wonderlic Inc, per Five Thirty Eight. “This is really saying, ‘How quickly does your brain gather and analyze information?’”
Though it’s only gained mass popularity recently, the Wonderlic has been a staple of business development since the 1930s. While working as the personnel director at Household Finance Corporation in 1937, Eldon “E.F.” Wonderlic developed the test to help his employer more efficiently hire entry-level workers. In theory, the test determined that different jobs had different cognitive demands, ranging from very low to very high. In 1961, he left his post at Household Finance and founded E.F. Wonderlic & Associates, which helped deliver the test an estimated 4 million at the time.
It was in the late 1960s that the Wonderlic took hold in the NFL, and it can all be traced back to legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. With a desire to better gauge the potential of players to succeed in the NFL, Landry incorporated the Wonderlic into his evaluation. Shortly after, a handful of teams followed suit, and in 2007, Wonderlic Inc. began annually administering the Wonderlic at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Michael Hall, founder of two websites dedicated to the Wonderlic, explained the actual process of taking the exam. “It’s a 50-question test, and you’re only given 12 minutes to complete the test,” he said. “When you do the math that’s only 14.4 seconds per question.” With less than 15 seconds to complete each question, it’s difficult to determine the impact of the test. How can we quantify cognitive ability in such a short amount of time?
But Hall believes there’s value in the rapid-fire nature of the exam. “People who score poorly on the Wonderlic typically linger on questions and run out of time,” he said. “A good Wonderlic score proves that you can think quickly and critically, which many argue is an essential trait of being an NFL quarterback.”
And although it’s considered essential, the skills don’t necessarily equate to becoming a successful quarterback in the league. In 2009, Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, and John W. Michel co-authored a study on the reported Wonderlic scores of 762 NFL players from three draft classes. They found that there was little correlation between Wonderlic scores and on-field performance. What they did find, though, provided peculiar insights into the cognitive makeup of NFL rosters.
“The Lyons Study famously showed that there was actually a negative correlation for tight ends and defensive backs, meaning a bad score was a more promising indicator of future success than a good score,” Hall said. According to Paul Zimmerman’s The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, offensive tackles and centers average a 26 and 25 on the Wonderlic, respectively. Those scores are higher on average than those of quarterbacks, which sit at 24.
“This makes sense, as if an offensive tackle makes a mental mistake in a game and lets a lineman go unblocked, it could cost the team their franchise quarterback,” Hall said. “Running backs and wide receivers make up the lower end of average NFL Wonderlic scores, with averages of about 17.”
Hall believes that there is reasonable evidence to conclude that higher scores give players better chances at success. There will always be cases of low-scoring players performing well and high-scoring players failing to reach their potential, but the Wonderlic remains a staple of the Combine for a reason; it’s a supplemental tool in the exhaustive process of selecting future NFL players.
The Vikings View
When Rick Spielman took over General Manager duties for the Vikings in 2011, he began his tenure as the team’s authoritative draft mind. In just five years, he’s selected nine players in the first round of NFL Draft. All fit a particular physical profile, but what mental attributes do they share? The chart below attempts to answer that question, sans 2013 first round pick Xavier Rhodes, whose Wonderlic score is not available online:
The three highest-scoring players in the past five years include two of Minnesota’s most important contributors. In 2013, Harrison Smith earned a 27 on the test, and in 2014, Anthony Barr received a 28. Both are key pieces on Mike Zimmer’s defense, and both are already considered two of the best at their respective positions in the league.
Surprisingly, Christian Ponder was the top performer on the Wonderlic in the past five years, and he’s arguably been the least successful Rick Spielman draft pick in that time. “Christian Ponder might be the smartest quarterback the Vikings have ever drafted with a score of 35,” Hall said. He’s the perfect example of a player who excelled on paper, but couldn’t translate that quick decision-making to the field. Ponder’s career in Minnesota was defined by his happy feet in the pocket and the poor choices he made with the football.
On the other end of the spectrum, three players scored a 15 or below on the test. Hall points out that a score of 10 or above means the player is literate; Cordarrelle Patterson and Sharrif Floyd each received an 11 in 2013. Like Ponder, their test results weren’t predictors for future success in the NFL. Patterson’s low score may explain his inability to grasp the offensive playbook and see the field as a wide receiver, but he’s arguably the best kick returner in the league. And Floyd’s low score means little for the position (DT) he plays. As a defensive tackle, Floyd’s asked to rush the quarterback, defend his gap, and wreak havoc in the backfield; it’s a position that requires a less comprehensive understanding of the playbook than a quarterback or center.
Matt Kalil‘s score may be the most troubling of all. According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, scouts questioned Kalil’s character coming out of USC and pointed to his low marks as a red flag. “More of it is just his character, an anonymous scout said, per McGinn. “He doesn’t have an offensive lineman’s character, especially when you take into account how good his brother is in that way. He’s got a real sense of entitlement.” Teams place a higher emphasis on the Wonderlic scores of players at positions that generally require higher cognitive ability, and Kalil’s underperformance led some to believe that the USC tackle was either lazy or didn’t care about his football career.
With his most recent first round selections, Spielman took players with identical scores of 20. Teddy Bridgewater earned a 20 in 2014, which was the third-highest among qualifying quarterback class. Johnny Manziel finished with a 32, the best of all 2014 quarterbacks, but his score did little to project a successful career in the league. By Wonderlic standards, Bridgewater is a below-average quarterback, but again, the Wonderlic can only go so far in determining professional performance.
Hall notes that 15 starting quarterbacks in the league have Wonderlic scores of 30 or higher, and that the median score of starting quarterbacks is 29. Eli Manning (39), Tony Romo (37), Andrew Luck (37) and Tom Brady (33) scored higher than Bridgewater, and all are considered “successful” quarterbacks. But, Hall argues, key performance indicators like games played, passing yards, and touchdowns are not always reflective of success, at least in the traditional sense. He points to Alex Smith as a telling example, calling the quarterback a “game manager who doesn’t make many mistakes.” Smith’s Wonderlic score of 40 is superb and double that of Bridgewater, but Bridgewater is often compared to Smith in a similar, positive light.
Under Spielman, the Vikings have selected players in the first round with an average score of 20.875. That’s just above the league average of 20. What insights can we glean from this small sample size? Unfortunately, there are very few. But if we’re to try, here are a few key takeaways:
- At the time of the 2011 NFL Draft, one of Ponder’s greatest strengths was his intelligence. A three-year starter at Florida State with his Master’s degree in finance, Ponder was clearly book smart. That showed through his Wonderlic score, but the concerns about his ability to read a defense and quickly analyze coverages manifested in the NFL. Thus, Ponder’s Wonderlic score did little to quantify his “football IQ.”
- Kalil’s score cemented the fears of scouts who questioned the tackle’s commitment and dedication to becoming an elite player. If Kalil couldn’t be bothered to make an effort on the 50-question test, who’s to say he would in the weight or film room?
- Patterson and Floyd play positions where athleticism and natural ability are more crucial to success than quick-decision making and comprehension. Though Patterson‘s struggles to pick up the playbook may be tied to his low score on the Wonderlic, he’s an elite kick returner who relies on speed and instincts to succeed in that regard. Floyd, meanwhile, is a superb athlete at defensive tackle who uses his speed to win at the line of scrimmage.
- Smith and Barr are two of the signal-callers on the defensive side of the ball, with Barr handling play-calling duties from the sideline. Their above-average Wonderlic scores are possible explanations for their ability to process offensive formations, put the defense in the correct alignment, and understand the responsibilities of every other player on the field.
- Unlike Ponder, Bridgewater possesses many of the traits that equate to being a successful quarterback. He’s a natural leader, a level-headed competitor who possesses an advanced football IQ and understanding of defensive strategies. Though his score was below-average, Bridgewater has proven that other intangibles negate supposed deficiencies.
Spielman doesn’t seem to have a set strategy when it comes to the Wonderlic. Rather, it’s a tool for the Vikings organization when assessing players during the combine and the draft. As a supplemental piece of the puzzle, it can help front offices put other indicators, like background checks and the testimony of coaches or teammates, into context.
The Future of the Wonderlic
“The Wonderlic never fails to be an interesting talking point every Spring,” Hall said. “It’s amazing that such a short test can spark such a big debate, and everyone seems to pick a side. Because NFL players have been taking the Wonderlic since the 1970s, there are so many anecdotes of players who did poorly on the Wonderlic but went on to have successful careers (Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw) and players who had great scores but had disappointing careers.”
Despite the mixed results of the Wonderlic, it remains an exciting topic come NFL Draft season. Fans rush to Twitter to check player scores, and teams still view the test as a determining factor in overall grades and evaluations. Hall believes that the league will continue to use the Wonderlic until public pressure forces them to stop. “No sport has resisted the use of advanced statistics to make decisions more than football,” he said.” Teams still rely on hours of film and gut instincts to make draft decisions.”
But times are slowly changing in the NFL. The Cleveland Browns, who were so famously burned for dismissing analytics when drafting Johnny Manziel, hired Sashi Brown and Alex Scheiner this past January. The two will help the front office with player evaluation and personnel decisions, all while infusing the archaic organization with fresh statistical strategies. The league is also seeking to revamp the Combine by improving data collection and utilization.
“We want to make sure that we’re using the technology that’s available,” National Football Scouting Inc. president Jeff Foster said, per USA Today. “What I don’t think we’re interested in doing is beta testing. We want some proven elements that will help us better evaluate the players so that we can project college players to the NFL.”
Several years ago, the NFL added baseline neurological testing and the Player Assessment Tool (PAT) to the combine. The PAT is a psychological test developed in part through consultation with general managers as a supplement to the Wonderlic test. Given it’s popularity, though, the Wonderlic isn’t going anywhere, and Hall is happy to see it’s continued use in player evaluation.
I think the Wonderlic is so popular because it gives us a way to compare ourselves to NFL icons. While I have no chance of beating any NFL prospect’s 40-yard dash time or bench press stats, I might be able to claim that I’m smarter than an elite NFL quarterback like Peyton Manning (he scored a 28). Also, unlike most cognitive tests, the Wonderlic test is quick and relatively painless. Twelve minutes is short enough for most people’s attention spans, even in the Internet era.
Try to beat my score of 35 and compare yourself to today’s NFL stars! Take a sample Wonderlic Test!