This week’s NFL scouting combine is a test of physical and mental capacity as players are taken through a gauntlet of drills and tests. Media coverage will focus on the physical measurements, with hand-size being my personal favorite, but it may be the mental side that general managers watch closely.
Tom Landry is credited with introducing the Wonderlic test to the NFL Combine back in the 1970’s, and his influence is still present. He believed there was a correlation between standard intelligence and success on the field, and when a winning legend does something, the sheep will follow. Some argue the Wonderlic test isn’t the best gauge for the intelligence desired for football, but this isn’t the only mental challenge the players go through.
In 2013, the NFL introduced another aptitude test, similar to the Wonderlic but more difficult to prepare for with a more ambiguous scoring system. The results are also held more confidentially, with only two team executives given access to scores.
On top of all these tests, players will be peppered with questions from coaches and GMs when invited to a 15-minute interview. They use psychological schemes in an attempt to understand a player’s personality, leadership skills, and personal history including how they may have handled adversity.
But after all this mental grind, it’s the Wonderlic score that gets all the glory in the mental game discussion. While some find this score arbitrary, and studies have even supported this theory, others will tell you that it can mean the difference between thousands and millions.
Here’s a story of just that.
RESPECT THE WONDERLIC
Our old ball coach advisor, Jerry Horowitz, recently told me about the time he became an NFL player agent. Keep in mind, this wasn’t in his plan nor something he wanted to pursue, but the circumstance presented itself, so why not?
As a long-time successful high school football coach, Horowitz developed a number of players who made their way to the next level, from community college to Division I programs. And as many of you know, the relationships built during that process, both on and off the field, last a lifetime. So naturally, many of these players would come back for advice as they navigated their professional path.
In 1991, an OT at Maryland who was a high-profile draft prospect requested some help. He was heading to the combine and didn’t have an agent yet. After considering his options, he asked his old coach if he’d represent him. Draft projections had him going around the 4th round and in those days a rookie’s salary was dictated by last year’s draft results and salaries. So, the job seemed easy enough and would be beneficial to both parties.
At the combine, he dominated the physical tests. Fastest 40-yard dash (4.91) by any OL, 550-pound squat, and a 35-inch vertical, all with a 6’3” 285-pound frame. But he took some bad advice from the other players there. You see, many of them were saying the Wonderlic test didn’t matter and not to sweat it. So he didn’t.
The week after the combine, Horowitz received a call from an NFL coach in his coaching network. He was expecting to hear interest in his new client but was shocked when the coach’s first question was “Is he all there in the head?”
It turns out the lack of preparation and importance placed on this one test was going to be detrimental to this aspiring OT. Coaches couldn’t understand the low score as that was not reflective of his ability to answer questions in his interviews, but they trusted it. Even after hearing about his I.Q. on the football field, one of the highest Jerry’s seen in his coaching career, the Wonderlic score was inked.
The 4th round of the draft came and went. It wasn’t until the 9th round that this player saw his name go up on the board, making his journey more challenging. Injuries early in his career would make the journey even harder and after eventually playing a year over seas, he hung up his cleats.
MEET THE FUNDERLIC
So, the Wonderlic score certainly has its place in the evaluation process at the NFL Combine. But you would think there’d be a higher interest in knowing a player’s football knowledge as that seems more relative to potential success on the field.
Player interviews give coaches and GMs the opportunity to pick the player’s brain. They may approach each player differently, depending on what they want to find out about them, but the majority of interviews involve some chalk talk.
Whiteboards are present in each interview room, ready for players to ‘chalk it’ at any moment, (envision Jon Gruden and his QB Camp videos). Computers and TV’s are on-hand as well to review game film and ‘talk it’.
But the results of these whiteboard tests are not standardized or shared with the public. Teams want a leg up on their competition by identifying an unknown strength or weakness, so they find their own creative ways to poke and prod players.