Futures: I Am Smarter Than "Phillip" Rivers

Futures: I Am Smarter Than "Phillip" Rivers
Futures: I Am Smarter Than "Phillip" Rivers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Matt Waldman

"You scored a 32 –- that’s better than Phillip Rivers. He scored a 30. Rivers’ career quarterback rating –- at 95.8 -– ranks second-best all time, one point behind Steve Young (96.8) among NFL quarterbacks with at least 1500 pass attempts. He has a career total of eleven 4th quarter comebacks."

Hey Nicholas Creative Media, LLC, Rivers spells his first name with one L. Does that make me smarter than you guys, or just more experienced with writing his name?

Considering that I can’t go a day without calling Derek Carr ‘David’ and I still refer to former Lions running back Jahvid Best as ‘Travis’ -– the former Indiana Pacer -– I’ll opt for the latter choice.

Nicholas Creative Media does do a good enough job describing the basic purpose of the Wonderlic Personnel Test:

"The test is a sort of IQ test to measure players’ aptitude for learning and problem solving. The possible score range is 1 to 50. The average football player scores around 20 points and scoring at least 10 points suggests a person is literate."

But let’s dig a little deeper. According Louis Bien’s 2013 history of the Wonderlic at SB Nation, the test was the brainchild of E.F. Wonderlic, who created it in 1936 to measure cognitive ability.

"During World War II, the U.S. Navy began using the Wonderlic as a way to select candidates for pilot training and navigation," says Bien, who explains that Cowboys head coach Tom Landry brought the test to the NFL and teams have been using it ever since. However, Bien notes that there are some questions about the effectiveness of the test. "A 2009 study even indicated that, in the case of tight ends and defensive backs, a negative correlation exists between Wonderlic scores and production. A good score on the Wonderlic may actually hurt your chances of succeeding at the next level ... unsurprisingly; quarterbacks score the highest on the test on average ... Sports Illustrated suggested in 2010 that the Wonderlic is part of the Rule 26-27-60 when it comes to predicting quarterback success."

I haven’t asked John Lopez how he arrived at the rule -– or if the rule is even his creation –- so forgive me if I made the wrong assumptions. However, it’s seems clear that this criteria –- 26 on the Wonderlic, 27 starts in college, and 60 percent completion rate -- was generated by reverse-engineering data.

It’s entertaining, elegant to a non-statistician, and it allows Lopez to tell readers that, "Finding NFL quarterbacks certainly is a science, but it’s not rocket science."

You know by now that I see scouting as a craft. If it was a science, I would hope the NFL would go to the lengths of rocket science to get it right. Alas, the best it can do is a test meant for pilots.

One could guess the NFL figured if it was good enough for the military to find pilots like Chuck Yeager, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Salyton, it’s good enough for them to find a pilot for an offense. My take? It’s fitting that the Cowboys were the first to adopt the Wonderlic and the Trade-Value Draft Chart. Both are far from perfect tools, but they were incorporated into a league when the dart board was a still viable tool for some organizations.

There’s some nice poetry to the use of the word "piloting" to describe a quarterback’s role, but it doesn’t mean the NFL should continue to apply such a literal approach. It’s using a test to measure quick thinking based on book-learning, but it doesn’t measure the practical intelligence of making things work, creativity or curiosity, according to Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who discussed IQ tests in this February CNN article.

After taking the Wonderlic, the experience led me to wonder why the NFL wants to measure intelligence and leadership by criteria that’s better-suited for applying to graduate school. The layers of knowledge and application that one must know to perform adequately on the Wonderlic may translate in theory to what a football player should know, but so would an advanced test for musical aptitude.

There are lots of smart, capable, creative, leaders with great football talent who would do poorly on that test. But in theory, individuals with musical aptitude have to process multiple layers of information and react at a moment’s notice to their immediate environment. They also have to display cooperation that’s a lot like teamwork in a sport.

For many individual football prospects, the Wonderlic might as well be a musical aptitude test based on their childhood and quality of education. The NFL’s continued use of an aptitude test not specifically crafted for the talents of the job is a reflection of a mentality that hasn’t changed much since beginning of the Cold War.

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I understand that in American society we consider people with MBAs, PhDs, and titles like CEO as intelligent and skilled -- and many are. It takes skill to rise through the ranks and achieve these titles. Yet, we also recognize writers, musicians, painters, and entertainers for their intelligence and skill in a complete different arena of life.

Although condemned for good reason, gang leaders, con artists, and CEOs of ... lower renown ... are also intelligent and skilled –- often without formal higher education. I think it’s time the NFL abandon a test that does a better job of testing how close its players are to earning a job at the local branch of a bank than predicting success for the football field.

You’d never catch Steve McNair, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, A.J. Green or Frank Gore processing loan paperwork or analyzing markets, but they were smart as whips on the field. McNair, Marino and Kelly scored a 15 on the Wonderlic; Lewis a 13; Moss a 12; Green a 10; and Gore a 6.

All of these players were creative and curious athletes and display great intelligence for the game. They also came from working-class or poor upbringings.

My score was a 32. I always did slightly above average on standardized tests. I had a slightly above-average socioeconomic upbringing in terms of where I went to school and learned to earn a reasonably competent score on how to behave in a manner acceptable to old white men.

If part of the criteria for a player -– especially a quarterback –- is how well he can comport himself like a CEO so he won’t put off the owner’s guests at a cocktail party, potential sponsors and partners at a high-level business meeting, or reporters at a press conference, then I’m cool with them making it plain. Jerry Richardson did when he asked Cam Newton if he had tattoos. He wanted an on-field figurehead who could switch between old, rich, white man mode and regular people mode at the blink of an eye.

As Ben Muth said on Twitter this week, "Football beats all individualism and candor out of [you]. So used to talking [without] saying anything ... can’t turn it off when [you] retire."

I’m glad for Seattle that Russell Wilson looks and talks like a junior partner for a law firm, but it’s the fact that he can absorb changes and apply them with immediacy based on the layers of knowledge he accumulated on a football field that matters. Bill Belichick says Randy Moss was the smartest receiver he ever coached.

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The NFL needs to show some creativity and work with its partners to develop better testing. Imagine EA Sports working with scouts, testing experts, and psychologists to develop a diagnostic tool in a video game format that requires little more than pointing and touching a screen to provide answers for position-based and football acumen. They could make it programmable with what the player did in his college offense and then what the team hopes the player can learn if the organization selects him in the draft.

At the very least, it would be prudent for the NFL to ditch a test that only reinforces its longstanding socioeconomic biases -– especially when they’re harvesting so many athletes from a collegiate farm system that prioritizes profit over education. Athletes whose skills, talents, and will to succeed are often in direct opposition to an exam designed to measure something else.

Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the RSP now for it's publication on April 1. If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.


6 comments, Last at 14 Mar 2014, 6:46pm

#1 by justanothersteve // Mar 12, 2014 - 4:22pm

Nicholas Creative Media, LLC, also needs to update their list of top QB ratings with at least 1500 attempts. Aaron Rodgers has a 104.9 QB rating with 2955 attempts.

Points: 0

#2 by Parmenides // Mar 13, 2014 - 5:25am

The wonderlic and most of its kin in the testing world is a product of the if I can assign a number then I have more information. I wonder if the quarterbacks do better on the test in part because part of the prep for playing is measured by the wonderlic. Or its just selection bias earlier highschool.

Points: 0

#5 by BDC // Mar 14, 2014 - 4:30pm

"The wonderlic and most of its kin in the testing world is a product of the if I can assign a number then I have more information."

Seems like an odd comment to make, considering this entire website is devoted to the concept of, "if I can assign a number then I have more information".

Points: 0

#6 by Parmenides // Mar 14, 2014 - 6:46pm

Considering advanced stats started with baseball where there were lots of numbers that didn't mean anything, I didn't think it weird at all.

Points: 0

#3 by Dr. Bill // Mar 13, 2014 - 7:47am

Certainly the linguistic parts of the Wonderlic have nothing to do with cognitive ability--they're culturally specific and would be a good measure of someone's experience and recall with lexical items circulated within the test-writer's speech community. I'd use those kind of questions if I wanted to measure home language, SES, and ethnic enculturation, not to measure cognitive ability (especially football related cognitive ability).

I know football smart people like Belichick typically quiz players on their situational rationales--why did you/would you make a given choice given this look/front and situation?

Points: 0

#4 by Rick_and_Roll // Mar 13, 2014 - 10:03am

How many of those guys with famously low scores went to 'the U'? Kelly, Lewis, Gore...

Points: 0

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