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Is the Wonderlic test really useful for the NFL?

Are the Wonderlic and other psych tests really useful for the NFL?

Players have been taking it since the mid-1980s but what are they really testing?

By Domonique Foxworth


In 1936, a Northwestern University graduate student by the name of Eldon F. Wonderlic created and began to administer the first short-form cognitive ability test. The Wonderlic Personnel Test came to be viewed as a quick IQ test, and a reliable resource for evaluating a person’s potential to succeed in particular professional roles. The U.S. military used the test during World War II to quickly identify personnel suited for more cognitively taxing roles. But the test is most well-known for its association with the NFL.

Tom Landry, a U.S. Army Air Corps second lieutenant in World War II and legendary Dallas Cowboys coach, was the first to use the 12-minute, 50-question test as an evaluation tool for NFL players in the 1970s. Other teams began to administer the test, along with physical evaluations, when prospects visited the teams’ facilities before the NFL draft.

Before 1982, players would be invited to visit multiple teams, where they would execute a similar battery of physical drills and tests. That ended when the NFL, at the urging of Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, held its first combine. Then it was called the National Invitation Camp and took place in Tampa, Florida. The Wonderlic test was administered at the first combine and has been at every NFL scouting combine.

Only one player in NFL history has gotten a perfect score, answering all 50 questions correctly in the 12 minutes allotted. Though he took the test before the first NFL combine, Cincinnati Bengals punter Pat McInally is the NFL’s Wonderlic Mr. Perfect. The 6-foot-6-inch McInally, a Harvard graduate, was more than just a punter. He even played receiver for part of his career. With a score of 49, the 1995 Philadelphia Eagles first-round pick out of Boston College linebacker Mike Mamula is second all-time.

Most recently, in 2011, it was reported that former University of Alabama national champion quarterback and current ESPN analyst Greg McElroy scored 48. However, days later his actual score was uncovered. He scored 43, still very impressive. Unfortunately, that score wasn’t impressive enough for NFL general managers. McElroy was selected in the final round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets and had a very brief NFL career.

In the early 2000s, three players did get scores of 48 in back-to-back-to-back years, rounding out the NFL Wonderlic top five.

First, reppin’ for the Mountain West Conference in 2003, is Utah State Aggie Kevin Curtis who scored 48. With the coolest middle name of the Wonderlic top scorers, Kevin DeeVon Curtis was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the third round. The speedster played eight years in the league. His best statistical season was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007, when he surpassed 1,000 yards receiving with 77 receptions. But 2010 was his most inspiring season. He recorded one catch for six yards, after surgery in September to remove a cancerous testicle.

In 2004, a year after Curtis’ score, Benjamin Watson, tight end and author, scored 48. Wonderlic preparation was part of Watson’s combine preparation. “We did mental conditioning two or three times a week,” Watson said. Watson prepared at IMG, in Bradenton, Florida, with a small group of five elite draft prospects, including Eli Manning, who scored 39 on the Wonderlic, 11 points higher than his brother Peyton. Watson, now 36, is the most accomplished of the Wonderlic top 5. He was drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, where he won a Super Bowl. He played six seasons for the Patriots before going to the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints for three seasons each. He spent last season on the Baltimore Ravens, but he didn’t play due to a preseason Achilles injury. Watson is expected to return for his 14th season.

New England Patriots first-round draft pick Ben Watson, a tight end from the University of Georgia, speaks to reporters at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., Thursday, April 29, 2004. Watson, the Patriots' second first-round pick, was chosen 32nd in the 2004 NFL draft.    

Soon-to-be-former Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick scored 48 at the combine in 2005. If you are even a casual football fan, you probably are not surprised by Fitzpatrick’s high score, because throughout his 12-year career, broadcasters never missed a chance to tell us that Fitz went to Harvard. Fitz has had a solid journeyman career, playing for seven teams. He will be on the market for team No. 8 when the free agency period opens on March 9.

Though the Wonderlic has been relied on to measure pro prospects’ cognitive aptitude since the ’70s, the league and teams have been supplementing it with other mental evaluation tools for years. According to an report from Steve Wyche, this year the NFL, partnering with the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that promotes talent development for NFL coaches and front-office staff, will add a new cognitive exam.

The new combine exam will take 60 minutes and be graded by Harold Goldstein, a professor of industrial/organizational psychology at Baruch College in New York City. Reportedly there is no perfect score. The new exam’s results will show players’ strengths and weaknesses in different aptitudes and psychological categories. This test could spell the end of the Wonderlic in the future.

Hopefully, it brings about the abolition of the infamous New York Giants psychological evaluation. The Giants are known in league circles for their 434-question psychological evaluation. Mercifully in recent years, the Giants have reduced the exam to 250 questions. On the first page of the Giants’ evaluation, there was a note from “The Giants Management” that read:

“Dear Prospective Draft Choice:

This test has a built-in lie scale. If you in any way try to fake the test, either by not answering all the questions, answering the questions haphazardly or not being consistent, the test results will reflect that. DO NOT lie on the test, please do it right!

Then comes a series of true-false questions that could be best described as odd. Here are a few examples:

▪ I like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. (Maybe this question is in here to find out if the player is being honest. Because, obviously, no one reads the 1865 novel. Just watch the movie, the 1951 version.)

▪ I always follow the rule: business before pleasure. (This one is particularly funny given last season’s boat party.)

▪ I am quite irritated when someone spits on the sidewalk. (True, because that is disgusting.)

▪ I sometimes feel like smashing things. (Is this a trick question?)

▪ If the pay was right, I would like to travel with a circus or carnival. (Translation: If the pay was right, I would like to play in the NFL.)

▪ I would never play cards with a stranger.

▪ I used to steal sometimes when I was a youngster.

▪ I feel like giving up quickly when things go wrong. (Hmm, wonder what the right answer is here.)

▪ I would be uncomfortable in anything other than fairly conventional dress. (The answer is false, if you are a cornerback or receiver at heart.)

▪ In most ways, a poor person is better off than a rich one. (Are the Giants looking for negotiation leverage?)

▪ The things some of my family have done have frightened me.

▪ I am not afraid of picking up a disease or germs from doorknobs.

▪ I usually take an active part in the entertainment at parties. (I need clarification. What do you mean by “entertainment” and what’s your definition of “active”?)

▪ I am somewhat afraid of the dark.

▪ I think I would like to work as a librarian.

▪ When prices are high, you can’t blame people for getting all they can while the getting is good. (Huh?)

▪ I get sort of annoyed with writers who go out of their way to use strange and unusual words. (Don’t hate on ebullient sesquipedalians, you intellectual neophyte.)

▪ I never worry about my looks. (Translation: Are you an offensive lineman?)

These questions are ridiculous, but the Giants are one of the winningest franchises in NFL history. So, maybe they are on to something.

The whole pre-draft evaluation process and combine is arduous. It is easy to dismiss the value of the data gleaned from the long, taxing ordeal. Especially when looking at measurements such as the Wonderlic. Some front offices will significantly drop a player based on combine data. While others could not care less, as long as their college video shows them playing well.

Some prospects think their play on the field should be enough. Kellen Winslow Jr. tossed a football for much of the 12 minutes allotted for the Wonderlic. Understandably, the John Mackey Award winner must have believed that his All-American college season was all the evaluation he needed. He was drafted sixth overall in 2004 and played 10 years in the league. So, I guess he was right.

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