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NFL to add aptitude test to the Wonderlic at this year’s scouting combine

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Ray Lewis, one of the smartest players in NFL history, scored a 13 on his Wonderlic. (Getty Images)

The Wonderlic test has long been criticized as an accurate indicator of football intelligence, but the NFL insists on having athletes take the test at every scouting combine. This will still be the case in 2013, but this year, the league will add a separate aptitude test, said Jeff Foster, the president of National Football Scouting. According to Foster, the hope is that the new test is "something that's a little more evolved than the Wonderlic."

Here's the NFL's memo about the new test:

At this year's combine we will introduce a new and expanded player assessment tool designed to offer a much more robust and comprehensive assessment of a player's non-physical capabilities, aptitudes, and strengths. This tool was developed by Harold Goldstein, Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Baruch College, City University of NY. Professor Goldstein is an expert in industrial psychology who has designed employment tests in a variety of other industries and has worked closely with Cyrus Mehri of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.

The assessment tool being introduced at the Combine is not intended to displace anything currently in use or substitute for other tests that are given either at the Combine or by the clubs themselves. Rather, this new test measures a wide range of competencies, including learning styles, motivation, decision-making skills, responding to pressure or unexpected stimuli, and core intellect. It was developed after detailed discussions with current and former league executives, including Ernie Accorsi, Thomas Dimitroff, John Elway, and Jerry Reese, and was reviewed by members of the general managers Advisory Committee.

This is an exciting innovation that brings updated best practices from corporate America to the NFL football operations. By giving clubs new and more relevant information, it offers additional information to supplement your decision-making in the draft. One of the most interesting aspects is that new information on player learning styles can potentially help our coaches' work more effectively with young players.

The Wonderlic is comprised of 50 questions, and people are given 12 minutes to complete it. Created in 1936 by E. F. Wonderlic, the test is given to people in many different walks of life, and has been part of player evaluation since former Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry introduced it to football in the 1970s. Several different studies have exposed the test as a less-than-accurate predictor of future football success.

Blaine Gabbert (who scored a 42 on his Wonderlic test) and Ryan Leaf (who scored a 27) would probably agree with that, as would Dan Marino, who scored a 15 when he took it. Alex Smith? A 40. Peyton Manning? A 28. Hmmm. Ray Lewis, one of the smartest football players ever, scored a 13. Mike Mamula, the patron saint of workout warriors everywhere, scored a 49. Harvard punter Pat McInally is the only football player to come out with a perfect score. Whenever you've got a punter leading the way on a test that's supposed to be an indicator of football success ... well, there are some issues here.

From the Sport Journal in 2005:

The market for NFL rookie quarterbacks was examined between 1989 and 2004. Attempts to model passing performance using player and team characteristics revealed statistically significant relationships between a quarterback’s collegiate passing performance and his race and teammates. Intelligence, as measured by the Wonderlic score, was statistically insignificant. Likewise, while expected relationships were found between collegiate passing performance and NFL rookie year salary, the author found no statistically significant relationship between intelligence and compensation or intelligence and draft number after controlling for passing ability.

Although the models revealed no compensation for smarter players at the quarterback position, such compensation may indeed exist at other positions where such a wide variety of performance statistics are not readily available. Future studies may endeavor to control for more of the franchise- and league-specific factors that impact the drafting and compensation of collegiate athletes ... Likewise, more intelligent quarterbacks are neither selected earlier nor compensated more for their mental abilities. Since no statistically significant relationship exists between tested intelligence and performance within the data examined in this study, NFL franchises might better utilize resources by focusing on other aspects of quarterback evaluation.

And a 2009 report from the Taylor & Francis Group indicated that no successful correlation between specific test intelligence and football aptitude could be found.

In sum, the results from this study suggested that GMA (general mental ability) has questionable utility in this context. Specifically, GMA did not possess a significant, positive relationship with performance across or within positions. Furthermore, GMA produced significant subgroup differences, was unrelated to where a prospect was selected in the NFL Draft, and possessed a null relationship with number of games started. Evident by these findings, one should examine feasible alternative measures that could be utilized in this setting.

And this, from Athletic Insight:

In spite of the NFL’s continued use of the WPT as a measure of cognitive ability, no scientific support of the WPT as a predictor of NFL success has been provided by either the NFL or the Wonderlic organization (Lyons, Michel & Hoffman, 2005). Further, a review of the literature uncovered only two studies that have examined the ability of the WPT to predict professional football success. In the first study the WPT results of 261 NFL players selected in the 2002 draft were correlated with NFL performance for 2002 and 2003. Performance data were position specific; for example performance criteria for the quarterback position included the NFL quarterback rating (discussed in a later section); criteria for the running back position included yards gained, pass receptions and yards, and touchdowns.

The results failed to show a statistical relationship between the WPT and NFL performance for either year or both years combined. The WPT also failed to predict overall draft order for 2002 and 2003 (Lyons, Michel & Hoffman, 2005). In the second study the relationship between WPT scores and NFL performance was examined for 82 quarterbacks drafted in the years 1989-2004. WPT scores predicted neither first-year NFL performance (passing efficiency) nor first-year salary (Mirabile, 2004).

Hopefully, if such a correlation between specific test intelligence and football aptitude can ever be accurately made, the new aptitude test will provide it. And if no such correlation can me made, perhaps the NFL will dispose of this folly altogether.

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