Robert Jones, a star linebacker from East Carolina University, went to a pay phone outside the 1992 NFL Scouting Combine—the pre-draft ritual where professional football teams take stock of the college talent—and called his mother.
“Ma,” he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
A top scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas, overheard the call. “Robert,” he asked, “what the hell is going on?”
“That question really threw me,” Jones replied.
The New York Giants had asked him a tough one: If he were on a capsizing boat with his mother and daughter and could save only one, which would he choose?
Besides dashing forty yards, bench-pressing 225 pounds, and weaving between cones, would-be professional football players must submit to full psychological workups before teams are willing to take the multimillion-dollar gamble of drafting them. Thomas, whose scouting reports are disseminated to twenty-seven of the thirty-two NFL teams, evaluates players by every means available: family history, GPA, game film—he even checks the police blotter. He also compiles his own statistics to flesh out the widely available numbers, comparing receptions, for instance, to the total number of passes a wide receiver was thrown and the strength of the opposing defensive secondary.
The Wonderlic Personnel Test
How would you score? Try your hand at a sample test.
With playbooks approaching phone-book heft, however, intelligence has become a key measure of NFL draftees. The standard measure is the Wonderlic Personnel Test, a general intelligence exam taken by 2.5 million people seeking all types of work each year. It was first used in the NFL more than thirty years ago, and it has since been adopted by every team. (Most clubs also administer their own tests. Jones was forced to choose between mother and daughter on the New York Giants’ nearly-500-question personality profile, which can take up to three hours to take and is followed up with psychiatric screenings.) The Wonderlic rewards quick thinking and problem-solving: the taker has twelve minutes to answer fifty questions of increasing difficulty, from no-brainers—“the ninth month of the year is?”—to algebraic stumpers.
The only NFL player to score a perfect 50 was punter and Harvard alumnus Pat McInally, in 1975. (Scores are not officially released, but the results leak every year.) Only about 1 in 30,000 takers gets a perfect score, according to a 1992 study done by the testing company. The average score for NFL draftees over the past twenty years is a 19, which puts them a peg higher than aspiring drivers, deliverymen, and claims clerks, but not quite at the level of quality-control checkers (19.19), food-department managers (19.14), or machinists (19.54). The smartest group, on average, is attorneys (29.67), followed by editors (28.84) and executives (28.70). The lowest scorers, all around 15, are janitors, material handlers, and, in dead last, packers. A 10 is literacy, according to Wonderlic President Charlie Wonderlic Jr., and any score of 12 or under means the prospect is likely to be “successful using simple tools under consistent supervision.” At this year’s combine it was reported that Texas quarterback Vince Young, one of the draft’s top prospects, scored a 6 on the test. His agent contested the report, but did confirm that Young retook the test and scored a 16.
The minimum scores Thomas recommends to his teams are a 20 for quarterbacks, a 23 for offensive linemen, a 20 for middle linebackers and safeties, and a 15 for wide receivers and cornerbacks. “They’re more built for speed,” he says. “I don’t want to say that that’s where you put the dumb cookies, but in general that’s where they end up.” High numbers can also raise doubts—they flag potential smartasses, and a lack of the mental malleability that coaches need in players. “Another scout would figure, ‘Oh my God, this kid’s going to come in and argue with me about everything on the chalkboard,’” Thomas says.
Mac Mirabile, an economist who studies football, researched the relationship between Wonderlic score and draft position and salary for quarterbacks from 1999 to 2004, and found that there wasn’t one. “You ask yourself why they would be spending hours putting these guys through the test,” he says. But to a scout, every bit of information matters—even Robert Jones’s decision to let his mother go down with the ship. “Obviously, if I’m sitting there and I got myself a linebacker,” Thomas says, “I want the linebacker to save the kid.” No matter how strange Thomas’s logic, it wasn’t off the mark. Jones played on three Super Bowl–winning teams.