Six years ago I asked a pro football scout why, despite the enormous amounts of time and money devoted to it by NFL think tanks, the annual college draft produces such erratic results. Nobody, I noted, had been anxious to select Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr or Joe Montana—by my measure the three greatest quarterbacks of the last fifty years, winners of eleven NFL championships between them. By NFL standards they weren’t very big, and didn’t have great arms. (Unitas was the 102nd player drafted in 1955, Starr was the 200th in 1956, and Montana the 82nd in 1979.)
Gauging Football IQ
What's the correlation between intelligence and success on the gridiron?
The Loser's Curse
NFL performance and compensation.
Yes, he replied, but that was in the Stone Age. Scouting had become so sophisticated in the two decades since Montana was drafted that a mistake like that was much less likely. Later that month, Tom Brady was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots, the 199th player selected overall. Brady would lead his team to three Super Bowls before he was twenty-eight. Though he measured high on intelligence tests, most scouts had been unimpressed with his skills. It was Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (now the Notre Dame head coach) who was adamant about drafting Brady. When I asked Weis what it was that he saw in the young quarterback, he told me, “Call it a gut feeling, but to me he had the look of a bulldog.”
Bear Bryant was fond of saying, “It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Nowadays, computer analysis gives teams instant comparisons of hundreds of ballplayers, most of whom also take the Wonderlic test (see sidebar, page 154) for determining intelligence. But, for all the information available to scouts and teams about a player’s physical attributes and mental makeup, the evaluation of NFL hopefuls remains a maddeningly inexact science. “Intelligence, attitude, and character have so much to do with success,” says Marv Levy, the former Buffalo Bills head coach and current president and general manager. “You can’t just look at a player and his achievements in college and say that he’ll be successful in the NFL. You don’t know how he’ll adapt to the speed of NFL football. You don’t know how he’ll react to playing against a higher level of competition.” And even if one knew these things, Levy points out, there’s another major stumbling block: “You have to match him up with the right system and the right coach.”