clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is the Wonderlic test a good predictor of NFL success?

The assessment has been a staple of the NFL combine and scouting process for many years. But do the scores really mean anything in the scheme of things?

For decades, the Wonderlic Personnel Test has been a staple of the NFL Combine. In conjunction with running around a field and performing various physical tests for scouts, the top collegiate prospects are also asked made to take the 12-minute Wonderlic test in order for teams to assess the athletes’ mental proficiency. With 50 questions that test players in the areas of math, logic, and vocabulary, the test is certainly no easy task. While some of the questions are rather easy (e.g. picking a word that doesn’t belong), others seem to be pulled straight out of high school math textbooks. Take for example, this question:

A rectangular bin, completely filled, holds 640 cubic feet of grain. If the bin is 8 feet wide and 10 feet long, how deep is it?

Of course, the answer is 8 feet, as the volume of a rectangular prism is equal to the length * width * height. And with most likely having taken a geometry class before, many players would probably be able to work it out. But it’s not hard to see how a frazzled test taker could easily panic and flunk this question, especially considering that one would have to answer a question about every 15 seconds in order to complete the test in full before time ran out.

It’s this quick, rapid-fire nature of the test that has led some to believe that the assessment might be a good predictor of NFL readiness and success. Former NFL player T.J. Moe equates the brisk pace of the test to the instant on-the-fly adjustments a player might have to make on the field.

Today’s defenses are incredibly complex; schemes are more complicated than ever. Great defensive coordinators add new wrinkles every game. Players don’t have the luxury of studying film and knowing exactly what to do in every single situation. Sometimes, you have to diagnose new information and make a decision on the spot. And you have to be right. - T.J. Moe

Moe adds that teams don’t “care if you’re good at math or if you know what certain words mean. What they do care about is your ability to solve problems in a timely manner.”

Although the fast-paced nature of the Wonderlic certainly does mirror the speed at which plays unfold in a game, the test doesn’t exactly cover playbook understanding, which is really what the teams are trying to get at with this test. In other words, the x’s and y’s of mathematics (and all the other non-football parts of the test) might not necessarily translate to the x’s and o’s of the playbook. “The idea that you can get a useful prediction of ability to learn plays by testing people on vocabulary, on complex sentence construction, it's not the real world," says Richard Seymour (who is a lawyer, and not the Richard Seymour of the gridiron). In agreement with Seymour is Morris Claiborne, who scored a 4 (one of the lowest known NFL scores) and said “I looked on the test and wasn't nothing on the test that came with football, so I pretty much blew the test off.”

In order to offer some clarity into the relationship between Wonderlic scores and NFL success, several studies have been carried out recently, and unfortunately, the results have only further clouded the debate. A 2009 study that examined three draft classes found no significant relationship between Wonderlic scores and NFL performance. Alarmingly, the researchers also found a negative relationship for tight ends and defensive backs.

“For defensive backs, it was the most pronounced; basically, the lower you scored on the Wonderlic, the better you performed.” - study co-author John W. Michel

Alternatively, a newer analysis using QBR (rather than passer rating) found that there was a positive relationship between Wonderlic scores and QBR. This is a pretty important finding, given that the scores of quarterbacks are the most scrutinized of any position. Furthermore, 3 out of 4 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks scored higher than a 28 on the exam, with 26 being the average score for a NFL quarterback (conversely, the average Super Bowl winning QB scored 31.7).

It’s mixed results like this and the controversial nature of the test (many have alleged that it has a racial/socioeconomic bias) that have caused the NFL to roll out a supplemental test. In 2013, the league rolled out the Player Assessment Tool, which was made mandatory for all combine participants to take. From my understanding, it sounds like the bizarre lovechild of the Wonderlic and a personality test. Judy Battista of the New York Times explains:

“The test will ask players a series of questions about their preferences and behavior. To evaluate their cognitive abilities, it might tell them to look at four diagrams and figure out how they relate. Then, to measure how quickly they can adjust their thinking, the items they are comparing might change, forcing the players to determine their relationships anew.”

Devised by a lawyer and a psychologist, the test aims to identify qualities like “learning agility (huh?) and conscientiousness,” which are apparently qualities NFL general managers said they want in players. Although the test being pitched as being “designed to determine and quantify the nebulous qualities that coaches have long believed make the most successful players,” the reality is that the test probably can’t deliver on that. “These tests will never capture or perfectly predict performance; they are always limited,” says psychologist Karen Blackmon of New York University.

Once called the “SAT of the NFL”, the Wonderlic (and now the PAT too) seem to share a lot in common with the notorious college admissions exam. It’s a really good parallel to draw. To me, they both seem to be numbers that seem to mean so much for a very short amount of time. Your SAT score certainly doesn’t really mean anything for your current employment prospects, and you don’t hear many talking about Frank Gore’s Wonderlic score of 6 (for reference, a score of 10 is literacy), but instead hear how he is one of football’s most consistent rushers to ever play. Gore isn’t the exception to the rule, as many other scrubs (Blaine Gabbert: 42) and stars (Dan Marino: 16) have scored high and low, respectively.

Obviously, the Wonderlic means different things to different people. For the Cowboys, Claiborne’s aforementioned record-low score was “not an issue at all.” Meanwhile, T.J. Moe says that his score of 36 was one of the reasons the Patriots brought him in and signed him as an undrafted free agent. But at the end of the day, it seems like a pretty useless test in the scheme of things. If you want to see how a quarterback reacts, watch his game tapes. If you want to see if a player can understand schemes and plays, give him a playbook, or have him breakdown some of his film. But instead, these abilities and intangibles are supposedly identified by an archaic test that doesn’t really have much to deal with football. If I’m a GM, I just can’t imagine giving a prospect’s Wonderlic score any significant weight.