NFL draft: If the Wonderlic is dead, does this mean the draft has grown up?

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

The silence has been deafening.

Have you noticed? The 2021 NFL draft cycle most certainly has been an unusual one, from the scouting combine and private workouts being canceled to an outsized emphasis being put on pro day sessions we often breezed past with only cursory attention.

Those aren’t the only weird elements. For the first time in recent memory, the word “Wonderlic” hasn’t set off alarm bells and hot-take Twitter feuds during the run-up to the draft.

Have you enjoyed the silence?

“I know the league tries to keep it quiet from you guys [the media],” one senior NFL talent evaluator told Yahoo Sports, laughing, “probably for good reason.”

Every year, prospects’ statistics, measurables and testing numbers are propped up like unassailable indicators of future success. Those are volatile enough measures. And then there’s the Wonderlic. Its foothold in NFL draft history is strange, controversial and often misunderstood — yet also undeniable.

This draft cycle might have something to do with the limited chatter. Those tests typically are administered at the combine, which didn’t happen this year. It’s believed that the only players who definitively took the test — outside of those who wanted to show off their grey matter — were the 100-plus prospects who attended the pared-down medical recheck this month.

Will we return to normalcy with the 2022 draft, replete with Wonderlic score leaks and strange speculation as to its significance for prospects? 

Or will NFL folks realize how imperfect it is … and what might be a better substitute?

The Wonderlic test has been given to NFL prospects for decades. But could it eventually be phased out? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
The Wonderlic test has been given to NFL prospects for decades. But could it eventually be phased out? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The history of the Wonderlic and the NFL

E.F. Wonderlic was the director of personnel for a company called Household Finance, now known as HSBC Finance. Wonderlic was tasked with his company’s biggest issue at the time: poor hiring practices. What he found was that the team’s managers didn’t know what to look for, especially in entry-level candidates, beyond their college results and arbitrary GPAs and test scores.

Sound familiar?

Wonderlic’s goal was to devise a streamlined test to determine basic intelligence and aptitude to give his company’s managers another metric to judge job candidates. It seemed like a bright idea.

Twelve minutes, 50 questions. One point for each correct answer. Easy peasy.

That test was first commissioned in 1932. It gained popularity in the 1940s and '50s when Fortune 100 companies such as AT&T, Oscar Mayer and Monsanto relied on it heavily in their hiring practices. Even the U.S. military used it at the time.

Its introduction to the NFL is believed to trace back to Tom Landry. The Dallas Cowboys coach — who was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving in World War II — was one of the test’s earliest proponents, relying on its results to pick players in the 1970s.

Other teams followed. Why? Well, it was a copycat league then, too. The Cowboys made four Super Bowls in the decade, winning two of them, and missed the playoffs only once in an 18-year span from 1966 to 1983.

The Wonderlic stuck in the NFL. It became that wild-card metric that supposedly could determine a player’s quick-thinking ability and increasingly was applied to quarterbacks over time. (Even though offensive linemen will be quick to point out — correctly — that as a position, they tend to score higher than the QBs.)

And it took on a life of its own along the way.

We were regaled with tales about former Cincinnati Bengals punter Pat McInally’s score of 50 — the only known perfect test in the league’s annals. He was a Harvard grad, naturally; so were Ryan Fitzpatrick (who scored a 48, finishing the test with three minutes to spare — check your work, Ryan!) and Matt Birk (46).

We also heard about the flunkers. Morris Claiborne reportedly registered the lowest score in league annals, with a 4. The Cowboys — of all teams — traded up to draft him sixth overall in 2012. Vince Young reportedly got a 6, leading Deadspin to joke about the demerit of having a test score lower than his jersey number (10). 

(Following Young’s test, it was regraded and found that he scored either a 13 or 16).

An average score is considered to be 20. But it became clear over time that Wonderlic scores really didn’t provide any clear, direct link to NFL success. Especially as it relates to quarterbacks.

Lamar Jackson reportedly scored a 13. Jim Kelly got a 15. Donovan McNabb was either a 14 or a 15, depending on which report you read.

Nate Stanley scored a 40. Ryan Nassib, a draft darling of yore, logged a 41. Blaine Gabbert threw up a 42. Greg McElroy is credited with a 43 after it was initially reported he got 48. They have a combined 52 career TD passes among the four of them, 50 by Gabbert. Jackson surpassed the 52-TD mark early last season, in his 37th NFL game (28 starts).

It would appear that the test, at least as it applies to picking players, is flawed.

“Hell, Peyton [Manning] and I were one point away from each other,” Ryan Leaf told Yahoo Sports. “Our careers were nothing alike, to put it bluntly.”

Leaf, who scored a 27, is considered one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. He went second overall in 1998, one pick behind Manning (who scored 28), and languished through three troubled seasons. After that, Leaf’s life went careening off the tracks with drug abuse and later, a stint behind bars. The one fewer question he got right wasn’t the difference between success and failure in football, of course.

Peyton Manning, right, and Ryan Leaf, left, had very similar Wonderlic scores but very different NFL careers. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Peyton Manning, right, and Ryan Leaf, left, had very similar Wonderlic scores but very different NFL careers. (Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sober and recovered now, Leaf has a different perspective on what the Wonderlic is and isn’t — and what a more suitable substitute might be.

“What they should do is have cognitive-behavior testing,” he said. “That would be the better barometer than a Wonderlic test or a coach asking you to play rock-paper-scissors.

“Instead, you might be able to find out more important things than [aptitude]. How are you going to stand up to immense pressure and adversity? What behavioral values do you have?”

Leaf even believes that half the laborious pre-draft experience has something of an ulterior element to it.

“Sometimes I think the NFL combine isn’t as much about the [athletic testing]. Or what you saw this year with some of the quarterbacks doing two pro days," he said. "It’s essentially teams asking you to do something that you might not want to do, maybe to see what your entitlement might be.

“Here, take this test. Half of what they do is really about testing players to see … 'Hey, are you willing to bend over backwards for us?'”

The senior NFL evaluator we spoke to wasn’t in total agreement, but agreed that it might not be applicable to many players, much less all quarterbacks.

“We do use it,” he said. “But more of a cross-check type thing. For instance, there was a player a few years ago coming out [whose] coaches said he had trouble picking up the playbook … So was it an intelligence issue? A learning disability thing? Did he just not care? 

"So we’ve used [the Wonderlic] to maybe shed some light on that. We’ve also used some psychological testing toward that end.

“But it’s also not something we use as a measuring stick for every player on our board. You can have two guys on your team who score 30s, and one 30 is football smart and the other isn’t. A 20 can be a Hall of Famer and a 40 could never make your roster. It’s just a number in some respects.”

Could the Wonderlic eventually go away?

Then there’s the issue of not wanting to score too high. Andrew Luck (37) and John Urschel (43) are both considered brilliant by normal-people standards. Both left the game early amid health concerns. Coincidence? Likely so.

After all, Alex Smith (40) just retired following a grueling comeback to play a twilight season with the Washington Football Team. Fitzpatrick and his 48 will replace him as WFT’s placeholder starter. Benjamin Watson, a fellow 48er, played 15 years — an unusually long career for a tight end — and was coaxed out of retirement once to play another year.

Joe Thuney, who left the New England Patriots to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason, reportedly was told by someone in his camp to hide his natural intelligence. The way to do so was to answer only 39 questions so that it guaranteed he wouldn’t top the 40 mark. Thuney scored a “perfect” 39. 

“We’ve heard stories of players just answering the first few and then guessing on the rest in the last minute or whatever,” the senior NFL talent evaluator said. “I don’t know that we’ve heard about guys bombing the test on purpose, so that’s a new one to me. But I guess I can see where you don’t want to [appear to be] an egghead.”

In Leaf’s mind, the Wonderlic is “nonsense” and he wonders if future prospects — in an era of player empowerment — might one day skip the test entirely if the NFL doesn't do away with it.

“Knowing what I know now, had I been asked to do that back then — any extra tests or evaluations or whatever — I wouldn’t have done a damned one of them,” Leaf said. “Like, ‘I wanna be a Steeler. I am going to go to the Steelers, there’s nothing you can do about this. I’m not going to go play for a team that was 4-12 from a year ago. I want a chance to play for championships.’

“Peyton and I had 8.5 [draft grades] or whatever. I think only Andrew Luck was higher since. So we had all the leverage in the world. I wouldn’t have let this propaganda machine just roll over me.

“A Wonderlic test, or any other test of that kind, can’t predict future success or how a player will handle the ups and downs of the league. It just can’t. So if you’re a top-10 pick guaranteed, or even a first-rounder, why would you even take it?”

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