Is the Wonderlic an Intelligence Test?

A few thoughts on an article discussing the Wonderlic Test scores of NFL quarterbacks including Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Vince Young, Eli and Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb:

Thanks to Miranda over at TSF for providing the link.

Those test scores are pulling out something discernible to me. I don’t believe its “intelligence.”  At this point this is only my perception and I don’t have all the numbers (the data link isn’t working) — so I’d have to hold off.  Nonetheless, I do believe there are some compelling common threads between these players.

One — Among the low-scorers identified in the article, only Bradshaw has rings. The first two were won largely by the defense even though TB was spectacular in SB X (Swann was MVP). By the time they played SB XIII, the Steelers had the top offense in the league and were accomplished bombers.

Two — These guys all have cannon arms. Not a single one of these players had less than an A-grade arm. Their accuracy differed, but with respect to strength, you couldn’t pull another group of QBs with stronger arms than Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Jeff George, Mac 5, McNair, Vince Young and Jim Kelly.

Three — Each of these players had the reputation for winning games single-handedly. Many of these players did it with their legs, but each was known for being able to do whatever they wanted on the field. This is a Superman list with respect to physical ability.

I’m sure there is someone, somewhere who still swears by this stuff. Obviously if this system causes you to pass up guys like Marino, Kelly, McNabb, McNair and others, there are huge problems.

I’m wondering if those Wunderlic scores are actually isolating a different measure: like a sense of needing to others to succeed or some other quality. The article doesn’t go into sufficient detail to give you a sense of the right brain-left brain components of the test. (I would guess its weighted strongly to one side — the left brain.)

A right-brain player sees the big picture and is capable of implementing a game plan where they bear full responsibility for the outcome. Right-brain players are not SYSTEM QBs. They transcend systems…they’re bigger and better than systems and they give defenses fits.

Eli Manning is a system QB. Peyton is a system QB (it’s his system, but he’s a system QB). Brady is a system QB. Montana was a system QB. I would not be surprised to see players who have excelled in systems do well on this exam.

I believe these SuperMan QBs are largely right-brain players who see the big picture. Roethlisberger plays like a right-brain QB. So did Elway. I believe Steve Young may have been the pinnacle of bridging both approaches to the game (that’s why he has the highest passer rating of any QB in league history).

When you think back about all the plays you remember from these various players, most of the guys with high scores appear to be system QBs…they’re the guys who throw the ball away when the play breaks down. The right brain guys don’t do that…they don’t always go through their progressions (at least not when they’re young…when they get older they get much better). Right brain guys tend to try to keep the play alive because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that they can make something happen — either with their feet or their patience or some skill they’ve picked up along the way.

I would be willing to bet that there is a fairly skewed distribution of QBs along this Wunderlic scale. I’d love to see the numbers and see how closely it corresponds to other metrics. “Scrambling yards” isn’t the best metric…I don’t have a substitute, but the question is worth entertaining. The Wunderlic test may be measuring something entirely different than what people think…I suspect that the most successful QBs may score right around the middle — as long as their on a team with a solid system.

The middle ground players are probably able to do a bit of both. The middle ground distribution may be as “low” as 12 (especially if Marino, Kelly and Bradshaw scored 15’s — assuming they didn’t just blow the thing off.) and as high as 28 (Peyton Manning’s score).

So, if you looked at the Wunderlic Test as a distribution, you’d have:

High Scorers: 40 – 29
Mid Scorers: 28 – 12
Low Scorers: 11 – 0

Of course, with any “test” there are going to be exceptions. I’d love to know where the rings are clustered on that list.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Temple3. I’ve had this conversation with some of my friends about standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and IQ tests which I consider the Wonderlic to be a part of the same evil machination. Those tests measure “intelligence”. There is no true test for intelligence. It’s a myth straight out of corporate Amerikkka. It helps to grease some palms of people who administer the tests and charge fees and the people who prep others for the tests.

    Are you trying to tell me that an artist that draws isn’t intelligent? Someone who can create a song out of only thoughts that flash in their heads isn’t intelligent? My point being, these tests are only measuring analytical skills and things that can be taught and remembered. Like you mentioned with scrambling, escapability, improvisation, and just plain natural ability; these things can’t be taught.

    One of the most telling things that I saw was that both Drew Henson and Alex Smith scored in the 40’s. That should tell you all that you need to know about the Wonderlic’s ability to predict future success.

    I’m just going to compare it to Gattaca. The reason that the “imperfect” brother could beat his “perfect” brother in swimming out as far as possible is because he put everything he could into it. He had no plans on making it back to shore. Similarly, guys like McNabb and Ben will scramble around to keep plays alive, while Brady or Manning will throw the ball away. I complained about Ben holding onto the ball too long all year, but in the end, if he were like Brady or Manning, then the Steelers probably would have been 8-8 at best.

    It all comes down to structure vs. artistry. Structure (mathematics, science, and language arts) holds a high regard in America mostly because of the money that it can help a corporation make. Artistry on the other hand, is held in a very low regard because artists often are independent, don’t follow instructions, and struggle to make money. Hence, it follows that even sports would hold structure in a more high regard. Sometimes, though, like with children, (which schools don’t do a good job of allowing anymore, ) you’ve got to let that raw talent and imagination fly. If you try to bottle it up, it’s going to blow up in your face.

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