What Does the Wonderlic Test Really Mean?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 16, 2015

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston reportedly fared well on the Wonderlic, but does that matter?
Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston reportedly fared well on the Wonderlic, but does that matter?David J. Phillip/Associated Press

It happened again. Results from the controversial Wonderlic test—a cognitive ability exam taken by prospects annually at the NFL Scouting Combine, scored out of 50leaked this week for the draft's highest-profile prospects, quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. 

In case you've been living under a draft rock and are wondering, Winston scored a 27, Mariota a 33. Both results are above average for quarterbacks, so there's no controversy regarding the scores themselves. But the leak in itself is the story, because it's become an annual tradition for draftniks to scrutinize results that are supposed to be kept secret. 

Do the results actually matter? Probably not. 

Tuesday, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio—who used to report leaked results but has reconsidered whether they're relevantcalled the test an "outdated, irrelevant intelligence exam to which the league clings" only because the NFL "resists change like that 85-year-old guy whose unused microwave is still flashing 12:00 repeatedly."

A few years ago, Kathy Kolbe, whose father created the Wonderlic test in 1936, criticized both the exam and its use in evaluating NFL prospects. 

"The first time I heard they were using it, I had to laugh," Kolbe told the The Kansas City Star in 2011, via USA Today. "The issue isn't whether or not to use the Wonderlic. It's: Don't say it tells you how a player is going to do. Because it doesn't."

Indeed, no study has revealed a positive significant correlation between Wonderlic results and future performance. Per Alex Dunlap of The Austin Chronicle, a 2009 study authored by Dr. Brian Hoffman and Brian D. Lyons in collaboration with California State University (Fresno) and Towson University resulted in two clear conclusions: 

1) NFL performance on the football field was only found to have a statistically significant correlation with Wonderlic scores among two positions: Tight end and defensive back. Correlations were statistically negligible across all other positions. (Yes, even QB.) In other words, with the exception of TEs and DBs, a player’s Wonderlic score (high or low) gave no predictable projection for their eventual productivity as an NFL player. It was worthless.

2)Tight ends and defensive backs showed a negative correlation.

In other words, as Dunlap states, "a bad score" for a cornerback, safety or tight end "was a more promising indicator of future NFL production than a good one."

Because official Wonderlic data isn't made public, the study in question can't be peer-reviewed and thus lacks some legitimacy, but that's the best we can do with what we have. And it still speaks volumes. Wonderlic results have no proven link to production on the football field. 

Now, NFL prospects aren't measured by one man using one set of criteria, so the explanation is a little more complicated than that. Just because there's no correlation between results and future performance doesn't mean the test is completely useless to some who may chose to use it as a small piece to a large puzzle. 

"Some teams consider the test results critical," wrote ESPN.com's Jeff Merron. "Others say they dismiss the results, except for players who score at the extremes." 

That makes some sense. Maybe it's safer to limit the amount of stock you place in Wonderlic scores to the results that are glaringly strong or weak.

That makes it easy to explain why Vince Young, who reportedly scored a six, became a bust, or why current successful starting quarterbacks Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford all reportedly fared extremely well, according to NFLCombineResults.com

But even then, you'd have to be selective and keep grains of salt handy. Embattled Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel earned the highest reported score at his position last February, while future greats Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly performed poorly

Plus, you've gotta pick your spots. Five-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore reportedly scored a six, just like Young, but teams would have been crazy to hold that against a north-south runner who makes his money almost entirely as a result of his frame and physical ability. 

And that negative correlation for defensive backs and tight ends could even mean that NFL front offices will use those extremes to discriminate against those who perform well. As the study by Hoffman and Lyons suggests, defensive backs rely heavily on their instincts. Overthinking could be a bad thing. Could it hurt to be too smart?

On a macro level, former Giants general manager Jerry Reese once said something that cast strong Wonderlic performers as riskier prospects. 

"You have to watch out for the smart ones," Reese told Deadspin's Barry Petchesky. "If things aren't going well, they have other careers to fall back on. The ones who are good at football and only football, they'll do whatever it takes to stay in the league."

One year after reportedly performing well on the Wonderlic, Chris Borland retired suddenly
One year after reportedly performing well on the Wonderlic, Chris Borland retired suddenlyCary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Really makes you think about the fact that, according to NFLCombineResults.com, 24-year-old budding star Chris Borland, who retired suddenly in March due to concerns regarding head injuries, scored the highest reported result at last year's combine. 

And while Florio notes that "players routinely don’t give their best effort when taking the test," citing that as a reason not to care about the results, it might actually be fair to consider that effort level as a factor. 

"They say it's an IQ test. I came to the combine for football. I looked at the test, and wasn't any questions about football," said Morris Claiborne after he scored a four in 2011, according to USA Today. "I didn't see no point in the test. I'm not in school anymore. I didn't complete it. I only finished 15 or 18 questions."

But would it be unfair for general managers to hold that lack of concern against Claiborne? This is part of the most important process of his life, and he gives up? Not every mandatory class in high school or college applied directly to my eventual career, but I still had to put in the work and earn that D- in 11th-grade mathematics. 

That probably shouldn't sell you on one player or turn you off of another, but when teams are trying to find the right player for their organization, you could see some value in cognitive testing. 

It's possible the 79-year-old Wonderlic isn't the most ideal test, though, which is why the league has to strongly consider alternatives. It did recently add to the combine a computerized test called the Player Assessment Tool (PAT), which is aimed directly at identifying a prospect's potential fit within an NFL locker room.

That's a step in the right direction, but it's also fair to wonder if we'd be better off without the Wonderlic altogether. We want as much information as possible about these guys, but for the majority of those involved, this information could be doing more harm than good. 

Ultimately, it's up to front offices to decide whether they want to consider Wonderlic results, and that's all that really matters. 

But let's hope teams stop caring to the point where a change is made. These leaks expose players to embarrassment they may not deserve, especially considering that, according to USA Today's Jarrett Bell, "some critics have contended there is a bias against test-takers from lower socio-economic backgrounds."

Considering the era the Wonderlic test was created in, that should surprise nobody. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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