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NFL Combine 2017: The Wonderlic Test is probably both good and bad

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Pencils up, pencils down.

New York Giants vs Tennessee Titans - November 26, 2006 Photo by Mike Ehrmann/NFLPhotoLibrary

The 2017 NFL Combine starts tomorrow in Indianapolis. A large portion of the week’s poking and prodding of prospective prospects is physical: the players will run, jump, and throw, all along being measured for athletic prowess.

But one of the more mysterious parts of the week has little to do with athletic ability, and much more with decision-making. The Wonderlic test, which the NFL uses as its benchmark cognitive ability exam during Combine week, is administered to each player. There are 50 questions, and the players have 12 minutes to answer as many as they can, or roughly 14.4 seconds per question. At the end, they get a score out of 50.

Unlike most of the Combine’s statistics, however, the Wonderlic scores are never officially released to the public, neither by the Wonderlic, Inc., nor the NFL, nor even the individual teams. Scores are released only through leaks to the media, which lends the test its air of mystique.

To learn a little more about the test, I talked with Michael Hall of Wonderlic Test Sample.com. A few years ago, Hall and a couple friends started up the site on a lark. They were interested in the test, and thought other people might be, too. He was right.

The NFL started using the Wonderlic in the 1970s, but in recent years the test has taken on a life of its own. Leaked low scores often lead to ridicule on social media, and high scores can portend great success, or failure.

But what is it, exactly? Does it show you how smart a player is? Or just whether they’re good at taking a rapid-fire test?

“It’s very similar to an IQ test, and the questions you’d expect to find on a test like that, so it’s testing your cognitive abilities,” Hall told me. “It was created in the 1930s by a guy with the last name Wonderlic, named E. F. Wonderlic. They’re an actual company. They’ve sold their tests mainly to other companies who hire employees and want a quick way to sort of screen applicants for jobs.”

It’s sort of a first pass over the mental makeup of a guy you’re going to be paying millions of dollars to catch, or chase, or throw a football. It’s a pressure cooker-style exam where the idea, Hall said, is to be efficient.

“It’s super quick,” he said. “You have about 14 seconds per question, so speed is your friend when you’re taking the test. Often times when you see low Wonderlic scores, it’s not actually because people can’t answer the questions. It’s because they can’t take a test quickly, they don’t get through questions, and they don’t finish the test. A lot of the questions you find on the test are intentionally misleading, too. They’ll have information that doesn’t really pertain to the answer, so you have to sift through stuff. It’s just a logical, quick-thinking sort of task.”

So it’s not actually an intelligence test, per se. It’s more a test of your ability to analyze situations quickly and pick out crucial information. Makes sense that a team would want players to be able to make the right decision quickly, when NFL plays typically last only a handful of seconds at a time and are always conducted at top speeds.

But just how much importance should we put into the Wonderlic? There are probably plenty of players who get flustered, or just bad at taking tests, and can still make the Pro Bowl, right? If you’ve got the athleticism, you can probably make do.

It turns out, Hall said, there aren’t many statistically significant relationships between Wonderlic scores and on-field results. One of the problems, of course, is that the data being used are hard to come by, and harder to verify.

“A lot of people think a lot of the scores out there aren’t exactly true,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen a number that are misleading. Vince Young, for example, I think there’s two popular scores of his out there. He notoriously got like a six. I think he might’ve retaken the test and gotten a 15.”

Vince Young? A six? Can’t imagine.

Beyond the questionable accuracy of scores, though, is the fact that there just might not be a huge correlation.

“There’s a bunch of studies out there,” Hall said. “One was done by a couple Louisville professors, and they found negative correlations between the Wonderlic test scores and results, especially with higher-than-average players. If players got like a 42 or something really good, they sort of figured that might be alluring for teams, and they’ll draft players higher than what they should be drafted.”

Kind of like Mike Mamula, who scored a reported 49 on the Wonderlic and then flamed out after being drafted in the first round by the Eagles. Donovan McNabb reportedly scored a 14, and then had a great career.

For the record, Carson Wentz reportedly scored a 40 last year.

“At the same time,” Hall said, “there are other studies that do support the Wonderlic with small correlations, not significant ones, between success and your score.”

Ultimately, the Wonderlic is like basically any other pre-Draft measure of ability: just one part of the puzzle. So many other things go into playing football successfully that putting inordinate importance into one 12-minute stretch of what is likely an exhausting week would be pretty silly. After all, football is still played on fields, not computer screens.

Want to measure yourself against NFL prospects? You can take a sample Wonderlic over at Hall’s site.