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Friday, August 16, 2019

As football season draws nigh, a short take on being "data driven"

My latest Harpers Magazine just arrived in the mail.

Talk about "data-driven." A short snip from an excellent long-read (paywalled) entitled 'The Wood Chipper."
...One test at the [NFL evaluation] combine is more interesting [relative to all the obvious physical stuff] and says more about how we judge than all the others put together. It’s called the Wonderlic, and it was created by a Northwestern University graduate student in 1936. His name was E. F. Wonderlic. It was an I.Q. test meant to measure cognitive ability—math, language, basic reasoning. It consisted of fifty questions, with each correct answer yielding a point, fifty being a perfect score.

You can find sample Wonderlic questions on the internet:

  • Six cooks can boil 12 pots of water in four minutes. How many cooks are needed to boil 48 pots of water in four minutes?
  • A girl is 18 years old and her brother is a third her age. When the girl is 36, what will be the age of her brother?
  • What is the 18th letter of the English alphabet?
You have 12 minutes to take the test, 50 questions in 720 seconds. That was the innovation: the pressure of the ticking clock, the deadline looming. Wonderlic meant it to measure poise, not just how a person performs but how he performs under fire. It was designed for employers. He figured they’d use it to separate the execs from the mop pushers, but it was the armed forces that took it up first, especially the air forces—Army, Navy—­whose recruiters saw in it a way to find pilots. The ticking clock was thought to mimic the pressure a flier feels in combat, under the canopy when the ­MiGs close in. Fifty seconds till contact. Ten seconds. Three. Only around 2 percent of test takers even finished.
Tom Landry, the iconic leader of the Dallas Cowboys, was one of the first N.F.L. coaches to use the Wonderlic. Born in Mission, Texas, in 1924, Landry joined the Army Air Corps soon after his brother was killed in action over the North Atlantic in 1944. Landry flew thirty sorties in a B-­17 bomber and survived a crash landing. After the war, he played football at the University of Texas. A defensive back, he was elusive and fast and hit with the sort of force that wide receivers remembered years later.

Landry was taken by the Giants in the seventh round in the 1946 draft. He played seven professional seasons, the last two as a player/coach. He ran the defense opposite the offensive coordinator and future Hall of Famer Vince Lombardi. Most people remember Landry as the taciturn Texan who coached the Cowboys for 29 seasons, had 2 Super Bowl championships and 270 wins—­the face of the franchise. Though he looked as stolid as Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” Landry, in sport coat and fedora, was in fact an innovator. It was Landry who perfected the 4–­3 defense, which football fans will recognize as a standard alignment of the game: it starts with four “down” linemen, so-­called because these huge men begin each play in a three-­point stance (fingers in the turf, asses in the air), backed by three linebackers—­hence, 4–3. And Landry was one of the first N.F.L. coaches to realize the need for intelligence testing.

The game had become so complicated by the mid-­1970s—­so many formations, each requiring a read by the quarterback, which called for a series of adjustments made at the line of scrimmage, just the sort of improvisation known to combat pilots—­that Landry wanted a better way to scout for smarts. Not just speed and strength, but can a player think as he’s getting punched in the face, or concussed, or when Dick Butkus is biting his ankle at the bottom of the pile? That’s why he remembered the . . . wait . . . what’s that test they had us take during the war?

The Wonderlic had been in circulation long enough to generate a sea of data, the sort in which experts can read patterns. Via the test, they could tell you which professions attracted the smartest (and dumbest) people. ­Twenty was said to be the average score. Above forty, you’re a genius. Below ten . . . well. The highest average scores went first to systems analysts (32), then to chemists (31), and electrical engineers (30). These are your elites. Below that come the middle class, the multitude. Accountant (28). Copywriter (27). Bank teller (22). Firefighter (21), welder (17), janitor (14). Landry began giving the test to his players in the late 1970s. The rest of the league followed. It’s been a combine staple from the start, hated and feared.

Based on the Wonderlic, we know which positions are, on average, staffed by the smartest people on a football field, and which by the stupidest. You’d probably think that quarterbacks are the smartest players—­they have to run the offense, read defensive formations, and then make necessary changes—­but you’d be wrong. Offensive tackles have the top score, 26. Then centers (25), then quarterbacks (24). Running backs are said to be the dumbest, scoring an average of 16 on the Wonderlic. It would be interesting to give players the test before and after their careers; all those head blows must have an effect.

Of course, there are exceptions, outliers. Mario Manningham, a Michigan receiver, after failing multiple drug tests, lying about it, then admitting he’d lied, scored a 6 on the Wonderlic. (The scores are supposed to be confidential, but the numbers leak.) Running back Frank Gore, a probable Hall of Famer taken in the third round in 2005, scored a 6 as well. Jeff George, a physically gifted thrower who could never get it together, got a 10 on the Wonderlic, which is about as low as it gets for a quarterback. Aaron Rodgers, considered one of the smartest players because he looks brainy and played at U.C. Berkeley, scored a 35. Eli Manning, who took the Giants to two Super Bowls, scored a 39. Eric Decker, a receiver who did not compete at the combine because of an in­jury, scored an entirely unnecessary 43 on the Wonderlic (receivers average 17). Ryan Fitzpatrick, who played quarterback at Harvard, got a 48. He went to the Rams in the seventh round in 2005. Despite his nickname (Fitzmagic) and the length of his career (he’s played fourteen N.F.L. seasons), he’s been mostly mediocre, a fact that some use to discount the importance of the Wonderlic—­Fitzpatrick got a 48 and still sucks—­but that others use to prove its relevance—­If he weren’t a genius, the guy wouldn’t have lasted ten games in the N.F.L.

Linebacker Mike Mamula scored an amazing 49 on the Wonderlic (linebackers average 19). He broke or nearly broke several records at the 1995 combine, which bumped him way up in the draft. He went from a probable third rounder to a first rounder; he was taken seventh overall by the Eagles, just behind Steve ­McNair and just ahead of Warren Sapp, but lasted a mere handful of seasons and was never better than okay. Mamula is held up as an example of all that is wrong with the combine. Great in the weight room, great on the test, shitty on the field. The guy could do everything but play.

Only one prospect has ever gotten a perfect Wonderlic score: Pat ­­McInally, a Harvard wide receiver and punter who went in the fifth round in 1975 to Cincinnati, where he played ten seasons, which brings up an interesting question: Is it bad to overachieve on the Wonderlic?

General managers tend to steer clear of those who do poorly on the test and also of those who do well. Given a choice between too smart and too dumb, they’d choose too dumb every time. (Frank Gore, 6.) Anything over a 40 tends to be seen as a potential problem. Will too smart on the test mean too much thinking on the field and too much questioning in the locker room? If you’re looking at a 45, you’re looking at a guy who knows he’s smarter than the coach and who just might lead an insurrection. Some people speak of a Wonderlic sweet spot: 30 to 38, a range that would net most elite pro quarterbacks, including Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, and Colin Kaeper­nick. You want just enough intelligence to get up and down the field. Anything more is unnecessary or even a liability…
A great piece. Subscribe. Or, buy it off the stand.

The article concludes:
With all we know about the condition of retired players and the long-­term effects of concussions, maybe the real winners are those who didn’t get picked at all.
 Like, say, my grandson Keenan.

Preocious kid tennis player, USTA-ranked 43rd nationally by age 12. Four year varsity football starter in high school, subsequently recruited by more than 20 postsecondary schools, and (mercifully) opted to go Div III for his college ride (St. Olaf). We were so relieved when it was all over and he emerged unhurt.


 "SAM"--"Sentiment Analysis Moderation," that is. Artificial Intelligence-assisted censorship. From Naked Capitalism: "Advertisers blacklisting news and other stories containing 'controversial' words..."

Stay tuned.

More to come...

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