The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test was first developed in the 1930s and rose to prominence when the U.S. military adopted it to screen pilot candidates during World War II. It didn’t become a staple of NFL draft evaluations until Tom Landry started using it, however.
The test has been refined throughout the decades, but the current version that churns out the highly publicized NFL Wonderlic Test scores each year asks the aspiring pros 50 questions and gives them 12 minutes to answer all of them. Most of the questions emphasize basic arithmetic in combination with reasoning skills. The goal is to get an idea of how well the mind works under pressure, and the test is intentionally designed such that most of those who take it don’t make it through all 50 questions.
Even though Wonderlic scores usually end up being a story each season, teams don’t necessarily have a baseline Wonderlic requirement for each position. And some scientific studies actually indicates that high Wonderlic scores are an indicator of lower performance at certain positions. Teams generally only regard high Wonderlic scores as being really important for the quarterback and the offensive line. Tight ends and defensive backs with high Wonderlic scores may actually perform more poorly.
Only one player in NFL history has managed a perfect score of 50 on the Wonderlic – punter and wide receiver Pat McInally, who played for the Bengals from 1975 to 1985. He was one of the better punters in the league during this time, making the Pro Bowl and getting an All-Pro nod during the team’s 1981 run to the Super Bowl. McInally took the test again for fun in 2007, and registered an almost-perfect score of 49.
At the other end, Cowboys backup cornerback Morris Claiborne has the dubious distinction of the lowest score in NFL history, registering a 4 in 2012. There is some question about whether this was due to intelligence or effort, as Claiborne later stated in an interview he thought the test was irrelevant and quit after about 16 questions. Claiborne has since been an unremarkable but solid backup for Dallas, and is expected to get his first chance to start in the 2015-2016 season due to a season-ending injury to Orlando Scandrick.
Among active players, Buffalo QB (and Harvard grad) Ryan Fitzpatrick has the highest score with a 48. Most of the players with remarkably high scores are QBs or wide receivers. Blaine Gabbert, Eric Decker, Calvin Johnson and Alex Smith all scored 40 or better. And Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Colin Kapernick, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers all hold scores over 35.
A low score isn’t necessarily a sentence to mediocrity or a short career, however. Just ask Frank Gore (6), Mario Manningham (6), or Cordarrelle Patterson (11).