Tom Landry, head coach of the Cowboys in the 1970’s, has long been considered one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. In order to more accurately gauge college players for their ability to succeed in the NFL, Landry started having his potential draft picks take the Wonderlic test. This test measures the cognitive ability of the players to solve problems and learn quickly.

Tom Landry sculpture

Soon after Landry’s use of the test, the Wonderlic test became a standard at the NFL Combine. And it still remains an important part of the evaluation process to this day. Although many players with lower scores succeed, it is with good reason that NFL scouts are skeptical of those players. At the same time, a high score doesn’t guarantee success, but it can be a great advantage to a player to score high on the Wonderlic test.

Why is the Wonderlic test especially helpful for NFL teams to evaluate potential draft picks?

NFL players need to learn large chunks of plays inside their team’s playbook. This is especially true for the quarterback, who needs to know the playbook better than anyone else on the team. A fast learner is someone NFL teams want. But rookies that struggle to learn plays won’t be as effective, and they won’t be productive players as quickly as they could have been.

NFL players must also make incredibly quick decisions. That’s why the Wonderlic test is timed. The players must choose the correct answer as quickly as they possibly can. When a defensive end bears down on the quarterback for a sack, the quarterback doesn’t have time to scan the entire field again. He must either throw the ball away or take off running. His ability to make this decision quickly will have a big impact on his future success.

Some players score low on the Wonderlic test, but they have an innate ability to succeed in the NFL anyway. Donovan McNabb is a good example of that. McNabb scored 14 points on the Wonderlic test in 1999, which is seven points lower than the suggested score. But he went on to have a very good career for the Philadelphia Eagles. Low scores don’t mean you’re automatically going to fail, but teams will continue using this helpful tool for a long time to come.

Photo by Jim Bowen (originally posted to Flickr as Tom Landry) [CC BY 2.0]