True grit

Quarterbacks need instincts more than smarts; why are some better at getting better?

Originally Published: April 7, 2011
By Jonah Lehrer | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the April 18, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back, immediately surrounded by a chorus of grunts and groans, the sounds of linemen colliding. The play has just begun, but the pocket is already collapsing around him. He must focus his eyes downfield on his receivers and know where they're going while also reading the ­defense. Is that cornerback blitzing or dropping back? When will the safety leave the middle? The QB has fewer than three seconds to make sense of this mess. If he hesitates, even for a split second, he'll get sacked.

Brian Stauffer | ESPN The Magazine

No other team sport is so dependent on the judgment of a single player, which is why NFL scouts and coaches take the decision-making skills of quarterbacks very seriously. Since the early 1970s, when Cowboys coach Tom Landry began using the Wonderlic intelligence test to evaluate potential Dallas players, the league has included it at the annual scouting combine, to assess every player entering the draft. Basically a short version of an IQ test, the Wonderlic is 12 minutes long and consists of 50 questions, which get progressively harder. The underlying assumption is that players with high scores (read: smarter) will make better decisions in the pocket. If a quarterback can solve pre-algebra problems quickly, then he'll be more likely to find his man while getting blitzed.

At first, this seems like a logical assumption. Just think of all the cognitive skills required to become a successful QB. He needs to memorize hundreds of offensive plays and dozens of defensive formations. He has to study game tape. And, in many instances, quarterbacks are responsible for changing the play at the line of scrimmage. This helps explain why NFL teams start to get nervous whenever the Wonderlic scores of a QB in the draft fall below 24, the unofficial average for the position. (In comparison, the average score for computer programmers is 29 while janitors score 15, a point below running backs.) Scouts believe a quarterback who isn't smart, at least by this measure, won't be able to handle the mental rigors of the game.

There's only one problem with this way of thinking: It's completely wrong. Many of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history reportedly had subpar Wonderlic results. Donovan McNabb scored a 14 and Brett Favre a 22, while Randall Cunningham, Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw each scored 15. What's more, several QBs who had unusually high marks -- guys like Alex Smith and Matt Leinart, who scored 40 and 35, and were top-10 picks in their respective drafts -- have struggled in the NFL, largely because they make poor decisions on the field. "People obsess over the stuff they can measure," says former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck (Wonderlic score: 23). "We spend all this time talking about Wonderlic scores and results from the combine, but those numbers miss most of what's going on."

While they found that Wonderlic scores play a large role in determining when QBs are selected in the draft -- the only equally important variables are height and the 40-yard dash -- the metric proved all but useless in predicting performance. The only correlation the researchers could find suggested that higher Wonderlic scores actually led to slightly worse QB performance, at least during rookie years.

Consider a recent study by economists David Berri and Rob Simmons. While they found that Wonderlic scores play a large role in determining when QBs are selected in the draft -- the only equally important variables are height and the 40-yard dash -- the metric proved all but useless in predicting performance. The only correlation the researchers could find suggested that higher Wonderlic scores actually led to slightly worse QB performance, at least during rookie years. In other words, intelligence (or, rather, measured intelligence), which has long been viewed as a prerequisite for playing QB, would seem to be a disadvantage for some guys. Although it's true that signal-callers must grapple with staggering amounts of complexity, they don't make sense of questions on an intelligence test the same way they make sense of the football field. The Wonderlic measures a specific kind of thought process, but the best QBs can't think like that in the pocket. There isn't time.

So how, then, do they make their decisions? Turns out, every pass play is a pure demonstration of human feeling. Scientists have in recent years discovered that emotions, which are often dismissed as primitive and unreliable, can in fact reflect a vast amount of information processing. In many instances, our feelings are capable of responding to things we're not even aware of, noticing details we don't register on a conscious level. Let's say you're given information about how 20 different stocks have performed over a period of time. (Their share prices are displayed on a ticker at the bottom of a TV screen.) If somebody asks you which stocks performed best, you'll probably be unable to give a good answer; there's just way too much financial data to keep track of. But if you're asked which stocks trigger the best feelings -- now it's your emotional brain that's being quizzed -- you'll suddenly be able to identify the top stocks. According to Tilmann Betsch, the psychologist who performed this experiment, your emotions will "reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity" to the actual performance of the shares. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while those that fell will trigger a vague sense of unease.

This exercise captures why it's so important for quarterbacks to rely on their feelings and not their analytical intelligence. Open targets are associated with the most positive emotions, just like those upward-trending stocks. "QBs are tested on every single pass play," Hasselbeck says. "To be good at the position, you've got to know the answer before you even understand the question. You've got to be able to glance at a defense and recognize what's going on. And you've got to be able to do that when the left tackle gets beat and you're running away from a big lineman. That ability might not depend on real IQ, but it sure takes a lot of football IQ."

How QBs develop a more effective emotional brain is the question teams should be asking. The simple answer: work. Expertise requires lots of effort and repetition. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State, studies expertise. Ericsson acknowledges the role of genetic gifts (physical and mental skills are not distributed equally at birth), but he believes that the overwhelming majority of expertise is earned. "There is virtually no evidence that expertise is due to genetic or innate factors," Ericsson says. "Rather, it strongly suggests that expertise requires huge amounts of effort and practice." This is because it takes time to train our feelings, to embed those useful patterns into the brain. Before a quarterback can find the open man, parsing the defense in a glance, he must spend years studying cornerbacks and crossing routes. It looks easy only because he's worked so hard.

"I think the willingness to put in the hours is the most important thing for succeeding in the NFL," says Gil Brandt, former Cowboys vice president of player personnel and current draft analyst for "When you look at the best QBs -- guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees -- what you see is that they work harder than anyone else. Their work ethic is what makes them great."

In recent years, Ericsson has become known for his calculation that true expertise in various fields, from QBs to cello players, requires about 10,000 hours of what he calls "deliberate practice." And deliberate practice is not fun.

It's not casual scrimmages or a game of catch in the backyard. Instead, it's a disciplined attempt to improve specific skills. For a quarterback, this might involve spending the weekend throwing hundreds of footballs through an old car tire while moving to the left or working for months on a few steps of footwork. Consider Peyton and Eli Manning. It would be easy to conclude that the brothers have some yet-to-be-discovered quarterback gene, a snippet of DNA that makes them suited for the pocket. (For what it's worth, Eli reportedly scored 39 on the Wonderlic, Peyton a 28.) In reality, according to Ericsson's model of expertise, the Mannings have excelled in the pros because they began throwing the football as toddlers, racking up hours of deliberate practice at an age when most kids haven't even touched a pigskin. It also didn't hurt that their father, Archie Manning, was a former NFL passer who provided them with invaluable instruction. Peyton and Eli weren't born with the ability to read defenses and throw a perfect spiral. Those "instincts" come only from a lifetime of training.

So, if talent comes from intuition, and reliable intuition comes from practice, then the trait that teams should really be measuring is how recruits practice. And the question they should be asking is, Why are some quarterbacks so much better at getting better? This notion of practice led Ericsson to collaborate with Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth is best known for her work on grit, a character trait that allows people to persist in the face of difficulty. A few years ago, she was commissioned by the Army to measure the grittiness of cadets at West Point. Although the academy is highly selective, about 5 percent of cadets drop out after the first summer of training, known as Beast Barracks. The Army has long searched for the variables that predict which cadets will graduate, but it wasn't until Duckworth tested them using a short questionnaire -- consisting of statements such as "Setbacks don't discourage me" or "I am diligent" -- that the Army found a measurement that actually worked. Duckworth has since repeated the survey with subsequent West Point classes, and the results are always the same: The cadets who graduate are the ones with grit.

In a new paper, Duckworth and Ericsson demonstrate that grit doesn't only keep people from dropping out, but it's also what allows them to become experts, to put in the hours of deliberate practice. The researchers tracked 190 participants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The first thing they discovered is that deliberate practice works. Student spellers who spent more time studying alone and memorizing words with the help of note cards performed much better than kids who were quizzed by friends or engaged in leisure reading. Duckworth and Ericsson also found that levels of grit determined how much the spellers were willing to practice. Grittier kids were able to engage in the most useful kinds of self-improvement, which is why they performed at a higher level. Woody Allen famously declared, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." And grit is what allows you to show up, again and again and again.

"I'd bet that there isn't a single highly successful person who hasn't depended on grit," says Duckworth. "Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that's what grit allows you to do. It lets you take advantage of your potential." For successful quarterbacks, grit is what allows them to watch hours of game tape on Monday mornings. It lets them remain in the weight room after everyone else has gone home. It's why they can practice the right way, not just the easy way. "In order to become a professional athlete, you need a certain kind of obsessiveness," Duckworth says. "You've got to devote your life to the development of this very narrow expertise. It shouldn't be surprising that this takes lots of grit."

In order to become a professional athlete, you need a certain kind of obsessiveness. You've got to devote your life to the development of this very narrow expertise. It shouldn't be surprising that this takes lots of grit.

-- U of Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth

The problem for the NFL is that instead of measuring grit, teams still subscribe to an antiquated model of talent and expertise in which innate gifts are presumed to matter the most. The scouting combine requires players entering the draft to perform a number of short physical and mental tasks (40-yard dash, Wonderlic, three-cone drill, bench-press reps, vertical jump) referred to by psychologists as "maximal measurements," since they measure people who are highly motivated to perform for short bursts of time. But to understand why those maximal tests at the combine don't predict performance in the pros, we must return to the nature of expertise. As Ericsson and Duckworth demonstrate, the most important kind of talent, emotional IQ, depends on measurements of sustained performance, on being able to engage in endless amounts of deliberate practice.

"Maybe they say he's too short or too slow or has a weak arm," Brandt says, "but the reality is that if a quarterback has the right work ethic, then he can probably make up for those problems." He points again to Brees, who wasn't drafted until the second round, and Brady, who was ignored until the sixth. "That's because teams have been looking at all the wrong things," Brandt says. "Just because you can measure it doesn't mean it matters."

Measuring grit does matter, but it's not easy. Grit can't be evaluated in a single afternoon; by definition, it's a metric of personality that involves performance over long periods of time. People don't reveal grit at the combine; they show it when no one else is around. "What coaches need is a way to test how players will perform over the entire season," Duckworth says. "Do they have what it takes to make themselves better? Will they benefit from criticism and feedback? If I were a coach, those are the questions I would care about."

So where is all this heading? How will grit become a bigger part of the scouting equation? The first step is to finally acknowledge that maximal tests aren't effective. "I really see the Wonderlic as a reading test," says former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, now with the NFL Network. "Until we get a better test, teams are just going to have to evaluate players the old-fashioned way, by watching them play in actual games. It takes good instincts to be a QB. Maybe it takes good instincts to find one, too."

Hasselbeck suggests that teams pay more attention to the fundamentals of college quarterbacks, since their passing mechanics are often a window into how much grit they possess. "You know these guys have been coached for years," he says. "So if you see a QB with flawed fundamentals, you gotta wonder what's wrong. Is he coachable? Will he work to improve? Because that's important. You can teach a kid to throw the ball, but only if he wants to learn."

After all, deliberate practice makes perfect.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of, most recently, "How We Decide". You can follow him on Twitter here, or find his work at his personal website,