Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick earned the second-highest… (Julio Cortez/AP )
Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick sports the scruffy beard of an outdoorsman, the size and strength of some running backs and the intelligence quotient of your average nuclear physicist.
Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate who majored in economics, enters Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins with impressive totals in a variety of NFL statistical categories. He is one reason the Bills, a perennial disaster, are 4-2 this season.
Yet the result for which he is best known is the 48 he scored on the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test shortly before he was drafted in 2005. That number puts him in closer intellectual company with Stephen Hawking than some of his teammates —and probably his coaches. Research indicates that it corresponds to an IQ of about 150.
It was the second-highest score ever recorded by an NFL player on the 50-point test (trailing only the perfect 50 earned by fellow Harvard alum and former Cincinnati Bengal Pat McInally in 1975). It trumps the highly respectable 30 tallied by Redskins quarterback John Beck, the 29 earned by Rex Grossman, and the societal average of about 20.3 — which represents an IQ of about 100.
All of which probably means nothing when Fitzpatrick and his colleagues step on a football field.
A 2009 study of 762 players from three draft classes found no correlation between intelligence, as measured by the Wonderlic test, and NFL performance except for tight ends and defensive backs — whose achievements increased with lower scores. Even at the quarterback position, where brains are generally believed to be critical, there was no significant relationship between high scores and high performance.
“We found in no cases was cognitive ability related to [football] performance,” said John W. Michel, an assistant professor at Towson University who co-authored the study. “We did find a negative relationship for tight ends and defensive backs. For defensive backs, it was the most pronounced; basically, the lower you scored on the Wonderlic, the better you performed.”
That hasn’t stopped NFL executives from continuing to apply the Wonderlic — with a certain amount of discretion — along with increasingly frequent and extensive psychological testing. For three decades, the Wonderlic has been as integral to the NFL’s examination of draftees as the bench press and the 40-yard dash. The NFL is the only one of the major U.S. sports to give prospects an intelligence test.
“It’s of value, because it’s something everyone takes,” said former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. “You got a history on it. It gives you a red light, which is good to have, and then you work from the red light.”
Fitzpatrick completed the 50-question, 12-minute exam in nine minutes. The scores are not released publicly, but many — especially the better ones — have leaked out over the years.
Says Tim Murphy, Fitzpatrick’s coach at Harvard: “It’s one thing to have a great SAT score; it’s a different thing to be able to make great decisions under pressure when everything is happening around you.” Fitzpatrick, Murphy said, excelled at both.
Team officials say they want players who are savvy enough to absorb a playbook, identify the complex formations of the modern NFL and comprehend the consequences of, for example, tucking a loaded gun into their pants and walking into a crowded nightclub.
“If you get a solid score, show better than average intelligence, that’s going to help you in the long run for myriad reasons, not just retaining the playbook,” said Stanford graduate Lester Archambeau, who played defensive end for 11 NFL seasons and is now a player agent.
Scores in the single digits or low teens, which could indicate a learning disability, generally trigger follow-up measures by interested teams. To give top prospects an edge on the test, and help them avoid scores that generate such scrutiny, some player agencies obtain copies of old Wonderlic exams and offer extensive prep courses before the pre-draft combine, where the test is formally administered.
Of course, some football people look just as warily at players who ace the Wonderlic as those who struggle with it. The exceedingly bright can anticipate having their dedication and aggressiveness questioned more than average scorers.
Longtime agent Frank Murtha, who represented many players from Notre Dame, said scouts jokingly referred to such concerns as the “Domer Mentality.” Archambeau was nicknamed “The Professor” in Atlanta, and recalled getting lambasted by coaches anytime he made a mental mistake.
Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys,admitted to having a reflexive bias against those who scored exceptionally well on the Wonderlic.
“When you have a player who is really extraordinarily smart, he’s probably not as aggressive as a player with a lesser intelligence quotient,” Brandt said. “I’m not sure that’s correct — but I think it is.”