The Frontal Cortex

Quarterbacks

Last week, I had a short article in Play, the NY Times sports magazine. It was on how quarterbacks make decisions and why the Wonderlic is such a waste of time:

Three and a half seconds: that’s how long, on average, a quarterback has to make a decision about where to throw the ball. So, how does he make sense of his options in such a short amount of time, while a swarm of humongous, angry men attempt to pancake him? (Imagine skeet shooting while running for your life, and you get a sense of what it’s like to stand in the pocket during a blitz.) At first glance, the answer seems obvious: a quarterback needs to think. He needs to look at each of his receivers and calculate the ideal pass. This is one reason N.F.L. teams put so much stock in the Wonderlic test, which measures the intelligence of would-be draftees by giving them logic and math problems when assessing them for the draft. The underlying assumption is that quarterbacks who are better at algebra will make better (and faster) decisions in the pocket.

Unfortunately, this assumption’s all is wrong. If quarterbacks were forced to consciously contemplate their passing decisions – if they treated the game like a question on the Wonderlic– they’d get sacked every time, a classic case of paralysis-by-analysis. The fact is, the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. What recent research in neuroscience suggests is that quarterbacks choose where to throw the ball by relying on their unconscious brain. Just as a baseball player will decide to swing at a pitch for reasons he can’t explain (he’ is acting on subliminal cues from the hand of the pitcher), an experienced quarterback picks up defensive details he’s not even aware of. Although he doesn’t consciously perceive the lurking cornerback, or the blitzing linebacker, the quarterback’s unconscious is still able to monitor the movement of these players. And then, when he glances at his receivers, his brain automatically converts these details into a set of fast emotional signals, so that a receiver in tight coverage gets associated with a twinge of fear, while an open man triggers a burst of positive feeling. It’s these inarticulate emotions, and not some elaborate set of calculations, that tell the best quarterbacks when to let the ball fly. The pocket, it turns out, is too dangerous a place to think.

Of course, the locked door of the unconscious means that it’s tough to measure and quantify. This, in turn, helps explain why it’s so difficult for teams to figure out which QB’s will actually succeed in the NFL. They use the Wonderlic as a substitute, but there’s plenty of to suggest that the Wonderlic doesn’t actually predict success in the pros. For instance, Dan Marino scored 14. Brett Favre’s Wonderlic score was 22, while Randall Cunningham and Terry Bradshaw both scored 15. All of these quarterbacks have been, or will be, inducted into the Hall of Fame. (In recent years, Favre has surpassed many of the passing records once held by Marino, such as most passing yards and touchdowns in a career.) Furthermore, several quarterbacks with unusually high Wonderlic scores – players like Alex Smith and Matt Leinart, who both scored above 35 on the test and were top ten picks in the 2005 NFL draft – have struggled in the NFL, largely because they make poor decisions on the field.

Comments

  1. #1 --bill
    September 22, 2008

    maybe the point of the wonderlic is not to measure ability on the field, but ability to read and understand the playbook? what is the relationship between understanding the playbook and the unconscious recognition of what’s happening on the field?

  2. #2 Manolis
    September 22, 2008

    All this stuff about unconscious thought is wonderfully expounded by Schopenhauer, who considered it a faculty we share with animals as well as more important than the rational/analytic faculty.

    As far as I’m aware, he’s the first to ever describe it, and was (and is) certainly considered somewhat of an outlier in the philosophical tradition, which heavily leans towards glorifying the rational/analytic side of the human.

  3. #3 jfrancis
    September 22, 2008

    a personal story relating to ‘quarterbacks.
    as a rural mail carrier i cased mail about three hours
    a day. every day mail would jump out of case and waffle
    to the floor as i cased. for first few years i picked
    it off the floor. then i thought why not catch it in mid air
    after 6 months or so i began catching a goodly percent in
    mid air. soon i did not even have to think about catching it
    my brain automatically reacted when my phriphal? vision
    sensed a falling letter. now retired at 71 my brain still
    reacts to anything falling and i still catch a goodly
    percent of it. this is why QB’s don’t have to think, only
    react.

  4. #4 Steve Goodman
    September 23, 2008

    The Wonderlic obviously measures things which has zero bearing on game performance, since it doesn’t even give a good indication of whether players will work hard off the field (learning the playbook, watching film, etc.).

    I think QB performance has a lot to due with declarative vs procedural memory and visual processing prowess. How quickly can a QB learn a particular set of body mechanics that will be effective in the pros? How quickly can he read visual keys that a pass has a reasonable chance of succeeding?

    I suspect a program could be developed, akin to the flight simulators that commercial pilots learn in, where a QB is timed in identifying a target likely to be open in a passing situation. I think the cognitive processing is:
    - identify your potential target
    - project where he would receive the ball if thrown to
    - identify defenders that could interrupt the path of the ball before it reaches the target
    - if defenders are identified, select a new target

    If a QB can perform such a visual recognition task along three vectors (target, ball flight path, defenders) under a yet to be determined threshold, he’d likely be successful, assuming he can throw the ball well.

    Anyone got a few million for product development?

  5. #5 G.D.
    September 25, 2008

    I’m probably a little late for this to be read, but I still want to make a comment to the claim:

    “What recent research in neuroscience suggests is that quarterbacks choose where to throw the ball by relying on their unconscious brain”

    Interestingly, several cognitive scientists and philosophers (e.g. Noe & O’Regan’s Enactive view of perception, Haugeland, Rowlands, A. Clark etc) take this several steps further. Interacting with your environment in real-time the way a quarterback has to makes it unlikely that this is processed by the brain at all, at least in the form of any inner, computational process. What these people suggest is a complete redescription: You cannot look at the situation as one in which a brain represents or processes the environment (i.e. that the situation is described as a cognitive system consisting of the brain and the environment represented as input to the process), rather you have to view the cognitive process as involving one single system consisting of the player and his surroundings. If you want to explain what is going on, you have to reject the idea of the surface of the brain being an even remotely interesting interface in this process, i.e., the other players, the ball and the environment aren’t input to the cognitive process; these factors are constitutive PARTS of the very process. A crucial ability of humans, on this view, is the ability to utilize elements of the environment for cognitive processings, to enter into cognitive systems with the surroundings as ineliminable constituents, so to speak.

    This would, in particular, be a footnote to Steve Goodman’s comment. You couldn’t create a program which was both powerful and quick enough to carry out the cognitive task of a quarterback in a real life situation. This is, in fact, a well-known lesson from A.I. Centralized processes and information processing is good for getting reliable results from relatively simple tasks and to remember raw data, precisely and reliably. It is not very good if what you need to do is acting in an environment requiring immediate, real-time responses. As Andy Clark put it somewhere (rough paraphrase): Viewing human cognition on the model of computers has turned out to be something a blind alley; computers are built to think – humans are built to act (which is not to say that you couldn’t create a program which predicted athletic performance far better than the Wonderlic).

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