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.