In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has a thought-provoking article on the difficulty of figuring out what sort of person is best suited for a particular job. He begins by discussing the challenge of choosing college quarterbacks, a topic that I’ve written about a few times before (and cover at length in my forthcoming book):
All quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test–the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores–which are routinely leaked to the press–they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Why is the Wonderlic so useless at predicting which quarterbacks will succeed? The reason is that finding the open man during an NFL game involves a very different set of decision-making skills than solving a problem on an IQ test. While quarterbacks need to grapple with complexity – the typical offensive playbook is several inches thick – they don’t make sense of the football field the way they make sense of questions on a multiple-choice exam. The Wonderlic measures a specific kind of thought process, but the best quarterbacks don’t think in the pocket. There isn’t time.
So how do quarterbacks do it? How do they make a decision? It’s like asking a baseball player why he decided to swing the bat: 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 rational calculations, that tell the best quarterbacks when to let the ball fly. The pocket, it turns out, is too dangerous a place to think.
Gladwell goes on to argue that the failure of the Wonderlic and the dismal track record of NFL scouts suggests that drafting a QB is ultimately a crapshoot:
We’re used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors. We now realize that being a good doctor requires the ability to communicate, listen, and empathize–and so there is increasing pressure on medical schools to pay attention to interpersonal skills as well as to test scores. We can have better physicians if we’re just smarter about how we choose medical-school students. But no one is saying that Dan Shonka is somehow missing some key ingredient in his analysis; that if he were only more perceptive he could predict Chase Daniel’s career trajectory. The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t.
I’m not that pessimistic. I think the real problem is that, for the last several decades, we’ve just been measuring the wrong things. We’ve assumed that passing decisions are rational decisions when, in fact, there’s nothing rational about them. Obviously, it’s a bit more difficult to measure the unconscious, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
I’d also argue that this new emphasis on the learned expertise of the unconscious – as opposed to the innate intelligence measured by the Wonderlic – suggests that an essential determining factor of how a QB will perform in the NFL is how they are trained and taught. Look at the Patriots. After Tom Brady was injured, Matt Cassel – a QB who hadn’t started a game since high-school – was able to become a surprisingly good substitute. (This doesn’t mean the Pats will make the playoffs, but that’s another story.) Why did Cassel succeed when so many other high-profile QB’s fail? I think part of the answer is Bill Belichick’s emphasis on situational practice.
What separates Patriots training camp is the attention to detail and emphasis on situational football. Two-minute drills, four-minute drills, and coming-out-of-your-own-end-zone scenarios are situations in which the Patriots preach what they practice.
“The most important thing that I saw that he did in his training camps, the thing that he does that in my opinion makes that team better is that he has specific practices set aside for situational football,” said former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria.
Fauria, who played in New England from 2002-05 and also has played for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins, and Carolina Panthers, said in his first camp with the Patriots, Belichick created a situation: It was late in the fourth quarter and the Patriots had the ball at their 17 with 1:21 left and no timeouts, needing a field goal.
Sound familiar? Belichick recreated the situation that led to Adam Vinatieri’s field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI.
“They redid that situation. I remember that sticking out in my mind,” said Fauria. “Ultimately, those situations can make the difference between winning and losing, being able to make those small, quick decisions that the other guy might not know.”
That is how you train the unconscious: not with dry recitations of the playbook, but with realistic simulations. As a result, players are able to practice decision-making – what should I do on fourth and short with a corner blitz? – just as they’d practice throwing a deep pass.