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From The New Yorker
WHAT MAKES A FOOTBALL PLAYER SMART?
Not long ago, I was talking about daily life in the N.F.L. with Ryan Fitzpatrick, the veteran Tennessee Titans quarterback, who studied economics at Harvard. “It’s such a physical game,” he said. “You see three-hundred-pounders hitting each other, and people think of the physicality. When people see the game, they think we’re meatheads; they think of the way jocks acted in high school. But we spend more time studying than we do on the field.”
During the period of more than a year that I spent with the New York Jets coaching staff while writing a book, I came to understand what Fitzpatrick was talking about. Football is a grand spectacle—never more so than in the playoffs, which begin this weekend—and it depends on layers of sophisticated tactics that are not immediately apparent. Winning certainly requires imposing your athletic will on an opponent; that part of the game is easy to see. Yet victories also redound to players who can outthink their adversaries. Because there are so few football games in a season, football players generally don’t learn about members of other teams by playing against them, the way baseball and basketball players do. Until they face another team—and, in a given year, they won’t see most of those outside their own division—N.F.L. players are unlikely even to be able to name most of its members. Football players must master the opposition conceptually. In addition to the raw speed and strength that professional football requires, the game involves more mental preparation than any other team sport.
In developing a game plan, coaches typically break down everything that happened in the opponent’s past four games to granular levels of “tendencies”—down, distance (to a first down), field position, and time remaining on the game clock. Once assembled, this research fills many pages of the game-plan binders players are given on Wednesday to prepare them for Sunday. (Teams have also begun to use iPads.) The binders are dense with intricate drawings and written instructions. They are often as thick as a left tackle’s fist.
The crucial portion of the game plan is a selection of new plays and modifications to old ones the coaches have created for the current opponent. N.F.L. coaches are deft and obsessive probers of game film; they live to devise. The problem is that there’s a limit to how much fresh information most players can absorb before each Sunday. Marv Levy, who coached the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early nineties, told me he always fell back on something the legendary Notre Dame coaching innovator Knute Rockne once said: “I never ask if a player has the will to win. I ask if he has the will to prepare.”
Levy also wanted to know if players had a brain for football. Since every N.F.L. roster possesses talent sufficient to defeat any given opponent, one of the most coveted qualities in football players is what N.F.L. personnel men call “football intelligence.”
What kind of mind is ideally suited to football? Pat McInally studied history at Harvard, Class of 1975. He was the sort of undergraduate who, out of curiosity, visited the law-school classes of Clark Byse, the professor who was an inspiration for the Charles Kingsfield character in “The Paper Chase.” McInally was also an All-American receiver and punter. He went on to spend ten years as a wide receiver and All-Pro punter for the Cincinnati Bengals. But as far as the N.F.L. was concerned, McInally became a legend when he sat down to take the Wonderlic test and earned a perfect score—the only player ever to do so.
The Wonderlic is a fifty-question examination that tests the ability to answer increasingly difficult questions under time pressure—in this case, a limit of twelve minutes. There might be questions about pattern recognition, numerical sequences, word definition (What is the difference between “flammable” and “inflammable”?), trigonometry, and logic. “I thought it was funny we had to take an intelligence test,” McInally, now a collector of rare books and real estate who coaches at the Brethren Christian High School, in Huntington Beach, said. “I just blew through the thing.”
Among active players, Fitzpatrick is reputed to have the highest recorded Wonderlic score, a forty-nine. Or perhaps it was a forty-eight. Wonderlic scores are not made public, and while Fitzpatrick confirms that he answered forty-nine questions, skipping one that “didn’t make sense,” his score is a mystery even to him: “I have been told multiple scores, so I am unsure at this point.” Fitzpatrick has never found much of a relation between his academic talents and his football skills, but, he said, he knew that his ability to solve problems on the clock would distinguish him in the eyes of the N.F.L. draft directors. So he approached the Wonderlic with ferocity, completing it in nine minutes. His performance helped him enter the league—the average score for quarterbacks is in the high twenties. (For wide receivers, the mean is about ten points lower.) During Jets game-plan installation meetings, I saw how it gave the defensive coaches a source of motivation: they called Fitzpatrick “Big Brain,” and told their players they needn’t worry, because, under pressure, what would he do—throw a book at them?
More than any other position, playing quarterback requires mastering a farrago of detail, and then sifting through it while staring at eleven large people eager to break your face. The best N.F.L. quarterbacks, like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning, have reputations as keen, obsessive students of opposing defenses, whose schemes they decode in real time. And yet, what does it say that the great model of lethally consistent play, Peyton, scored a twenty-eight on the Wonderlic while his more erratic brother, Eli, scored a thirty-nine?
One theory some in the N.F.L. hold is that the highest-scoring quarterbacks are too rigidly scholarly, prisoners of research who don’t handle in-game adjustments well, while those whose scores are very low simply can’t handle a high volume of preparation.
Oliver Luck was twice an Academic All-American quarterback at West Virginia University, spent five years in the N.F.L., went on to law school, and is now the athletic director at his alma mater. His son, Andrew, (Stanford Class of 2012, architectural design; Wonderlic, thirty-seven) is the Indianapolis Colts’ excellent second-year quarterback. “Football intelligence to me is situational awareness,” Oliver Luck told me. “The variables in football are so many. Every play is a decision and you do it at full speed. Life involves more thought.” (If there is a dark undercurrent to a discussion of bright football players, it has to do with life after the scrum and the long-term effects that hits to the head can have on the brain.)
That said, Oliver Luck thinks that there have been certain moments post-football when his aptitude for the game has been helpful to him. “I remember distinctly sitting for the Texas bar exam after I finished law school,” he recalled. “There were maybe five hundred people in there. People were sighing and groaning. A guy one table away from me suddenly lost it. I wanted to tell him, ‘Suck it up! You can do it!’ The way I would in the huddle. I was focussed. I knew how to work through that test.”
While the defensive playbooks are much thinner than those for the offense, a defender who is a skilled interpreter of what he sees across the line of scrimmage is extremely valuable. Marty Schottenheimer played linebacker before winning two hundred games as an N.F.L. head coach, and once told me he considered the position the perfect apprenticeship for football leadership.
The Redskins’ London Fletcher is undersized and thirty-eight years old, but he’s been able to play for so long because he is a defensive Peyton Manning: seeing the game so lucidly, yelling out the offensive play about to unfold, changing alignments before the snap, organizing the field in real time. Similarly, Lavonte David, who has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two years, is just two hundred and thirty-four pounds—ten to fifteen pounds lighter than most at his position—the Wonderlic scores out on the Internet for him are not especially high, and, like all players, he makes the occasional boneheaded play. But he possesses dedicated study habits and a football clairvoyance that, come Sunday, finds him ignoring the blocking flow only at the one moment during a game when the offense runs the ball away from it.
The Hall of Fame Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds, the dimension of a modern fullback. Even so, Page was terrifying. His forty-yard-dash time wasn’t anything special, either, but he says that he could run down faster opponents because he always had sense where he was in relation to the blur of bodies around him—he could “understand the situation.” Page is now an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. “Being a football player requires you to take your emotional self to places that most people shouldn’t go,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to get to know the person who was in my head on a football field. I likely see some of these people in my current job—those who can’t control that person—and they do not do very nice things.”
I asked him, “You could control that person on a field?”
“Most of the time,” Page said.
The safety, standing at the rear of the defense, must compensate for the mistakes of others; football intelligence matters more at this position than any other on the defense. At five-eight, a hundred and eighty-eight pounds, the Bills safety Jim Leonhard, a nine-year veteran, is among the smallest and also the slowest starting defensive backs in the game. And yet, watching him on film, he appears to teleport to the ball. Leonhard’s name seems to enter any conversation about football intelligence; he knows every teammate’s responsibilities in every call, and understands the game as twenty-two intersecting vectors. “He’d walk off the bus and you’d think he was the equipment manager,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “He’s still in the league because he’s the quarterback of the defense.”
From 2009 to 2011, Leonhard, a Wisconsin graduate, was a member of the Jets and, like everyone else around the team, I used to marvel at his study habits. He spent defensive meetings patiently tutoring the other safeties. One day, he showed me a hundred-and-nineteen-page PowerPoint document of his thoughts on the team’s defense—lecture notes. I asked Leonhard if, in his time with the Jets, an opposing offense had ever done anything that surprised him. He shook his head no.
Recently, we spoke again about the cerebral aspects of football. “You can see one thing while watching film, and then on the field your perspective shifts,” Leonhard said. “It’s the active recall of information on the field.” As he gazes across the line of scrimmage, he looks “for things that don’t make sense.”
In football, as in so many parts of life, the true measure of intelligence is elusive. On a Sunday field, if you combine diligent, grinding application with presence and intuition, you can triumph, even if you are slow and have a Wonderlic score of twenty-four, like Jim Leonhard. “If you notice that a team’s vertical passes come in certain personnel groups, or in certain field positions, you can change your techniques in those situations to not only be able to cover the wide receivers but to have an opportunity to get interceptions,” he said. I have watched Leonhard make several interceptions; the impression is of a crowd of bison pawing beneath the soaring ball and then a tiny prairie dog suddenly rising from the earth to secure it.
There are “situations that come up in every game: a third down and one in the fourth quarter or a third down in the red zone to force a field goal,” he told me. “Offensive coördinators usually have a couple of calls they feel they can win these situations with. They won’t run the play the same as you’ve seen it [on film], so being able to decipher a shift or a motion or a change in personnel is usually necessary. The smart players can do that consistently.”
Not every smart player will find that his intellect is drawn upon; a good deal depends on his position. The Titans’ Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner completed his mathematics degree at U.C.L.A. with a G.P.A. over 4.0. Football is a game of precise timing and geometry played on a numerical grid, and it might seem that Verner’s study of calculus, differential equations, and integrals could be of help to him. But as a cornerback, Verner is alone out on the edge, isolated with the receiver he’s covering. The relation between his studies and his sport “is not as big as some want or hope it to be,” he said. “I don’t think about angles or quadratics out there. But math people solve problems, and that’s the way you approach film study. We look at all the variables.”
Verner would have no trouble learning his team’s entire defense, but that would be pointless; feeling so removed from the real complexities of the sport, he said, “I get bored sometimes.”
Nicholas Dawidoff’s most recent article for the magazine, “Quarterback Shuffle,” was published in September, 2012, and he is the author of the book “Collision Low Crossers.”
Photograph by Don Juan Moore/Getty.