The puzzling thing about physical genius, however, is that the closer you look at it the less it can be described by such cut-and-dried measures of athleticism.
--Malcom Gladwell, New Yorker Magazine, August 2, 1999--
What makes a great athlete great? Why are some athletes, even when only measured against other great athletes, that much better? Why is Barry Bonds the greatest hitter of his generation? What made Michael Jordan a cut above every other elite basketball player of his generation? And what the hell should we expect from Vince Young in the NFL, since those of us who watched him at Texas seem to think he's the most amazing football player we've ever laid our eyes on?
What's easily apparent to any sports observer is that there are two components to physical greatness. The first, obviously, is having the physical capabilities to compete at the highest level. I know an awful lot about baseball, I can tell you the physics of a curve ball, and am able to explain why Dontrelle Willis was struggling in the spring. But if you've ever had the chance to actually play baseball with me, you know that I am absolutely terrible. I cannot hit, I'm not a great fielder, and I have a pretty weak arm. My chances of playing professional baseball at any level, in other words, are zero.
I may be an extreme example, but even among very talented athletes, most have physical limitations that prevent them from competing at the very highest level, no matter their other appreciable strengths. But along with the requisite physical attributes, we recognize that there is another element to physical genius, and it's not physical. It is mental.
Take, for example, a baseball player. To play at the major league level, one needs more than just the ability to hit a ball hard. It is one thing to be able to blast a fastball that's grooved down the middle of the plate at 88 miles per hour. And it is quite another to be able to recognize the different pitches that, say, Pedro Martinez is going to throw you. The pitch that looks, to most, like an 88 mile per hour fastball, may be a 78 mile per hour change up. Pedro Martinez makes a lot of the best hitters in the world look silly. But the best hitters are able to recognize pitches quickly and make appropriate decisions about whether, and where, to swing the bat.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about physical genius in that 1999 New Yorker article that, "What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do--their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss." It is not limited to athletes either, Gladwell notes. The same mental attribute that makes a baseball player great is the same that makes the best surgeons great, and the best cellists great, and so on.
What, then, is this mental attribute? And does Vince Young have it?
Gladwell explains that what sets physical geniuses apart from others seems to be a combination of two factors. The first is a kind of obsessiveness with their craft. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Barry Bonds, Yo-Yo Ma, and the neurosurgeon Gladwell uses as his example all share a work ethic recognized by their peers as extraordinary and unrivaled. Texas fans know that Roger Clemens is renowned for his ridiculously strenuous work ethic. Practice, along with developing consistency, appears to give these extraordinary people an enormous memory bank of scenarios to work with.
The second factor is a:
Different crafts, of course, require a mastery of different aspects of this mental skill. It is why Michael Jordan, who could be so exceptional at basketball, could only be good at baseball, not great. The combination of mental formulation needed to be a great tennis player is different from the mental formulation needed to be a great surgeon. And so on.
What is common to all these physical geniuses though, Gladwell argues, is a "faculty of imagination... Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, his longtime rival, did not differ so much in their athletic ability or in how obsessively they practiced. The difference between them is that Jordan could always generate a million different scenarios by which his team could win, some of which were chunks stored in long-term memory, others of which were flights of fancy that came to him, figuratively and literally, in midair."
Does this sound like anyone you know?
Turning now to our hero, Vince Young, how should we evaluate his particular abilities? Is he a physical genius that will succeed and, perhaps, dominate in the professional ranks? Or is he merely just a highly skilled athlete without this particular mental ability to dominate?
Over at Football Outsiders, an outstanding football analysis website that focuses, in large part, on using statistical data to explain outcomes on the football field, they are working hard on developing a predictive model for collegiate quarterbacks at the pro level. On Vince Young, David Lewin makes several observations relevant to this discussion:
Anyone who has seen both Michael Vick and Vince Young run the football, then, might wonder why this is so. He is clearly the quickest and fastest runner at the quarterback position. Why does Vince Young excel at running, despite being, by all accounts, not quite as quick and not quite as fast? This is where the experience of Texas fans can kick in. We have seen him make these runs for three years. He has an inexplicable knack for avoiding defenders, making cuts, and finding holes to run through. He does not just run fast and move quickly. He makes head-shakingly great runs, the success of which go far beyond any physical greatness he has. There is something more going on. It may be that Vince Young is a physical genius as a runner. Pete Carroll might think so, for one.
Of course, there is more to being a quarterback than running. The ability to throw the football is a vital part of the job description. Again we return to Football Outsiders. Lewin writes:
Ah, the Wonderlic. Surely you didn't think we would get through this without it coming up, did you? According to Lewin, the Wonderlic is what the NFL talent evaluators use to decide the mental capacity of a quarterback to run an NFL offense. According to a 2005 press release by Wonderlic, Inc. the test "is a short form intelligence test that measures players ability to think on their feet, follow directions, and make effective decisions under the pressure of a time clock."
But is this simplistic explanation sufficient? Recent research suggests that it is not. Jason Chung notes that numerous studies have shown not only are black athletes are at a disadvantage when taking the test, but also that there appears to be no meaningful correlation between a high Wonderlic test and the ability to succeed at quarterback in the NFL. Malcolm Gladwell touched on the subject indirectly in his 1997 New Yorker article titled "Why Blacks are Like Boys and Whites are Like Girls."
The Wonderlic test was first administered in the 1970s when Dallas Cowboys head football coach Tom Landry. In the 30 some years since then, the test has grown in popularity to the present day, where it is administered widely by the NFL. "NFL scouts believe that the test will help them identify quarterbacks that will assimilate NFL playbooks quicker and identify quarterbacks that make better decisions," Jason Chung writes.
According to the studies cited by Gladwell and Chung, though, not only is Vince Young more likely to do poorly on the test because he is black, but his test score (high or low) doesn't really tell us much about his ability to be a successful quarterback in the pros.
And what of the argument that Vince Youngs mastery of the Texas offense, which required Young to make only two reads, is evidence that Young will be able to make three, or four, reads in the pros? The latter certainly doesn't follow from the former, for one thing. And for another, why on Earth would Texas set up a more complicated offense when something simpler works just fine? If you've ever played a football game on a video game console, and found a play that the computer cannot stop, you run it over and over and over. Why would Texas do anything different?
In the end, then, we have evidence with our eyes that Vince Young may be a physical genius running the football, we have psychological and experiential evidence that the Wonderlic test is not a very good predictor of NFL success, and we have no reason to think that mastery of something simple necessarily guarantees an inability to master something more sophisticated.
Why, then, all the doubting of Vince Young? Those of us who have watched him closely know that he is one of the most special talents that we have ever seen, and yet, there seems to be a concerted campaign to derail his qualifications.
The explanations are probably numerous, and undoubtedly complex, so I will not try to categorize it as a race issue or an intelligence issue, or any one possible explanation. There are undoubtedly lots of explanations, some far more benign than others. What matters is that some team is going to get Vince Young, and that team will have the opportunity to attempt to get the most out of his unquestionable physical gifts.
I've said over and over that the team that drafts Vince Young will have a unique opportunity to succeed with one of the most unique talents in the history of football. And perhaps, the next time you hear about Vince Young and the Wonderlic test, you ought to remind yourself that there are many ways to measure intelligence and that what makes the greatest great is not going to be measured on that test. The intelligence failure, I remain convinced, will be seen if the team that drafts Vince Young cannot figure out how to win with him as their quarterback.