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How one cognitive test could help NFL teams find the next elite quarterback

S2 Cognition provides cognitive testing programs across sports and has a strong track record of identifying talent at quarterback in the NFL. (Illustration by Michael Domine/The Washington Post/iStock)
10 min

Two weeks before the Carolina Panthers sent their top wide receiver and a haul of picks to the Chicago Bears for the top selection in April’s draft, their general manager hinted repeatedly at what was to come.

“In an ideal world, you always want to draft the quarterback,” Scott Fitterer told a crowd of reporters at the NFL combine. “... We’ll see if we can get in a position where we get one of the guys we like.”

“You better be right,” he added. “You better have conviction if you do move up. … When you do that, you’re all-in.”

Quarterbacks are priceless in the NFL, and the difference between a pretty good one and an exceptional one can be the difference between a playoff drought and a Super Bowl run. Moving up in the draft can improve a team’s odds of choosing a superstar, but that’s only half the challenge. Land a better pick, and a team still has to pick the right player — a decision that’s not just about arm strength, mobility, height and hand size. It’s also about the player’s ability to process information amid a barrage of distractions.

“That’s why this is both an art and a science,” Panthers Coach Frank Reich said.

One company, S2 Cognition, is trying to bring more science to the art. Using a 30- to 45-minute computer test, S2 attempts to measure cognitive performance: how well an athlete consumes information, makes sense of what he or she sees and reacts.

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Co-founded in 2014 by two neuroscientists who were college athletes, S2 has developed testing batteries for nine sports. It has tested roughly 3,500 draft-eligible prospects and 150 quarterbacks (including NFL veterans), and its measures, according to a recent study, have more accurately reflected quarterbacks’ career NFL passer ratings than the Wonderlic, an intelligence test developed in the 1930s that the NFL used until last year.

Patrick Mahomes was one of the top performers on the S2 evaluation. So were Joe Burrow, who ranked in the 97th percentile, and Brock Purdy, who didn’t have the athleticism or production at Iowa State to stand out in the draft but shocked the league when he took over for the 49ers last season.

S2 can’t predict whether a player will become an all-pro or a franchise savior, but it doesn’t attempt to. Rather, its tests are designed to give a more applicable measure of how efficiently a player thinks on the field. A player’s S2 score could be a deciding factor in the draft or among the reasons a team does not sign a free agent. And knowing how players process information should help teams better understand how to develop them and how to tailor systems around them.

“You kind of use the [explanations] ‘he’s got a good feel for the game’ or ‘he’s got great instincts,’ ” said Will Hewlett, a coach with quarterback development group QB Collective. “[S2] essentially gives measurements to the ‘it’ factor.”

Another piece of the puzzle

About 12 years ago, Brandon Ally and Scott Wylie connected while working at Vanderbilt University. Ally, a former distance runner, researched the mechanisms of visual memory and perception, working largely with Alzheimer’s patients. Wylie, a former Division II baseball player, studied brain activity for motor actions. Eventually, the two blended their expertise with their interest in sports to create S2. The techniques they use aren’t new — the tests are derived from others that have been used for years — but they have never been applied to elite athletes.

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“What Scott and I had always measured is sort of the building blocks of what the brain has to do on the field,” Ally said. “We were always measuring [those things] in environments like driving for older adults; when you’re driving and a kid runs out in the street, there’s a really rapid process of when you have to hit the brake and all those sorts of things. We were mainly interested in how these break down and reaction times and things like that for older adults. But then it became very clear that we needed to start measuring these on the other end of the spectrum, which, really, in the scientific literature was never there. Nobody has ever measured elite athletes.”

Since 2015, S2 has partnered with 12 MLB teams and 15 NFL teams, providing them a database of scores from the thousands of athletes the company has tested over the years, be it at college all-star games, during the combine, at training facilities or in the NFL. The company’s football battery tests for nine skills: perception speed, search efficiency, tracking capacity, visual learning, instinctive learning, decision complexity, distraction control, impulse control and improvisation. An athlete’s S2 score for football is a composite of the nine tests, and it is ranked against those of every player in S2’s database.

Unlike the Wonderlic, which measures reasoning and problem-solving in everyday life, or the Athletic Intelligence Quotient (AIQ) test, which is geared toward quick decision-making and spatial awareness, the S2 evaluation was created to gauge how players think on the field.

For instance, the maze test that’s included on some of the classic intelligence tests, such as the Wonderlic and AIQ, can help assess mental processing, but it doesn’t account for time. A quarterback doesn’t have minutes after the snap; he has a couple of seconds to find his target and hit a tight window before a pass rusher crashes into him. On the other hand, one of S2’s speed cognition tests flashes a diamond missing a corner. A player has to quickly report which corner is missing, which could take anywhere from 0.015 seconds to 0.2 seconds.

Basic technology, such as tablet computers, can’t measure how quickly players must make decisions in the context of an NFL game. S2 uses gaming monitors and custom “button boxes,” which are typically used in laboratories, so measurements are precise enough to reflect split-second differences. S2’s scores even account for whether a test-taker had his or her hand on the button before pushing it or higher up, which would add time.

For anyone else, the differences are unnoticeable. But for professional athletes, they can change a game, even a season.

“It’s just another piece that you’re adding to the puzzle beyond the personality, the leadership,” Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. “... You can have guys that understand, presnap, everything, but when the ball is snapped, they don’t process as fast. They can [have 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash], but if they don’t play 4.4 because of the processor, then that 4.4 is kind of thrown away.”

The ‘it’ factor

In the early years of S2, Ally and Wylie used LSU as their beta testing site and worked with just two NFL teams.

“We spent a ton of time working with the Saints and Cowboys simply to vet the product,” Ally said. “[We learned:] ‘Does this measure what we think it measures? Does it match up with what the scouts are seeing? Can we do some basic level analytics, like looking at the correlation between S2 and scout grades?’ Things like that.”

After a few years of vetting, S2 expanded to a small group of teams, including the Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. It later began to work with up to two teams per division, including the Panthers and Washington Commanders.

“You don’t draft the guy because he did well on … his S2, but if it confirms what you saw on tape — if something in that test confirms what you saw on tape and confirms the reasons why you liked it — then that becomes a factor,” Commanders General Manager Martin Mayhew said at the combine. “If it contradicts what you saw, maybe you go back and look again to see if you can see what the test is trying to tell you.”

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S2’s data can help a team determine whether a player can see the whole field, whether he can sift through chaos to track objects. It can show how a player filters through complex decisions: If the cornerback does this, then I’ll run this route, but if he does that, then I’ll run that route. S2 also can test how well a player picks up on tendencies or notices subtle tells from an opponent. It can evaluate a player’s ability to focus while facing distractions and how well he can improvise when his original plan breaks down.

“You see your rigid thinkers,” Ally said, “those guys that just stand there in the pocket and end up taking the sack just because they’re expecting something to happen and it’s not, and their brain is just conflicted.”

Some traits are innate; a person either has them or doesn’t. But others may improve with experience and specific drills, and tweaks to the game plan can emphasize a player’s strengths.

“[There] may be a reason to change potentially how you call a play or how you anchor their eyes in a particular scenario,” said Hewlett, who has worked with Purdy and Anthony Richardson, the former University of Florida star who is expected to be a top pick in this year’s draft. “So if someone has a really low decision complexity score, we know that if you give them too many ‘if-then’ statements, then that’s probably going to bog them down and not make them think as fast.”

Among the 117 quarterbacks S2 had tested up to the 2022 draft, the 13 with career passer ratings above 90 averaged an S2 score (91) that was 40 percentile points higher than those with career passer ratings below 90. Those top-tier quarterbacks tested significantly better in seeing the full field (tracking capacity), picking up on tendencies (instinctive learning), filtering through “if-then” rules during plays (decision complexity) and focusing amid stimuli (distraction control).

Although multiple factors determine a quarterback’s success, the great ones typically have exceptional cognitive skills. Using S2’s data to learn how and why may help quarterback-needy teams get it right.

“Guys come in different shapes and sizes,” Colts Coach Shane Steichen said at the combine. “We’ve seen Hall of Famers that are 6 feet. We’ve seen Hall of Famers that are 6-5. Again, it’s the ‘it’ factor. Everybody is going to have some talent — you’ve got to find it.”