Sooner or later the term is bound to surface wherever football is spoken. Usually the reference is made in passing, without pause for definition, as if we all know what’s meant. Maybe we do, despite the fact “football IQ” is more a know-it-when you-see-it quality than a measure derived from a standardized set of tests, what we normally mean by a person’s intelligence quotient.
Still, for all its vagueness, there was a surprising level of agreement on what constitutes football IQ when ACC coaches and players were randomly surveyed at last month’s football conclave in Charlotte.
Consider the view of N.C. State senior Bradley Chubb, one of the better defensive ends in the country. Chubb, a Georgian, grew up around football. His father, Aaron, played at the University of Georgia. Brother Brandon was a Wake Forest linebacker (2012-15). Cousin Nick is currently a running back at Georgia. You might conclude based on that lineage that football is in Chubb’s blood, like oxygen, the game’s nuances and imperatives seeping deep into his consciousness long before he enrolled in college.
Which made it a bit of a surprise when Chubb, asked to estimate the extent of his football IQ upon arrival at Raleigh in 2014, said without hesitation, “Probably zero.”
I thought I knew everything, but I found out quickly that was not the case. I had to humble myself and learn from guys that had already done it.
N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb
That was, however, the mature judgment of a seasoned veteran, observing his grasp of the game “has grown” since then. “I thought I knew everything, but I found out quickly that was not the case,” he says easily. “I had to humble myself and learn from guys that had already done it.”
Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine a player laying claim to a high football IQ without being coachable, willing and able to accept guidance, to harness interest and natural gifts in pursuit of superior performance.
“I think it comes from how you were taught when you were younger,” says Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander, a product of Charlotte’s Rocky River High School. “Some people were taught, this is your job, just do it, and never really talked about the concepts of football and the philosophy of football. Football can be a class (of study) if you really understand it. It’s like you’re speaking a peculiar language.”
To Alexander, football fluency is synonymous with football IQ, “not only understanding your job but understanding the job of everybody around you and using that knowledge and being able to auto-correct yourself. People who have a high football IQ never make the same mistake twice,” he insists, an assertion detailed video study might refute.
“There’s definitely an experience (component), not just playing the game but people taking the time to walk through rationales, explanations, answering questions,” says Dr. Martha Putallaz. A Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience, she’s gained uncommon insight into sports through a prolonged role in athletic governance and as the school’s Faculty Athletic Representative in ACC and NCAA circles. “You have to have the skills, you have to have the talent, but the experience helps you learn how best to tailor it to the circumstances, to proactively anticipate or read things. But you have to be able to do it in real time … I think that’s where they talk about the speed of the game. It goes so fast, and the more experience you have the more automatic it can become.”
So automatic, in fact, a player can escape the dreaded fault of thinking too much while in action, relying instead on focused but free-flowing football IQ. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey insists the notion of someone at his position, where smarts are at a premium, lacking a high football IQ is akin to “a chef having no IQ for food.” And how does a player know he possesses a high football IQ, Dungey is asked? He laughs. “I don’t know,” says the Syracuse junior. But he does know, or thinks he does. “I guess it just comes natural. You can learn also, but it’s tough to be out there without knowing what’s going on.”
Alexander, like N.C. State’s Chubb a preseason All-ACC selection, has seen quarterbacks in just those confused straits. “You can tell whether the quarterback is just doing what he was told to do, or is he out there trying to make his own adjustments,” he says. “You can tell by the play calls and different throws he makes and stuff like that, whether he’s getting by on athleticism or mental capacity.”
Bobby Petrino, the Louisville coach, has the happy task of guiding his quarterback, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, to vex defenders even more than he did last season. That means fashioning an even stronger fusion of instinct and knowledge. “We’re trying to get him to improve his football IQ all the time,” Petrino says of the explosively elusive but occasionally erratic junior. “Football IQ is your understanding of the game, knowing where all 11 guys on offense are doing, knowing what the 11 guys on defense are doing.”
Larry Fedora comes at the topic differently. The ability to strategically survey player alignments, to track schemes and tendencies, isn’t what comes immediately to mind when he’s asked how much football IQ will factor into his choice of a new starting quarterback. The North Carolina coach first and foremost stresses a broader view, a command of play-calling factors ranging from time on the game clock to down and distance.
“When do I need to pick up the third down and is it OK to punt? When do I need to get that extra yard and when is it OK for me to slide?” Fedora offers rhetorically, rattling off alternatives in the same rapid-fire manner his squads often attack opposing defenses. “Offense is all about, we need to score, we need to kick it to score, we need to kick our opponent inside their own 30-yard line. If we do that on every series we have a great chance of winning the football game.”
Which shows that, second-guessers notwithstanding, a coach can have a high football IQ, too.