Book excerpt: Why the Manning vs. Leaf draft debate was obvious
Editor’s note: Bruce Feldman’s new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, is out today. This is an excerpt from the book.
In 1998, June Jones was in his first season as the San Diego Chargers quarterbacks coach and had spent months with his colleagues trying to sort out the dilemma facing them about which QB the organization wanted: Peyton Manning, the cerebral son of football great Archie Manning, or Ryan Leaf, the rocket-armed country kid from Montana who had just led Washington State to the Rose Bowl. Jones took a break from draft prep one night and turned on 20/20, the ABC newsmagazine show. It was featuring a man claiming to be an expert on brain-typing. The man, Jonathan Niednagel, is a lay scientist whose academic credentials are rooted in finance, not science or psychology. Niednagel was asked to size up Manning versus Leaf. He said one of the two guys has “It.” One doesn’t.
“Which one?” Niednagel was asked before saying, “I can’t tell you. I’m being paid by an NFL team.”
The next day, Jones walked into the office of his boss, Bobby Beathard, the Chargers’ GM. San Diego had the second pick of the draft. Beathard admitted it was the Chargers who were paying Niednagel. “He says Peyton Manning has It. Ryan doesn’t,” Beathard told Jones. Manning was labeled as an “ESTP.” Leaf was “ESTJ.”
“I said, ‘Are we going to take Ryan Leaf, even though we know he’s not one of those guys?’” Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Well . . .’ and then he hemmed and hawed and said something about how the owner made the call.” The Colts shrewdly drafted Manning first. The Chargers, against Niednagel’s suggestion, drafted Leaf, who wasted little time alienating his teammates. Leaf opened the season throwing just one touchdown pass and turned the ball over 15 times. Head coach Kevin Gilbride was fired after six games. Jones became the interim head coach. A few days after taking over the Chargers, Jones met Niednagel.
“He scared the piss out of me the first time I ever talked to him,” Jones recalled. “We talked for two-and-a-half hours. He said, ‘Let me tell you four things about yourself,’ and they were things that nobody else would know. He said, ‘When you don’t prepare, you’re at your best.’ I’d just become head coach of the Chargers. Tony Gwynn and Ted Williams are there. I prepared for it and wrote a speech, put it in an envelope, and I get called up and realize I’d put the wrong deal in there. I gave the greatest speech I’d ever given in my life. Standing ovation. Two days later, he tells me that.”
Jones’ team, the Chargers, had just signed Leaf to a four-year, $31.25-million deal, including a guaranteed $11.25-million signing bonus, the most ever paid to an NFL rookie. Jones won his first game over a hapless Philadelphia Eagles team, 13–10, thanks to Natrone Means’ 112 rushing yards. San Diego won in spite of Leaf’s completing only nine passes but for the first time not committing a turnover.
“Ryan Leaf can’t play, and I know it,” said Jones. “Knowing he can’t do it, you call a different game.”
The next week against Seattle, Leaf had what would prove to be the best game he would ever have in the NFL, going 25-of-52 for 281 yards. “We have our final drive first-and-goal from the 3, down 27–20,” Jones said. “We have time for four plays. He misses every pass. I shouldn’t have thrown it, but we were struggling running the ball.”
A week later, at Kansas City, on the opening drive, Jones predicted to his team that they’d spring a receiver wide open on a deep route. Too bad Leaf overshot the guy by five steps. “The whole sideline’s crushed. I said, ‘Ryan, I don’t think I’m going to be here at the end of the year. I’m going to play this [backup Craig] Whelihan guy. You just take your licks and get ready for the next year.’”
Jones was correct. He was canned after the season, and Leaf went down as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. Jones left the NFL and became one of the most successful coaches in the college game. In his first season at Hawaii, he sparked the biggest improvement in NCAA football history. He led the Rainbows to a 23–4 record in his last two seasons at Hawaii before accepting the SMU head coaching job. In Dallas, he took over a team that went 1–11 in his debut season and the following year went 8–5, making a bowl for the first time in 25 years since before the Mustangs got slammed by the NCAA’s Death Penalty. Jones also had become one of Niednagel’s staunchest supporters, along with Danny Ainge, the president of the Boston Celtics, who said, “You can take Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Phil Jackson — I’d take Jon Niednagel.”
Jones had Niednagel “brain-type” his players at Hawaii and at SMU for more than a decade. Jones always had a list of seven or eight players for Niednagel to evaluate when the coach brought him out to his practices. The players were usually good athletes who should have won starting positions but hadn’t because they didn’t respond well, Jones said. Niednagel then gave him direction on what positional moves should be made to better fit each player to his more “natural” position.
“It’s fascinating stuff,” Jones said. “I had some guys playing positions who I thought should be better than they were. He talked with them and then told me, ‘OK, this guy [Reagan Maui’a] needs to be a running back,’ and I had him playing defensive line. He was a 380-pound backup nose guard. I went to him. He had one year of eligibility left. I said, ‘You’re gonna have to trust me on this. If you lose a hundred pounds, I’ll get you into the NFL as a running back.’
“[Maui’a] looked at me like I was crazy. But he lost a hundred pounds. I put him at running back, and he got drafted in the sixth round, and he’s still playing in the NFL. And he’d never played running back in his life.
“He’s been 100 percent right on every kid we’ve talked to him about.”
Niednagel said he could talk to a person and gauge how his mind was wired by his voice inflection and diction as well as by eyeballing his facial features.
Niednagel, who worked out of a tiny south-central Missouri town (population: 453), was met with much skepticism from the science community, which took issue with the fact that he had no advanced scientific degree. Instead, he had a BS in finance from Long Beach State. But he was quick to point out that he’d had almost 40 years of research. He maintained that 60 percent of athletic ability came from personality type, and the other 40 percent stemmed from external factors, including how they were coached. He first started noticing the variances in motor skills when he coached his kids’ Little League soccer and baseball teams. Soon, he was testing out his theories.
“I’d draft certain kids even though they’d never played before,” he said. “I’d talk to the kid. I knew that, by halfway through the season, just by my coaching him, he’d be better than a kid who’d looked 10 times better in the workout.” Niednagel, then living in Southern California, had so much success as a Little League coach there were stories about him in the Los Angeles Times. Word spread about Niednagel to pro sports teams always desperate for an edge.
Niednagel loved his connection to the sports world. Even though the Celtics paid him a reported salary in the six figures, Jones had never actually paid him for his guidance.
“I just fly him over,” Jones said. “Jon sensed that I got it, and he wanted to help, and that I was more open than any coach he’d ever talked to.” Jones, in his second season at SMU — after he’d led the Mustangs to their best season in 25 years — tried to get Niednagel hired as a professor in the Sports Management department.
“If he was a professor, I could run the recruits by him, but they wouldn’t let me do it,” Jones said. “[Niednagel] wanted to do the science to give validity to what he was doing, and being a professor at the university would do that for him. [SMU athletics director] Steve Orsini approved it, but we didn’t have the money in the department to do it.”
Jones had become well-versed in the 16 personality types from Myers-Briggs, which were at the root of Niednagel’s work. The letters are based on the pairings of psychological attributes:
E-extraverted versus I-introverted. F-feeling versus T-thinking. J-judging versus P-perceiving. N-iNtuitive versus S-sensing.
Niednagel tweaked the verbiage and came up with his own terminology, which he officially went with in 2011 when he published a book about parenting. Extraverted (E) became Front (F); Introverted (I) became Back (B); Sensing (S) became Empirical (E); iNtuitive (N) became Conceptual (C); Feeling (F) became Animate (A); Thinking (T) became Inanimate (I); Perceiving (P) became Right (R); Judging (J) became Left (L). Niednagel also reduced the profiles even further with numbers, as if the players were dishes off a fast-food menu. “ESTP,” the type Peyton Manning is, became “FEIR” — Front Empirical Inanimate Right — or a No. 5.
“I took it out of that bogus Myers-Briggs world and tried to take it into the brain and what it’s really representing,” Niednagel said.
Jones could rattle off the names of all the great quarterbacks who were ESTPs (FEIRs): Joe Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre. An eye-catching majority of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks who played in the past 30 years are this one personality type. So were other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks Ken Stabler, Phil Simms, Joe Theismann and Trent Dilfer. Jones used the famous NFL Films anecdote of Montana — the moment before beginning a last-minute, game-winning, touchdown drive in the Super Bowl, walking into the huddle and matter-of-factly pointing out John Candy in the crowd to one of his linemen as an example of a guy wired to thrive under pressure.
“ESTPs, under pressure, play their best,” said Jones.
“I had this conversation with [former Denver Broncos head coach] Dan Reeves. He wanted to get rid of John Elway. He said Elway couldn’t learn the playbook. But guess who was so great in the two-minute drill? John Elway. Guess who was calling all the plays then? John Elway.
“Can another guy who doesn’t have the same brain type perform at a very successful level? Yes, he can, but you have to know that he’s not one of those guys, and you have to be able to manage the game so that you don’t put him into situations to lose the game, and you take some of the weight off him in pressure situations.”
The latter is a key point that both Jones and Niednagel stressed. As much as it was ideal to find an ESTP quarterback, it was vital to ID what kind of personality type your QB had, so you could alter accordingly how you coached the guy.
Peyton Manning had the “best QB package of all time, thanks to his smarts, tactical spatial logic, peripheral and stereoscopic vision, body balance, and fine motor fluidity and prowess and decision making, etc.,” Niednagel wrote on his blog on braintyping.com. “These DNA attributes also radically separate him from baby brother, No. 2 BT Eli, who we predicted from his NFL start would never consistently play to the excellence of prodigy Peyton.”
Jones was stunned when he learned that Tom Brady wasn’t ESTP (a No. 5) but rather an ENFP (a No. 9). ENFPs typically are too smart and empathetic to thrive as quarterbacks, because they have so much exuberance and passion.
“Brady and (Drew) Brees, another No. 9, are very atypical for their wiring,” Niednagel said. “Most No. 9s end up as major busts. Brady was as good as anybody Belichick could ever coach as a No. 9. He’s a team guy who wants to please, whereas Peyton [Manning], because of the way he’s been raised, wants to please, too, but his inborn nature is more tough-minded in the moment, and he wouldn’t be as apt to not toe the line [the way] Favre was. That’s why when [then-Packers Coach Mike] Holmgren said in Super Bowl XXXI, ‘Don’t you dare mess with the plays,’ and then on the second play, Favre audibled, and they scored a touchdown. That’s just the nature of No. 5s. It’s how they function in the moment. They have incredible vision. They don’t script anything. They just can improvise. That’s why Peyton Manning is so superior at the line of scrimmage. Manning just has that tactical mindset that is off the charts. No. 5s are not super-cerebral typically. Peyton is regarded as that, but of course he was taught by his dad, an NFL player who is a No. 13.”
Jones actually was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator when the team drafted Favre in the second round in 1991. Favre lasted one season in Atlanta before he was traded to Green Bay. He attempted four passes, had two of them intercepted, and the other two went incomplete.
“I thought Favre was inaccurate and drunk for 18 straight months. [Atlanta starting QB] Chris Miller was in the Pro Bowl, and we needed help on defense,” recalled Jones, who wasn’t surprised to learn that Favre was wired to thrive under pressure. “If you go back in college, he won so many games on the last drive. In two years, I think he had 13 wins and, like, 10 of them came on the last drive.”
Jones said if he knew then what he knows now, the Falcons never would have traded Favre to Green Bay. “I[t] would’ve been different if I knew and I knew how to coach him,” he said. “In two-minute situations, let him call his own plays. In those heated situations, Kelly went no-huddle; Favre, Elway, Marino — they all called their own plays. Let them lead.”
Jones has never had an ESTP in college. He admitted he tried to type guys all the time, especially quarterbacks, and he always ended up wrong. “They all end up my brain type, ENTPs. I’ve looked for ’em. I tried to find ’em, but I haven’t had one. But what Jon [Niednagel] does, which is really important for coaches, is he can tell you how to say things to a particular brain type that will be received better, and they will respond better. Basically he teaches you how to coach them better. He’ll tell you, ‘For him to play at the highest level under pressure, this is what you need to say and how you need to say it as a coach. Don’t tell him what to do. Ask him what he thinks, even if you don’t want to do that; then you trigger it this way to get him to see it in a timely fashion.’ I did that with [NCAA career passing leader] Timmy Chang, and it really changed him.”
“Type No. 13s are typically the ace on baseball pitching staffs, but their wiring isn’t optimum for quarterbacks,” Niednagel said. Still, it seemed that as the NFL was becoming more open to mobile QBs, more and more No. 13s were thriving. Aaron Rodgers was a No. 13, and so were Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III.
Jones was perplexed that he couldn’t find ESTP quarterbacks anymore. He asked Niednagel, who offered up a theory. “He said, ‘June, if you and I went to the juvenile-detention home, 50 to 60 percent of the kids are ESTP.’”
Even if, as Niednagel said, ESTPs do recoil at structure, many of them have proven to be some of the world’s greatest leaders. Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur — all were ESTPs. So were Malcolm X, Dale Carnegie, L. Ron Hubbard and Ernest Hemingway. Studies estimate that somewhere between 4 and 10 percent of the population are ESTPs.
Usually by this stage, Jones (who has since resigned from the SMU job) would’ve already known his player’s type, but for the past three years Niednagel has been unavailable, battling Stage IV melanoma. He’s had to battle two bouts of pneumonia and arsenic poisoning that he got, he said, from eating so much wild rice. “I’d seen top experts in the field but ended up creating my own protocols,” Niednagel said. “I was two weeks from death, but I’ve come back a long way.”
His recovery comes at a time when he believed he, along with some help from a company in Orange County, was on the brink of a scientific breakthrough, that through DNA analysis he had four of the 16 personality types defined. “The neat thing is, we’re bringing out the science now in a way that is irrefutable,” he said. “But, hey, anything that has been noteworthy over the ages has been scoffed at. I’m looking at this as a way to change mankind, not change NFL teams. It’s far bigger.”
Update: June Jones stepped down at SMU after the second game of this season but told FOX Sports this week that he plans to get back to college coaching soon.
"I’ve been recharging and will do one more turn-around somewhere and am going to coach five-to-seven more years," Jones said, adding that he’s been contacted by a few folks to gauge his interest in possible coaching opportunities.
Since leaving SMU, Jones has spent time back in Hawaii, in Oregon with his grandkids and in Las Vegas helping a pro golfer, Tony Finau, who he’s been behind for six years, he says. "He is the real deal!" The former Hawaii coach has also been assisting on a movie that he thinks will be very inspirational that is being made about him and some of his former players. You can see more about that project here.
Asked why he stepped down from SMU in early September, Jones said Monday morning, "It’s a long story. We had a good run with four bowls in six seasons. It was just time to go.
"I’m really enjoying being around my kids and grandkids right now, and I’m just waiting for things to pop (on the coaching carousel)."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.