Mind Games

The Glue

The It Factor

There’s a secret trait that seems to rule the NFL. What is it? Who has it? How do you get it? And what happens when you lose it?

If you want to succeed in the NFL, you simply have to have that “It Factor.” The defending Super Bowl champions are led by a quarterback, Russell Wilson, who, Jon Gruden said, “had the ‘it’ factor unlike any quarterback I’ve met.” Bears head coach Marc Trestman says, “The ‘it’ factor is a prerequisite to play quarterback in the NFL.” And conversation about the three first-round quarterback prospects in this year’s draft was dominated by chatter about who had the It Factor and who lacked it.

Clearly, people within the NFL believe the It Factor1 matters. But what on earth is an It Factor? Where did it come from? And does it actually tell us anything about an NFL player’s chances of succeeding? I used LexisNexis to search newspaper coverage of pro and college football teams to try to find the answers.

What Is It?

What does “It Factor” mean? As I suggested when Shea Serrano and I wrote about great fictional quarterbacks, “It Factor” can mean just about anything you want it to mean, truthfully. The word is often synonymous with “intangibles,” which itself has been twisted to mean something like “things that can’t be measured that we will try to measure anyway.” Toughness, leadership, and bravery are familiar qualities we associate with intangibles, and likewise, they come up very frequently in articles and quotes about the It Factor.

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The It Factor is more all-encompassing than intangibles, though. It’s not enough to be tough and brave; to have the It Factor, you have to be charismatic. Quarterbacks with it don’t just show up for practice; as Brock Osweiler’s college-era It Factor profile noted, he “doesn’t just direct the offense during Arizona State practices, he works the room.” Tyler Wilson went to the Manning Passing Academy and was awed by Peyton and Eli’s ability to “walk in a room and light it up.” It can be a marketing tool, too; Jadeveon Clowney’s agent, Bus Cook, noted before the draft that his client “has that ‘it’ factor and he has the smile, like [Michael] Jordan and Tiger [Woods].” It’s the same thing baseball scouts used to call “the good face.”

It’s at least tangentially related to other overused buzz phrases of the modern era. When you have the It Factor, you have swagger, which has evolved into a commoditized version of confidence. It’s something former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg saw in Mark Sanchez before the Jets started their season of Hard Knocks. “He definitely has the It Factor,” Greenburg said. “He’s got the charismatic smile and a swagger on and off the field. It’s the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he acts around his teammates.”

As you might expect, the It Factor is also often code for “This guy is winning more than his skills say he should,” because we are somehow still in the habit of assigning wins and losses to quarterbacks here in 2014. It’s often ascribed to some sort of knowledge of how to win, like there’s a secret formula to winning that requires you to do some Dan Brown cryptography work to outscore the opposition. Artrell Hawkins, then a Patriots player, articulated this well during the 2006 season in comparing a rookie passer to his quarterback, Tom Brady. “He’s a wonderful athlete. I think he knows how to win,” Hawkins said. “I can honestly say that Tom has it and I think this kid has that ‘it’ quality, too, that is kind of intangible. You can’t really put your hands on it, but he finds ways to win and that’s what you want in a leader.”

The kid in question? Vince Young.

Where Did It Come From?

The idea of the It Factor comes from a surprising place. Although I saw suggestions that the likes of Darrell Royal were saying that a guy had “it” as early as the mid-’70s, and plenty of coaches have used the term in the present day to describe what they saw in players from the past, nobody was using the term “It Factor” during the 20th century. The closest I could find in a newspaper search was Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote referring to the “need-it Factor” and “must-have-it Factor” in 1991, concepts that would later be critical to the growth of Cold Stone Creamery.

Instead, the It Factor is the spawn of shocking bedfellows. While I found various references to the idea of an It Factor as early as 1987, football stayed out of the hunt for a long time. In 2002, Bravo started airing a reality show called, of all things, The It Factor, with one episode featuring a then-unknown Jeremy Renner. The show lasted two seasons before being canceled. I don’t believe that football coaches were blowing off tape sessions to sit in front of their televisions and watch struggling actors try to make it, but the show did serve to bring the phrase into the national lexicon. By 2004, football finally bit. A San Francisco Chronicle profile of Norm Chow contained a quote from a certain someone who would know. “Coach Chow calls it the ‘It’ factor,” said USC starting quarterback Matt Leinart. Chow tried to explain the term: “It’s something like chutzpah or the ability to handle stressful situations, but there isn’t a real description.”

Leinart was It Factor patient zero. After he went 17-of-32 with two picks before pulling out a late win against Notre Dame in the middle of the 2005 season, the scouts could not be contained. “Leinart in the Notre Dame game was him in a nutshell. He didn’t play great the whole game through,” an anonymous scout told the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer. “But with the game on the line, making that audible at the end — just the guts, the charisma. He has the ‘it’ factor.” Another scout compared him to “a left-handed Tom Brady,” while a third noted the chill factor: “I was standing behind him during pat-and-go at the Washington State game. Just watching him, with that band playing, you get the chills. He’s just got that air of quiet leadership.”

Six weeks later, with Leinart preparing for that famous Rose Bowl game against Texas, the Dallas Morning News took the bait. “Matt Leinart sauntered into the Beverly Hilton lobby looking like one would expect Matt Leinart to look at 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day,” Brad Townsend wrote. “Just-rolled-out-of-bed hair — but not too messy. Two-day-old stubble. USC sweats slightly disheveled, California-cool pretty boy image intact. In terms of the ‘it’ factor, Broadway Joe Namath entering Super Bowl III had little on Sunset Boulevard Matt as he enters Wednesday night’s Rose Bowl national title game.” Leinart, of course, would lose that game to the aforementioned Young, who is a case study in his own right.

Strangely, even in these quotes, you can see why these onlookers bestowed Leinart with the It Factor and why that consequently hurt him as a pro. The line between cool and uninterested can be awfully slim, especially in the NFL. As chic as Leinart sounds arriving at the Hilton at 9 a.m., coaches prefer the guy who dresses up in a suit and shows up an hour early so he can get to the film room. Townsend is implying, at least a tiny bit, that Leinart was out late in a hot tub with a bunch of coeds, which is exactly what Leinart did as a pro. (Not judging.) That “quiet leadership” mentioned by the anonymous scout was likely interpreted as timidness or lack of fire at the NFL level. And while Leinart was able to pull out a win despite his awful performance against Notre Dame — because Reggie Bush ran for 160 yards and three touchdowns before Leinart won the game with a two-minute drive — the ugly first 58 minutes against the no. 9 Fighting Irish meant more than the final two.2 Outside of a couple stray quotes from Gary Kubiak during Leinart’s time with the Texans about how his backup passer still had that It Factor, Leinart simply lost the It Factor somewhere along the way.

Leinart isn’t the only one to have the It Factor and lose it. But how do you even get the It Factor to begin with?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers

How Do You Get the It Factor?

That’s easy: You get somebody to write or say that you have the It Factor, which is easier than you might think. There seem to be a few characteristics associated with It Factor membership:

You’re a quarterback. In print, there are about 35 mentions of a quarterback having the It Factor for every instance of a player at another position possessing that rarest of essences. Quarterbacks are often leaders on their teams, but is it really more likely that somebody like Colt McCoy possesses the It Factor3 than a young superstar like Rams pass-rusher Robert Quinn or a talented veteran stalwart like Browns left tackle Joe Thomas? Why can’t a left guard or an outside linebacker have the It Factor?

After you get past the quarterbacks, the distribution of It Factor attributions goes in strange directions. I found stories on several kickers who were credited with having the It Factor, including Swayze Waters, an undrafted free agent at the time who now kicks in the CFL. Centers like Olin Kreutz and Matt Birk picked up the plaudits. “[Birk] just has that personality that brings people together,” then–offensive coordinator Cam Cameron noted. “That’s what you need in a center. Centers have to have an ‘it’ factor that quarterbacks have to have.” I would say this represents It Factor creep, but somewhat surprisingly, the only source I found suggesting that Joe Flacco had the It Factor was Baltimore’s public relations department, and, well, let’s not go there.

You’re early in your career. The vast majority of It Factor articles are written about quarterbacks who are either toward the end of their college careers or just beginning to start regularly in the NFL. That’s due to context. College passers who make it to the professional level are almost invariably frequent winners, thanks to the quality of their program and their own abilities.4 And then, when a young quarterback takes over as his team’s starter, it’s almost always because his team and/or the quarterback in front of him was playing poorly and losing games. Sometimes, the quarterback actually plays better, but in other cases, the external factors that were leading to the poor record (injuries, tough schedule, issues on defense) fix themselves independently of the passing situation, making it much easier to win football games. (Cough — Tim Tebow — cough.) In either case, even if he doesn’t actually play any better, onlookers can point to the quarterback’s win-loss record in college and an improved win-loss record over the previous starter and suggest that the It Factor is in play. That’s how Christian Ponder managed to exhibit the It Factor in his first pro start.

The It Factor shows up at the inflection point where players, coaches, scouts, and journalists don’t have enough to say about a player’s skills or traits but still have to talk about him anyway. Once you get several seasons into a player’s pro career, everybody has seen what a player can do, and so few of them are winning 70 percent of the time that it’s hard to justify using the term.

Once you have it, only time can take it away from you. There are probably 100 articles exclaiming that a given player has the It Factor for each one noting that a player doesn’t have it. One example I found was former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm. Before the draft, one (obviously anonymous) scout said, “I don’t know when Brohm walks into the room if the other players will respond to him personality-wise. I want to like him more than I do but I don’t know if he has that ‘it’ factor.” Then again, his head coach, Steve Kragthorpe, suggested Brohm might be a pilot, describing him as “a guy that when things are going wrong can be the fighter pilot, that can pull it out of the tailspin, right the ship.” Did Wesley Snipes have the It Factor in Passenger 57?

It’s even rarer to have the It Factor and lose it, but that’s what happened to Josh Freeman. Through the end of 2010, Freeman had the It Factor. His offensive coordinator, Jeff Jagodzinski, found that you “know the [It Factor] when you meet it,” and that he’d seen it in Matt Ryan from “the way he carried himself and the way he presented himself in practice.”5 By the end of his rookie season, subsequent OC Greg Olson saw it in Freeman’s “commanding presence when he’s on the field and in the huddle,” and when the Buccaneers went on a run fueled by close wins in 2010, head coach Raheem Morris hopped on the bandwagon, too. Bucs owner Joel Glazer then spent time during the lockout chiding the media for not believing in his long-term plan,6 while noting that he saw the It Factor in his locker room.

Almost exactly one year later, the Bucs were 4-12, Morris and Olson were fired, and Freeman had lost the It Factor. As far as I can tell, nobody has suggested he had the It Factor during his time with the Vikings last year.

If you don’t have the It Factor at first, it’s almost impossible to grab it. Almost nobody writes columns or gives anonymous quotes suggesting that a guy doesn’t have the It Factor until he’s been benched or laughed out of the league, and is no longer in any role of prominence, but there are rare exceptions.

While A.J. Hawk said before the 2008 season that he thought Aaron Rodgers had the It Factor before Rodgers stepped into the starting lineup, Green Bay’s win-loss record, especially in close games, didn’t match Rodgers’s production. On October 24, 2010, that led Mike Woods of the Green Bay Press-Gazette to wonder whether Rodgers “isn’t one of those guys” with the It Factor, based on his 1-11 record in games decided by four points or fewer, his lack of a signature drive, and his poor performance in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Packers, of course, beat the Vikings 28-24 that day, went 6-3 the rest of the way, and produced a dominating playoff run en route to the Super Bowl.

That’s not to pick on somebody for getting something wrong; every writer does (especially me), and I’m sure there were plenty in Green Bay who shared the same fears Woods did at the time. But you can see how quickly the It Factor can come and go, even if it’s not documented as such.

Does My Favorite Player Have It?

Good news! If your favorite player is an NFL quarterback, chances are he has the It Factor. Jerry Rice, an It Factor guy in his own right, once bemoaned the lack of It Factor in the NFL. “There are so many quarterbacks, but they don’t have that it factor,” Rice said in January 2012.

That’s not exactly accurate. As it turns out, 46 different NFL quarterbacks apparently have the It Factor.7 Forty-six!

Who has it? According to observers, just about everyone. Matt McGloin has it. Mike Kafka has it. Ryan Nassib has it. Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn have it together.

That doesn’t even include Tim Tebow, who has entire columns dedicated to how much of it he has, and who apparently exhibited it even when he was 10 years old. Or the non-quarterbacks like Greg Salas, Tyson Alualu, and Brandon Spikes, the last of whom is depicted as having it in an article about his sex tape.

Twenty-eight of 32 teams have a quarterback on their roster who has been the subject of an It Factor quote or story; only the Bengals, Titans, Cardinals, and Rams lack such a passer. When everybody has it, though, who really has it?

When the It Factor Goes Wrong

Oh, I have so many cautionary tales of It Factors gone wrong to share. Since we’re already approximately 85,000 words in, I’ll keep it to a few. Suffice it to say, some of the strongest cases of It Factor around the NFL have met an ugly demise.

Vince Young. You can understand why Vince Young got the It Factor reputation at the beginning of his pro career. His run at Texas finished with a famous victory over Leinart and USC in the Rose Bowl, which led to Rick Neuheisel noting that Young had the It Factor before the draft, as recorded in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. Taking over a Titans team that had gone 9-26 since the beginning of the 2004 season, Young rejuvenated Tennessee by going 8-5 as a starter, including a 7-2 record in games decided by one touchdown or less. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year. Norm Chow, who had become Young’s offensive coordinator, thought Young had it. “What you can’t evaluate is what’s inside of a guy, the heart, if you will,” Chow said in an attempt to evaluate what was inside of Vince Young. “Besides the physical skills, it’s the will and the strength inside, the ‘it’ factor that a quarterback either has or doesn’t have.”

The hit parade continued. Mike Golic noted that Young had it, in the same piece that had Boomer Esiason saying teams would need 12 or 13 men to stop Young and Brian Baldinger comparing Young to Magic Johnson. The Los Angeles Times even threw out a hopeful comp that redshirt freshman Jake Locker could eventually have the same It Factor that Young possessed, only for teammate Lawrence Jackson to say that Locker was too young to have it. (He should have met Tebow!) Young took his team to the playoffs in 2007 despite throwing nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns, and in 2008, Tennessee turned its starting job over to Kerry Collins. Young’s It Factor was gone, never to be written of or tossed out by an anonymous scout again. Only Ben Hartsock would reference Young’s poise on the record after the fact, and that was only to illustrate how Cam Newton had it.

Dallas Cowboys v Miami Dolphins

Tony Romo. Everyone’s favorite Cowboys passer might have had the strongest case of the It Factor before Tebow arrived onto the scene. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram speculated in an Andrew Sharp fever dream of a column that Romo had it in January 2006, after Romo had sat on the bench for two years without throwing a single NFL pass!8 Before Romo’s first professional start, nine months later against the Panthers, Bill Parcells said Romo had “a personality [that exudes confidence].”

Romo started his career by playing brilliantly in winning five of his first six starts, a feat that turned Romo stories into a shooting gallery of projection. Teammate Bradie James said Romo had “always had the swagger” and had “been the coolest dude around for a while.” Sean Payton, Romo’s former mentor in Dallas, noted that Romo was “confident” and “takes coaching well.” Even the most dissenting opinion, from Jennifer Floyd Engel of the Star-Telegram, noted that Romo “already has shown us that he possesses the ‘it’ factor” while fretting over whether Romo was elite. A Minnesota Star-Tribune profile detailing Romo’s It Factor from the viewpoint of opposing players noted that “there’s just something special about Tony,” a sentiment shared by London Fletcher.

To top it all off, a November 2007 article in The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, contrasted Romo’s It Factor and specialness with what was missing from Eli Manning, who lacked Romo’s “athleticism, instincts, and charisma.” This really deserves your undivided attention:

Born less than eight months apart, Romo is years ahead of Manning in the unscientific rankings of quarterbacks who might someday win a ring. Why? Start with the It factor, that impossible-to-define, easy-to-see something that Romo wears around as easily as the star on his helmet.

The smile telling you he knows something you don’t. The swagger announcing that no season-crushing, Parcells-retiring fumble of a field goal snap will ever diminish the blind game-day faith he has in himself.

Eli doesn’t have It, whatever It is.

Four months later, Eli and the Giants beat Romo and the Cowboys in Dallas before upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. And that was it. People stopped writing articles suggesting that Romo had the It Factor virtually overnight. If I wrote an article today suggesting that Romo had it, I wouldn’t be able to check Twitter for a week. The world turned and left Tony Romo here.

A reporter actually asked Romo what he thought about the It Factor. Romo, who often gives great answers to cliché-riddled questions, didn’t bite. “I don’t know what ‘it’ is,” Romo said. “I think you try to work hard, try to get better each week. I think I play the game with a little bit of passion. I think that’s the way I play. For some reason, people like me.” Oh, if only I could go back in time and warn that Tony Romo.

Mark Sanchez. Sanchez was the It Factor’s perfect storm. The Jets took Sanchez, a quarterback with very limited experience at USC, because of their faith that he had some semblance of an It Factor — an apparently popular sentiment that nearly led the Rams to draft Sanchez first. It didn’t take long for Sanchez to turn heads; teammate Marques Douglas noted Sanchez’s coolness under pressure as part of his It Factor, something Douglas believed to be “something that you’re born with.”

After Sanchez took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie, Rich Gannon jumped onboard, noting Sanchez’s punctuality at early-morning meetings. The New York Post favorably compared Sanchez’s It Factor in 2010 to that of Eli’s, with Steve Serby writing, “We wanted more fire and fewer slumped shoulders from the young Manning, but he stayed true to himself and won a Super Bowl and did it his way,” as if that were a conscious choice Manning made. By the end of the 2010 season, Serby was saying that Sanchez had the It Factor “in spades.” “If you come to New York and the bright lights make you squint, you don’t belong here,” Serby wrote. By the time the Jets and Giants matched up in a crucial late-season tilt in December of 2011, Daily News writers could still wonder whether Sanchez or Manning would be the bigger New York star.

Sanchez lost that game in ignominious fashion, going 30-of-59 for just 258 yards with two picks in a 29-14 loss that pushed the Jets out of the playoff hunt and set up the Giants for their second run to the Super Bowl in five years. It was also the last time “Mark Sanchez” and “It Factor” showed up together in print. Sanchez would follow that with the Butt Fumble, become a national joke, suffer a season-ending injury, and eventually be released by the Jets before catching on with Philadelphia. That innate character trait he once possessed? Maybe it was Maybelline.

Does It Exist?

So, after all that, it might be weird to say I think the It Factor actually does exist. I don’t know that I buy the stuff about guys having the right smile or good posture mattering, and there’s nothing to quarterbacks knowing how to win, but the underlying traits associated with it — leadership, bravery, charisma, work ethic — all exist and they’re all meaningful. It would be foolish to pretend those characteristics aren’t important, even if they’re not necessarily the ultimate determining factor in whether a quarterback will achieve success. So many NFL quarterbacks have the It Factor because it’s virtually impossible to make it to the NFL without having those traits instilled at some point, and if so many passers have the It Factor, it can’t be what determines success, even if it exists.

What is pretty clear is that the people who are saying specific quarterbacks have the It Factor are not very good judges of who has it. They fall over themselves talking about how a player has some innate measure of character when he’s winning and then never mention it, not even for a moment, when he’s going through the natural struggles that come with playing in the NFL. They almost never look back and retroactively report that somebody didn’t actually have it, and they’re often guilty of enormous confirmation bias in referring to somebody who clearly had it when nobody else saw it years ago.

The problem is that we all want to believe that we can recognize the It Factor when we see it. Plenty of teammates and coaches talk about how obvious it was just from looking in a player’s eyes. Jim Harbaugh said that Josh Johnson had “that gleam in his eye.” Gunther Cunningham was excited when he saw that Matthew Stafford had “that gunslinger look in his eye,” noting that he would even scout quarterbacks’ pictures to judge their eyes as a defensive line coach in the ’70s. Todd Haley saw the look in Byron Leftwich’s eyes in 2012. Jameis Winston knows mentor Charlie Ward has it from looking into his eyes. The eyes do not have it.

OK, so coaches often ascribe qualities that don’t exist to players. Why care? Because decision makers actually believe what they’re saying! Sure, I know there are some personnel people out there who just say stuff in the media because they don’t want to reveal anything, but it’s no accident that Browns head coach Mike Pettine spent the pre-draft period talking about how he was searching for a guy with the It Factor before drafting Johnny Manziel, who had literally dozens of articles written about him before draft day (and afterward) as the passer in this year’s class with the It Factor. It’s the same reason executives trade up year after year to grab their guy in drafts despite evidence that nobody’s been consistently able to draft better than anybody else. Everybody — well, besides the teams like New England and San Francisco, which trade down to acquire extra picks every year — wants to believe they can see something the other guys can’t.

If you want proof that nobody really has any handle on who has the It Factor when it really matters, go back to the two most prominent cases of the It Factor in football. Ask 100 personnel executives around the league to name a player with it, and the top two names that are going to come up are Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. You could build a cottage industry around ex-coaches, personnel men, and anonymous scouts who swear up and down today that they knew Brady and Wilson were going to be stars in the NFL because they had the It Factor.

You remember what happened at the time, right? Every single team in the league passed on Brady several times during the 2000 draft; the Patriots were9 debating whether to take Brady or Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay, eventually settling on Brady with the 199th pick because he was four inches taller than Rattay. In 2012, Wilson fell for the opposite reason, as his 5-foot-11 frame didn’t fit the quarterback paradigm. The Seahawks eventually snapped him up with the 75th pick, and like Brady, he was a Super Bowl champion by the end of his second season.

Think about that. Coaches swear up and down that they’re looking for a guy with the It Factor and how they can see it in a player by looking in his eyes or having a conversation or watching him practice. Every team in the league that might have been interested in a quarterback talked to Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. They saw each of them work out at the combine. They saw them on game tape and talked to their college teammates. And yet, because Brady’s arm was too erratic and because Wilson was too short, every team in the NFL passed. Presented with the most obvious It Factor guys in football, not a single team trusted their read enough to snap up Brady or Wilson with their first- or even their second-round pick. The next time you read about somebody having the It Factor, remember that the professionals couldn’t see it even when it was staring them in the face.

Filed Under: NFL, 2014 NFL Preview, Russell Wilson, Jadeveon Clowney, Mark Sanchez, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Tom Brady, Colt McCoy, Jay Cutler, Tim Tebow, Brain Brohm, Josh Freeman, Aaron Rodgers, Jerry Rice, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell