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THE INSIDE TRACK | SECOND THOUGHTS

Brain Doctor Predicted Leaf Would Be Falling

March 12, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

The Brain Doctor made a house call.

He phoned mine last week from the Ozarks, where he now lives and works.

The subject was Ryan Leaf.

In 1998, Jonathan P. Niednagel's research formed the blueprint for a story we did on brain typing in sports.

Niednagel is not really a doctor, he doesn't even play one on TV, but several professional sports franchises have enlisted his services to help dissect the minds of their athletes.

Niednagel has spent more than 20 years studying brain types and believes everyone is one of four pairs of preferences: Introverted or Extroverted, Sensing or Intuitive, Thinking or Feeling and Judging or Perceiving.

Niednagel says combinations of preferences can determine success or failure in sports.

After our series ran, we got letters.

A PhD from Santa Barbara wrote: "His claims are better placed in the trash bin of pseudo-science."

Really?

The San Diego Chargers hired Niednagel in 1998 to evaluate the top quarterbacks in the draft, Peyton Manning and Leaf.

The football experts could not distinguish between the two. Manning and Leaf were considered can't-miss prospects--the top quarterbacks to emerge in years.

A month before the draft, the Chargers traded two first-round draft choices and players to Arizona to move up from No. 3 to the No. 2 slot to assure they would get either Manning or Leaf.

Niednagel did his work-up. He reported that Manning had the ideal brain type for an NFL quarterback: ESTP (Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving). It's a brain type shared by Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Brett Favre, according to Niednagel.

Niednagel said Leaf had one of the worst types : ESTJ (Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Same brain type as Scott Mitchell, Niednagel said.

Niednagel remembers being in the Chargers' war room, sitting at a table with top club officials.

The discussion was the prospect of having to pay Leaf $40 million.

"I said, 'Listen, give me $5 million, and I'll go out and find a backup better than Ryan and we can split the $35 million, or give it back to (owner Alex) Spanos,' " Niednagel recalls.

Bobby Beathard, then the Chargers' general manager, was flummoxed. It was his idea to bring in Niednagel, yet he was stuck.

Indianapolis had no interest in dealing the No. 1 pick.

When the Colts took Manning, the Chargers were almost obligated to take Leaf with the second pick.

That, or explain the team passed on one of great prospects on advice from "The Brain Doctor."

Then coach Kevin Gilbride asked Niednagel if there was a way to work with Leaf.

Niednagel said: "I don't care if you're Houdini, he's going to bring you down."

The final call on Leaf was Beathard's.

He says now he racked his brain over the decision.

"I thought about it a lot," Beathard said this week. "The one thing that bothered me was the Brain Doctor. Jon said, flat out, 'Don't draft him.' "

But Beathard said Leaf graded out OK on more traditional tests and the consensus was to take a chance.

Niednagel said he understood the pick was political.

"No way am I bad-mouthing Bobby and the organization," Niednagel says now. "I conveyed what I needed to."

You know the rest.

Manning has emerged as one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks and is on a course to join other ESTPs in the Hall of Fame.

The Chargers recently cut Leaf after three miserable seasons.

Was Niednagel right?

"Yes," Beathard said.

Leaf has since been signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Niednagel warns that situation will never work because Coach Tony Dungy has the exact opposite brain type as Leaf.

"You talk about Tony getting gray in a hurry," Niednagel says.

Niednagel maintains Leaf is always going to struggle at the top level because ESTJ types get "myopic" under pressure.

"You watch Ryan, he's like a deer in the head lights," Niednagel said. "Can Ryan have good games? Absolutely. But if I'm trying to make the Super Bowl, the odds are much less with him than a lot of other guys."

On the local front, Niednagel says Laker stars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are destined to be at odds because of conflicting brain types.

O'Neal is an ISTP, the best basketball brain type--same as Michael Jordan's--while Kobe is an ISFP, the Scottie Pippen type.

Former Laker General Manager Jerry West (ISTP) was reportedly upset three years ago when Niednagel said Bryant could never be the next Jordan because his brain type wasn't the same.

Niednagel says Shaq and Kobe can only co-exist if Bryant takes the subservient role.

"When ISTPs try to have equal or higher footing, forget it," Niednagel says of Bryant. "The best way to win is to make Shaq the main man. Kobe can have great games, but it has to go through Shaq."

Niednagel has also said there would never be another Jordan, an ISTP with rare physical and mental gifts.

Niednagel is close to amending that statement. He says one NBA player comes closest to emulating Jordan in brain and body type:

Orlando's Tracy McGrady.

"He's still far from being what he could be," Niednagel says. "But he could end up being, by far, the dominant player in the league. This guy could be close to Michael."

Go ahead. Write your letters. Second guess Niednagel all you want.

The Chargers did once.

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