Dash of doubt
The NFL treats 40-yard dash times as sacred. But if those numbers are true, many players are faster than Olympic gold medalists and their clockings should be eyed with a dash of doubt
By Mark Zeigler
April 18, 2005
JIM BAIRD / Union-Tribune
Kirk Morrison tries to improve his draft standing by running the 40-yard dash for scouts in the San Diego State weight room.
There is no official world record for 40 yards.
The shortest distance that the IAAF, track and field's international governing body, recognizes for world-record purposes is an indoor 50 meters, or about 54 yards. It is 5.56 seconds and it was set by Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey in 1996. There is also a world record for 60 meters Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 6.39 seconds by American Maurice Greene in 1998.
But it is another Canadian, Ben Johnson, who is believed to have run 40 yards faster than any human in history. Johnson is best known for injecting copious amounts of steroids and winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul in 9.79 seconds, only to have his gold medal and world record stripped after failing a post-race drug test.
Timing officials have since broken down that famed race into 10-meter increments, and Johnson was so preposterously fast that he went through 50 meters in 5.52 seconds and 60 meters in 6.37 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ both under the current world records at those distances. He went through 40 yards that day in 4.38 seconds.
He was running in spikes . . . on a warm afternoon perfectly suited for sprinting . . . with a slight tailwind . . . with years of training from arguably track's top coach, Charlie Francis . . . with Carl Lewis and six others of the fastest men on the planet chasing him . . . with 69,000 people roaring at Seoul's Olympic Stadium . . . with hundreds of millions of people watching on TV . . . with the ultimate prize in sports, an Olympic gold medal, at stake.
And, as we learned later, with muscles built with the assistance of the anabolic steroid stanazolol.
Then again, maybe Ben Johnson isn't the fastest 40-yard man in the world.
Maybe half the NFL is faster.
It can be the most important few hours of a football player's career. It is the day NFL scouts come to campus to determine whether prospects have what it takes to play at the next level.
Players are measured to the quarter-inch. They're weighed to the half-pound. They do a vertical jump and a standing broad jump. They see how many times they can bench-press 225 pounds. They do a 20-yard shuttle drill and something called a three-cone drill. They are put through a short workout specific to their position.
But it is something else that commands everyone's attention, something else that interrupts the businesslike atmosphere of players shuffling from one station to the next. Something else that causes scouts and spectators to snap to attention.
The 40-yard dash.
It is the day's shortest event, and the most critical. No other statistic carries more influence for an NFL prospect, no single number has more impact on his draft fortunes. It's not called Pro Scouting Day or Pro Prospect Day or Pro Workout Day. The sign taped to the weight-room door at San Diego State on March 19 says: "Pro Timing Day."
Or as local football agent David Caravantes puts it: "There's football speed and there's 40 speed, and the scouts will all tell you they understand that and game film is the most important thing. But how many defensive backs who ran a 4.6 are left on the draft board ahead of guys who ran 4.3?
"I'll give you another example. There's this DB who was originally projected as a first-rounder. But he didn't run the 40 that fast Ã¢â‚¬â€œ something like 4.6 instead of in the 4.4s Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and now they're talking about him slipping to the second round. Well, he's looking at a minimum $4 million signing bonus if he goes in the first round and only about $1.6 million if he goes in the middle of the second round.
"You do the math."
The players are inside the SDSU weight room being measured and weighed. In the hallway outside are their agents, pacing. Nervously. Occasionally they'll walk outside, look up at the sky and stick out an upturned hand to feel the raindrops.
This is not good. The plan, according to the schedule on the weight-room door, has the players lifting and jumping inside and running the 40 outside on SDSU's synthetic-turf practice field. The course marked with cones has them running on a spongy, soggy, uneven turf into a chilly wind with a dark sky spitting rain.
That's not good for 40 times, and that's not good for business.
The players leave the weight room and begin to warm up in the wind and rain. The agents squirm even more. They huddle with players, and soon the players are marching back into the weight room, demanding that they run inside on a strip of rubberized track laid between the various lifting machines.
The fastest of the players at SDSU's Pro Timing Day, which also includes a half-dozen prospects from small West Coast schools, is Aztecs safety Marviel Underwood. Players each run the 40 twice, and Underwood is clocked in a hand-timed 4.38 both times.
Other prospects run their 40s at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in February inside Indianapolis' RCA Dome, where this year Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones went 4.37. Jones is 6 feet 6, 242 pounds.
It's also where Jerome Mathis, a wide receiver from tiny Hampton College in Virginia, sent his stock soaring with a reported 4.32. Some scouts apparently caught him sub-4.30. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcels told people his stopwatch showed 4.25.
Never mind that Mathis was running on the RCA Dome's notoriously slow artificial turf, or that he was running alone without the aid of fellow competitors pushing him. Or that his left hamstring was wrapped because of a slight muscle strain.
There are the legends about the 4.17 Deion Sanders ran in high tops when he was at Florida State, or the 4.15 by a cornerback from West Virginia, or the 4.0-something a high school kid ran down in Texas.
Hogwash, all of it.
Track coaches go to Pro Timing Days, and they see scouts starting their stopwatches with their thumb, which has a slower reaction time than the index finger. They see them crowding the finish line and anticipating Ã¢â‚¬â€œ guessing, basically Ã¢â‚¬â€œ when someone will cross it. They see running surfaces that weren't professionally measured or leveled. They see no starter's gun, no automatic timing device, no wind gauge.
Grizzled track coaches love to say that the "clock doesn't lie." Well, it does in football.
Say someone clocks a hand-timed 4.35 in an NFL workout.
The accepted standard to convert a hand-timed event to its automatically timed equivalent is to round up to the nearest tenth of a second Ã¢â‚¬â€œ in this case 4.4 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and add .24 seconds. Now you're at 4.64.
Most football 40s don't go on a starter's pistol but on an athlete's motion. The average reaction time among elite sprinters (from the gun to the moment they exert pressure on the starting block's electronic pads) is about .15 seconds; for a football player with little track experience it probably would be closer to .2. Add that in, and you have 4.84.
Now say it's a breezy day and you're running with a tailwind. Say it's 10 mph. Accepted track tables say that would provide a .07-second advantage over 40 yards. Add it in, and your 4.35 is suddenly a 4.91.
There's no shame in running a 4.9-second 40, of course. World-class sprinters get a bad start or get a cold day, and they go through 40 yards in the high 4s, too.
But NFL scouts aren't comparing their times to Ben Johnson in Seoul in 1988. They're comparing them to other players at a particular position, and that might be an even more dubious endeavor.
The hope was that the top 300 or so prospects invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis would all run indoors under the same conditions with an automatic timing device. A great idea, in theory. But players are controlled by their agents, and why run on a slow surface with automatic timing in Indy six weeks after the college bowl season when you can run at your home campus on a lightning-fast track with the leniency of the stopwatch while having another month to train under an expert sprint coach?
Two years ago, 32 running backs were invited to Indianapolis. Thirteen ran the 40 there.
Enter the Pro Timing Day. There were more than 150 this year, most jammed into a three-week period in March, most held in a dizzying blend of conditions and surfaces.
Take March 23, when there were pro days at 11 campuses. North Carolina State ran its 40s indoors in the weight room on a rubber floor. USC ran outdoors on a state-of-the-art track with a crosswind. Southern Illinois ran outdoors on FieldTurf in breezy, 42-degree weather. Southern Mississippi ran outdoors on FieldTurf but in still, 65-degree conditions.
Virginia ran outdoors on a Tartan track, Northern Colorado outdoors on artificial turf, Northern Iowa in a dome, Georgia Southern and Bowling Green outdoors on grass, Boston College indoors on rubber. Lambuth, an NAIA school in Jackson, Miss., had its offensive line prospect run on a cracked tennis court.
A couple weeks earlier, Louisiana-Monroe held pro day in a basketball gym.
NFL teams have their own formulas for adjusting times based on the conditions, subtracting a tenth here, adding .12 there. But really, how exact a science can it be?
"Nowadays, perception is reality," says Paul Turner, a University City High alum who played a season at receiver for the Buffalo Bills and trains college players for their pro days. "If they say it's a 4.29 and they have it written down, well, it must be a 4.29."
Pro Football Weekly's 2005 Draft Preview is a 200-page analysis of the top prospects in painstaking detail. Below each player's name and position are three numbers: his height, weight and 40-yard dash time.
Why 40 yards? Why not 20? Why not 60?
The short answer is, no one knows. Draft historians will tell you the NFL stole the idea from colleges and that it came from an era when races were run in yards and not meters. The reasons the NFL went from 50 yards, its former measuring stick of speed, to 40 yards are more ambiguous.
Some say 40 yards represents the distance between where players are aligned Ã¢â‚¬â€œ from the running back to the free safety. Some say it is the longest distance a receiver can realistically cover before the quarterback is sacked. Some say it's the point when most people begin losing their form and slowing down, making it a better judge of a person's raw speed.
The counter argument, of course, is that players rarely run 40 yards in an unimpeded straight line during a game. That there is a difference between pure speed and playing speed. That about three inches separate a player who runs 4.49 and a 4.50.
That Blair Thomas ran a 4.4 and the New York Jets took him with the second pick in 1990, and Emmitt Smith ran a 4.7 and slipped to 17th.
All of which is true.
Veteran La Jolla-based agent Jack Bechta says Ron Wolf, the former general manager for the Green Bay Packers, explained it best to him once.
"He told me that there are guys who are fast but play slow, and that there are guys who are slow but play fast," Bechta says. "He told me that, sure, there are exceptions, but you can't have a team full of exceptions. Their thinking is, you can't take a good football player and make him fast, but you can take a great athlete and make him a good football player.
"You need a baseline, a common denominator, and that's what 40 times are. They are like minimum qualifying standards."
So college players finish their senior seasons and have their agent hire a speed coach like Turner, or enroll them in one of several speed schools (at upward of $10,000) for the sole purpose of lowering their 40 time by two-tenths of a second. They learn how to start. They learn how to run with their feet higher off the ground, which goes against accepted football practice of low, quick feet necessary for rapid changes of direction.
Some, no doubt, succumb to the temptation of anabolic steroids considering they are no longer under the auspices of the NCAA's testing program and don't yet quality for the NFL's.
Even then, experts say, there is little you can do to make you appreciably faster. The major component in speed is the ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscles a person is born with. Rahn Sheffield, SDSU's longtime track coach, acknowledges that "only 17 to 19 percent" of speed can be developed.
"Every coach and athlete is fascinated with one thing, and that's raw speed," says Sheffield, who trains about a dozen pro prospects for their 40s each year. "That's the one thing that every athlete doesn't have, the one thing that's unattainable for some people. Speed is the one thing they can't coach.
"They talk about genetics and genetic codes. Well, this is their way of gauging that."