The (in)significance of the 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine

It’s not the heptathlon or pentathlon.   It’s not a triathlon or even an Ironman.  The events are specialized and are meant to measure the degree athleticism in the participant; short area quickness, speed and explosion, fast twitch and endurance.  You won’t see this combination of events at the Summer Games in London.  No, this series of skill drills can only be found at the annual NFL Combine.

Each of the seven holds a significant indication of what a prospect may or may not transfer to the field.

  • Vertical jump and broad jump – lower body strength, explosive twitch and power.
  • Three cone – center of gravity, body balance, short area foot quickness and change of direction.
  • 20 Shuttle (short) – lateral explosion, stop/start ability, balance and redirect.
  • 60 Shuttle (long)  - the same as the 20 shuttle but with a built in factor of endurance.
  • Bench Press – upper body strength and stamina, along with fast twitch power.

The 40 Yard Dash

But perhaps none captures the attention of all observing or in attendance like the 40 yard dash.  This single event serves as a moniker or an albatross to a player throughout his career.  Many leverage their straight line speed alone to fame and fortune, while others are forced to overcome this measurement like an anchor pulling them under.

Most players will rarely ever sprint this distance on a single play in a game, yet it’s the standardized speed gap for running backs and offensive linemen, cornerbacks and linebackers.  For decades, wide receivers were drafted into “Silver and Black” by this single count on the clock.

As per Wikipedia;

The origin of timing football players for 40 yards comes from the average distance of a punt and the time it takes to reach that distance. Punts average around 40 yards in distance, and the hangtime (time of flight) averages approximately 4.5 seconds. Therefore, if a coach knows that a player runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, he will be able to leave the line of scrimmage when a punt is kicked, and reach at the point where the ball comes down just as it arrives.

No other event in Pro Football’s version of the “septathlon” is as detailed and scrutinized as the 40 yard dash.  Conversely, no other event is so misread, misinterpreted and misstated than the 40.  Wikipedia had a number of players listed as the fastest ever at INDY - that didn’t even run the event!

The scrutiny placed on a player’s speed has led to numerous modifications of implementing the 40.  The Combine has two official hand timers at the finish, a laser controlled electronic timer, a special running surface over the normal playing field, an official starter to prevent “rolling” out of the blocks and quick starts, and the refusal of “nubbed” shoes.

Good is never good enough

Despite all these efforts to get a highly accurate and precise reading for each of the 32 clubs (3 separate times for each of the two runnings), every club is afforded a seat at the finish line (as designated by a lottery drawing) prior to the start of the Combine.  No one club truly trusts the time of any other.

Truth be told

Some will argue that the 40 is insignificant, that what a player runs out of pads in a “track-like” situation is irrelevant.  They point to the stars whose pro careers were able to overcome slow timed speed.  All the while the numbers hold true that of the 7 events, the 40 yard dash might most correlate to success in the NFL.  The highest percentage of starters on 2-deep rosters at the positions of OC, CB, DE, LB, OT, RB, S, TE & WR all exceeded their peer average in the 40 yard dash.  No other event even comes close to this relevance.

But as bright as the spotlight is on the 40 at the Combine, players will get another shot at their Pro Days.  Media, scouts and coaches will travel hundreds of miles for another chance to put the player on the watch.  Scrutiny is not so tight on the college campus.  Line of sight is at the finish is obstructed, rolling starts go unchecked, players will sneak in their own shoe preference and clubs will walk away being able to legitimize a player’s position on their draft board, usually with a better time.

“See, I told ya he was fast!”

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