- The 40-yard dash at the NFL combine is like the SATs—a test that’s important in the moment but rarely referenced after the fact. Here are 11 ways to improve the drill.
On the last night of the NFL combine, the convention center connecting downtown Indianapolis’s main hotels is eerily empty. Almost every coach who is unrelated to the defensive backfield has left town—this year, even several head coaches departed midday on Sunday, as did most agents and media. You’d never know a major NFL event was still going on… except for the cornerback and safety prospects practicing for their 40-yard dash in the convention center walkways, where the carpet is perfectly textured. It’s here when I’m reminded how stunningly stupid it is to include a 40-time in a player’s evaluation.
“Take a player’s 40-time with a grain of salt,” everyone says. Even better? Don’t take it at all. A 40-time is like an SAT score: it carries an absurdly disproportionate significance for a short, specific period of someone’s life, and then, once that person joins the real world, it never factors again.
Over the 10 combines I’ve attended, I’ve had some 400 meetings with NFL head coaches, coordinators and position coaches. Off the record, we discuss highly specific topics and watch select plays on film. And not once in these conversations has a current NFL player’s 40-time been referenced.
Observing the defensive backs up close in the Indy convention center, you understand why. The DBs I saw this year were working extra diligently on releasing out of their track stance—a stance that appears exactly zero times in an NFL game. One cornerback was executing only his first two steps, examining his elbow placement over and over.
If you study a player on film, knowing his 40-times is more likely to hinder your judgement than aid it. Think of all the vital football factors a 40-time does not include:
• Pads. Counting the helmet, a player’s on-field equipment can weigh over 10 pounds. Every player carries two ounces of spandex shorts the same way, but not every player carries 10 pounds of equipment the same way. Pads slow down some guys more considerably than others.
• Opponents. The only position where 40-yard sprints even occur regularly is at wide receiver, and even that’s limited to a select few men just once or twice a game. And never do those receivers run 40 yards unimpeded. Almost never, in fact, do they run 10 yards unimpeded. Which is why it only SEEMS smart to argue that the speed of the first 10 yards in a 40-time means something.
• Angles. Football doesn’t just require explosive and fluid movement, it requires explosive and fluid movement at unconventional angles. You’re reminded of that when you see how bizarre a defensive back in the Indy contention center looks working diligently on the (irrelevant) mechanics of his straight-line release.
• Assignments. In a 40-yard dash, a player thinks about nothing. On a football play, he thinks about his job, his nearby teammates’ jobs, his individual opponent’s technique and the opposing offense’s/defense’s overall design. And so most football movement is inherently reactive, while a 40-yard dash is entirely—and, in the context of a sprint, artificially—proactive.
• The ball. In his book The Thinking Man’s Game, the late, great Paul Zimmerman pointed out something we always forget: a man runs slower when he’s carrying an object. That must be remembered when evaluating the “raw speed” of a running back, wide receiver and any of the defenders tasked with chasing them.
Still, the 40-time will never die for the same reason that pre-election polls will never die: the data, though wildly flawed, is just too crisp and digestible for lay people (and for the many fraudulent, false experts in media who are paid to inform lay people). And it’s only getting worse, since so much information now comes through social media, where brevity is king. A tweet saying “Joe Wideout ran a 4.43” will spread infinitely more than a tweet saying “Joe Wideout has excellent short-area quickness and release footwork, a natural stride, the flexible hips to accelerate on his fourth and fifth step plus the thick, sinewy frame to maintain balance when subtly contacted.”
So instead of crusading against the 40-time, we might as well try and make the drill more informative. It will always be flawed, but the NFL can make it a little less flawed with some adjustments:
• Players should run it in a helmet and full padding (do this for all drills, in fact).
• Running backs should hold a ball.
• Wideouts should run multiple 40s, some with a person lined up directly on top of them (simulated press coverage positioning) and some with a person a few yards away (simulated off-coverage positioning).
• Tight ends should run it out of multiple stances.
• Quarterbacks should initiate their sprint from a throwing posture.
• All offensive players should run an extra 40 with someone chasing them.
• All defenders should run an extra 40 chasing someone else.
• Cornerbacks should start from a backpedal.
• Linebackers and safeties should start from a two-point stance.
• Mercifully, all offensive linemen should skip the sprint completely and instead drive a blocking sled 10 yards. (And install a similar drill for defensive linemen.)
• And, finally, precede every 40-yard drill with a formal announcement reminding observers to watch the player’s film if they really want to know how fast he’ll play.
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