Drop the 40

By Johnny Ginter on February 25, 2013 at 5:00p

Every tenth of a second is another mil

The Oscars were last night! In the eyes of some, they represent the pinnacle of art in motion pictures in a given year; real, concrete evidence that one film or actor stands above the rest in the field of documentary, short subject or supporting actor or sound design or whatever.

To others, however, all the Oscars represent is which movie Harvey Weinstein was able to throw a ton of cash behind in the months leading up to nominations, a fruitless and hollow production that amounts to three and a half hours of Hollywood patting itself on its back for being so amazing year in and year out.

As per usual, the truth is somewhere in between. A lot of the movies and performances are absolutely incredible (Daniel Day-Lewis is probably an incredible acting witch of some kind) and deserving of their accolades, but let's be honest, literally thousands of movies are made around the world every year. It's the height of hubris to assume that the Academy, without fail, is able to recognize all of the really worthy ones year in and year out.

Such as it is with football. The NFL Combine lurches on, offering up scads of evidence that the good players who scouts thought were good are actually good, and even more evidence to said scouts that the bad players they thought were bad are in fact bad. Normally a fun and slightly tongue-in-cheek enterprise, once evaluations reach the pro level they start to become deadly serious.

So, with oftentimes the fate of an entire franchise and millions of dollars hanging in the balance, to determine the value of a player, scouts put athletes through one of the most obtuse, problematic, and generally worthless battery of tests this side of a Kentucky bar exam. And the glittering fool's gold at the end of the rainbow is the mythical 40 time.

No one is really certain where the entire concept of the 40 time comes from. Wikipedia says it's in relation to how the players align themselves on the field, but there's no real evidence to support that. In any event, it has somehow wormed its way into being the single most important event during the combine, despite also being totally and completely made up.

Because the truth of the matter is that an NFL Combine 40 time is, by design, totally flawed. The combine operates a "semi-electronic" system, which means that although the end of the dash is electronically timed, it's incumbent on a live human being to start the clock once the participant takes off. This can give the runner a head start of up to .25 seconds.

As the San Diego Union-Tribune famously pointed out, in 1988 Ben Johnson won the 100-meter dash at the Olympics in 9.79 seconds. Johnson was running with an elite group of sprinters, had a tailwind, was roided out of his mind, and his best 40 yards in that event worked out to... 4.38 seconds. Chris Johnson chortles with glee.

Blurry at best

Further hurting the overall legitimacy of the 40-yard dash is that the NFL decided against going to fully automated timing (FAT). There were experiments with FAT last year, but those results were not released to the public (or teams, for that matter), and this year the NFL decided to stick with the half measure that they've been using since the early '90s.

The reason is pretty obvious. FAT times end up adding that extra .20-.25 seconds that the runner actually ended up taking to complete the dash, and suddenly a superhuman 4.18 that some people still insist folk hero Bo Jackson ran becomes a slightly more realistic 4.43. In other words, if the NFL is going to be able to perpetuate their speed and numbers fetish, they have to ignore facts.

There's a monetary reason behind this as well. Adidas offered up a shoe contract to the player who ran the fastest 40 time at the combine. Millions are literally made or lost based on the numbers, including 40 times, that players put up at certain positions. Ask the Jets today if they would've rather drafted Emmitt Smith or Blair Thomas in the 1990 NFL draft. Ask every team that passed on Jerry Rice if they would've liked to have had him catching passes for them (40 times for both Hall of Famers? 4.55 and 4.7, respectively).

The larger issue is that the 40 time is emblematic of the bigger problem in both college and NFL recruiting, and that's the overvaluing of certain metrics to decide whether a player is any good or not. Bench pressing 225 pounds for 40 reps is impressive, but as far as I know Mike Kudla isn't halfway to Canton at this point.

What should matter is production, proving on the field against good competition that you can play ball. But year after year after year, the NFL becomes obsessed with the 40 times of cornerbacks, the rep count of offensive linemen, and the height of quarterbacks even though all of those metrics can be dubious at best in determining the future success of athletes.

I don't weep for dudes like Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, because after all, in the end they got theirs. But for the outliers that are pushed to the margins, guys like Zach Boren (who posted a 5 flat) or even Dane Sanzenbacher, it's frustrating to see that players you rooted for in college are never given a legitimate shot at success because of their perceived shortcomings.


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Menexenus's picture

As the San Diego Union-Tribune famously pointed out, in 1988 Ben Johnson won the 100-meter dash at the Olympics in 9.79 seconds. Johnson was running with an elite group of sprinters, had a tailwind, was roided out of his mind, and his best 40 yards in that event worked out to... 4.38 seconds. Chris Johnson chortles with glee.


Real fans stay for Carmen.

t-hane's picture

The other problem with drafting on potential is that nfl contracts are worth so much money.  It is not always the case but the higher draft pick will also get the benefit of the doubt over the seventh rounder.  Some guys are just pure football players but might never get that chance because they ran a slow 40 or dont have ideal height, were taken later in the draft because they were seen as a tweener and find themselves stuck behind a combine warrior bust because the front office is conceding that they messed up on a high draft pick

ATXbucknut's picture

I definitely feel like I am faster than my 8.5 second 40 time.

45buckshot's picture

hahaha nice ;)

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cplunk's picture

With the exception of the Raiders, NFL teams do not put nearly the emphasis on the 40 that the talking heads do.

osu07asu10's picture

This is a great article, but you release it hours after Te'o limped to a 4.82...He was in a bigger hurry to meet his GF than run the 40.
You're harshing my mellow Johnny! I agree though its an insanely subjective test that measures one singular aspect of an athletes skill set and even that measurement is flawed.

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sir rickithda3rd's picture

i think it has its place... if nfl coaches want the kids to run it, then i think they should run it... some guys dont run great 40s and arent combine warriors, but if they are good, generally get a nice 2nd contract it all equals out in the end.

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

741's picture

Say what you will, but it's still a data point that can be used to compare a given year's set of recruits against each other. (Using FAT would make a lot of sense though.)

sharks's picture

But, it is a completely irrelevant data point.  Everyone is crushing Manti's 4.80, but that's what, one half-step from being a 4.5?
It is a data point for the unwashed masses.  While we're out comparing WR #1 who ran a 4.4 with WR #2 who ran a 4.5, the experts in the front office don't care, they're paying attention to the things that matter- who can catch the ball better?  Who admitted to not trying hard in some games?  Who's going to take his signing bonus and blow it on jewelry (or child support for his four kids and counting)?

A man got to have a code...

741's picture

I'm saying it's just one data point - and probably just as relevant as a number of other measurables, and less relevant than some others.
If everything else was essentially equal between two guys and you were about to invest millions in one guy vs. the other, wouldn't you rather have more data than less? I would.

cplunk's picture

Absolutely this.
its like basing the value of potential employees in your office based only on their ability to prepare a PowerPoint presentation.
Is it something it is good for an employee to know? Yes. But it is obviously job specific. An admin assistant needs to know it, but a VP in finance? A guy in the mail room? 
Even for those that need it, like that admin assistant, it is a small factor in their job. 
It is amazing to me how many announcers and fans put huge faith in the 40, ignoring what tasks the player will actually need to perform, the history that player has shown in actual performance, and the differences between team schemes. Every year we see fast guys that never achieve in the pros and slow guys who do exactly what they've always done- play football well. Despite year after year of proof, we still see people doggedly clinging to 40 time.
it matters, yes. It matter more for some positions, yes. But it has to be placed in context.

captain obvious's picture

Paul Brown started timimg his players in the 40 to see who would be the best players on punt coverage.

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Notor's picture

I think the better point to make is that people shouldn't take the 40 time too seriously. It's too fun of an event, too much of a spectacle, and too far ingrained into the football-watching populace to change. It's fun to watch if nothing else. I'm sure coaches/GM/decision makers know how to balance the 40 time with game speed in making decisions (minus the departed Al Davis).
Don't touch the event, it's too fun.

luckynutz's picture

Id say the 40 has more become a status symbol than an actual useful tool for evaluating a players worth. Straight line speed is great...if you're a sprinter. There's a big difference between straight line speed without pads and game speed in them. Look at joe haden...he ran what, a 4.6 at the combine? And he was drafted number 6. And is an absolute stud corner. He plays faster than his 40 would dictate. The 40 affects your fringe players more than it does your studs. A 4.6 40 would crush your lesser known cb who's trying to get his name on a teams draft board. Why? Because he doesn't have the exposure of joe haden. The 40 is only useful when teams want it to be. Is the difference between taking a flier on a guy like johnny mentioned in dane sanzenbacher, who isn't protoype WR size. And wasting a top 5 pick on a guy like heyward bey, who is that big, fast, physical freak who put up that jaws dropping 40 time. Id take dane any day...not because I'm a homer. But because he possesses the requisite skills to be a solid wide receiver. great hands, runs solid routes, has the ability to get open and he isn't afraid of contact. But he didn't run a 4.32. So he isn't worthy. That's just my take on it.

Jhesse17's picture

The 40 is overvalued by talking heads, not real GMs. That's why the GMs are GMs and the talking heads are just talking heads.

CptBuckeye24's picture

The 40 puts a player's game film into perspective and either supports or refutes what scouts see on the film.  It puts some perspective on sprinters speed and how a player may do in the open field.  It puts a perspective on how a player builds up speed as well.  Some guys are great off the line and accelerate with a great release.  They build speed right away while some guys take 25+ yards to build their speed.     It puts other metrics  into context.
The really good personnel guys know that a 40 time is just one piece of the puzzle and really get their evaluations from interviews and game film. 
For example, Joe Haden ran a 4.6.  Some scouts and GMs had to scratching their head at that but ran a 4.45-4.48 at his pro day.  I'm sure scouts went back and watched his tape and concluded that number is not accurate.  Joe has proved that for himself in the NFL.  Most of the time a 40 time just reinforces a preconceived notion that personnel guys have. 

zbd's picture

The NFL combine doesn't mean what kind of football player you'll be. OSU player Vernon Gholston had the highest output in the 2008 draft and was a total bust.

AndyVance's picture

I think the (accurate) point Professor Ginter is making is that, as with the story of Brad Pitt's real-life character in Moneyball, the metrics we've always used to evaluate talent/potential and the metrics that might actually yield value are rarely one and the same.
As humans, we like to do things we've always done simply because we've always done them, and we're very adept as a species at rationalizing that intellectual inertia.

KillerNut's picture

Best article I have ever read on this site! To be fair the only reason is that you reminded be of Dane Sanzenbacher, and just how great that sounded when Bret Mussberger said it. Totally got me going on childhood OSU memories. 

Poison nuts's picture

Great read. Agree that the value of the 40 is overstated, but I'll still probably continue to take note of who ran what...It's been ingrained in me at this point...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

nickma71's picture

Raghib Ismail from Notre Shame was the worst. SI being the idiots they are, ran his story and trumpeted his 4.19 40 (timed by his brother). Then he droped a 4.3x - 4.4 at the combine. Which by the way is in fact, blazing fast.

george_buck's picture

I know we're all glad that we got Mike Mitchell, but wasn't one of the reasons that people wanted him so bad because of a 40 time.

osubuckeye4life's picture

Yes, he has a good 40 time. However, The Abusement Park also set the record for the highest score ever at the SPARQ competition. SPARQ's four football-specific tests of power, linear speed and agility.
The other three events were the vertical jump, the agility shuttle and the kneeling power ball toss.