Drop the 40

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

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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