The 40-Yard Dash: How Speed Became NFL's Measuring Tool

Jon DoveContributor IApril 17, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: J.J. Wilcox of Georgia Southern runs the 40-yard dash during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 26, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Important Dates of the 40-Yard Dash

The 40-yard dash has become one of the more important parts of the NFL draft process.  This event has been a key  part of the NFL Combine since it started with just a few teams in the 1970’s. The combine eventually expanded to a league-wide event in 1985 and permanently moved to Indianapolis in 1987.

It wasn’t until the 1999 NFL Scouting Combine that the 40-yard dash was electrically timed. This developed a more consistent look at each prospect’s time. Until this change, evaluators relied on their own hand-timed numbers.

This event has exploded in recent years thanks to the on-air coverage by the NFL Network, which started in 2004.


Why the 40-Yard Dash is Important

Evaluators use the 40-yard dash to get a grasp on the speed of a specific prospect. The NFL is a game based on speed and teams know that collecting the fastest players helps create mismatches. This is why the 40-yard dash has grown into a major part of the NFL draft evaluation process.

It’s important to understand that the overall time isn’t the only aspect looked at during this workout. The first 10 yards of the run, or the 10-yard slip, shows evaluators the type of explosiveness in a prospect’s first step.

This is why the event carries weight for every position. An explosive first step is typically one of the keys to a lineman’s success. A good example in this year’s draft is North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper. His ability to fire out of his stance is what helps him drive defenders off the line of scrimmage. The image below shows that process:

NFL franchise also started to collect speed in football's version of an arms race. The more teams gathered explosive playmakers on offense, the more defenses were forced to keep up. This is especially true at the wide receiver and cornerback positions.

Each year these are the two positions that routinely post the most impressive 40 times.

Another position where this event plays an important role is at the defensive end/pass-rushing linebacker spot. Each year teams are looking for edge defenders capable of generating pressure on the quarterback.

This evolution can be traced back to Lawrence Taylor and how he changed the way we look at defense.


Important Individual Performances

-Bo Jackson is thought to have run the fastest verified time at a mark of 4.12 seconds. However, there’s controversy surrounding this because Jackson ran it before the implementation of the electronic timing.

-Mike Mamula displayed great athleticism in all the combine events. However, his 4.62 40-time was the key to his meteoric rise in the 1995 draft. Mamula never lived up to his physical potential and is one of the poster boys for team’s overvaluing a workout warrior.

-Chris Johnson currently holds the fastest official time electrically recorded. Each year he anxiously watches the event to see if any can top his 4.24 time.

-Any questions on how the media looks at the 40-yard dash can be seen by the tweet below surrounding Keenan Allen’s poor performance at the California pro day.


Debate: Is the 40-Yard Dash an Important Measuring Tool?

There’s a ton of debate surrounding the importance of this event. Some argue that the times posted don’t always translate to football speed. Below is a quote from an article written by Andrew Perloff where he articulates his hatred for this event:

“Like anything else that can be measured in numbers at the combine, the 40 is meaningless. Receivers have to do so much more than run a straight line. They have to be able to read the defenses on the fly, adjust their patterns, check out the quarterback and focus on the ball.”

Bleacher Report’s Ty Schalter put together a great article that also looks at the insignificance of the 40-yard dash:

Ultimately, "winning" the Underwear Olympics is much like teams "winning" the draft. A great combine performance might boost a prospect in some scouts' eyes, and he might have a few more coins to rub together after he collects game checks his rookie season.

In the end, though, real NFL money is made by being great on the field. A prospect can put his best foot forward at the combine, but being fast on the track doesn't put you on the fast track.

Former NFL general manager Bill Polian doesn’t completely agree with Perloff and Schalter. He said the following on a recent showing of NFL Live:

“A guy doesn’t need to run a 4.42 as opposed to someone who runs a 4.43, but they have to get under the barrier that a club sets for each position. So a receiver who’s more than 4.5? His stock’s going to fall, and there’s no two ways about it.”

Maybe the correct way to look at this is to take a little from both sides. The 40-yard dash is a good measurement of a prospect’s straight line speed. Looking at the 10-yard splits gives an example of the explosiveness of each prospect’s first step.

Both of those traits are very important to the success of an NFL player. However, it shouldn’t be the only tool used to evaluate a prospect. It’s also important to see how these measured times translate on the field. This can only be accomplished by looking at the game tape.

Truth is the 40-yard dash is a solid part of the process that helps determine the value of a prospect.