Why Does Anyone Care About the 40-Yard Dash?


I’m startled awake by a long and prolonged buzzing cacophony. It’s my phone, going crazy lighting up and vibrating on top of my iPad, which, not to be outdone, is returning its own vibrating and buzzing with extreme prejudice. Convinced this was definitely something that I should be losing sleep over, I put a hard stop on the weekend oversleep and scorched my sleep-sensitive eyeballs on some bright backlit text. What was the huge news? Was I getting text messages from a friend in need? Did something drastic happen in my family that required middle-of-sleeping-hours communication? Is there an amber alert that just went amber right this second?

The truth, of course, is more shocking than anything my half-functioning mind could imagine. Everyone in my family was OK, and there were no new missing children or anything, but MARCUS MARIOTA HAD RUN A 4.52 40-YARD DASH and the ESPN scorecenter app had sent me multiple push notifications to let me know.

(hyperbole font) A 4.52! MARCUS MARIOTA! This was worth getting out of bed to read about!

Don’t believe me, here’s the incredible footage, taken live with no editing: (/hyperbole font)

Trust me, the way I feel about the NFL Draft is equalled only by the way Kel feels about orange soda. I love it. I do I do I do-ooo. And for now, the only taste we can get of the draft-worthy players is the NFL Combine, where all the players take off their pads and get measured on a bunch of things that may or may not accurately predict how good they’ll be on the field one day.

Everyone’s favorite combine measure is the 40-yard dash, which is exactly what it sounds like: players start out of a crouched position with a hand on the ground and run straight for 40 yards as fast as they can. The purpose of the drill, of course, is to tell us how fast these players are, relative to each other.

And that’s exactly what it does, tells us how fast these players are without pads on, starting from a crouched position, starting whenever they’re ready, running forward without a ball in a straight line for 40 yards.

How in the world could someone see tape like this on Mariota and still need a 40 time to be convinced of his speed?

Before I go on a rant about the usefulness of the measurement, consider this: the fastest 40-yard time at this year’s combine came from UAB receiver J.J. Nelson, who ran a 4.28. The slowest receiver at the combine ran a 4.70. The entire spectrum of the position (50 players) covered 42 hundreds of a second. The slowest players are about 90% done when the fastest players finish. In other words, they’re all the same. Sure, you can tell me that an extra step is a lot of time, but how often do you see a 40-yard deep ball where there issn’t a mid-air speed adjustment by the receiver that caused him to slow down? The game isn’t always happening at full speed like the drills.

But Adam, you might say, a split second can make the difference between an incompletion and a touchdown. Sure it can, but there are way too many other factors (throw accuracy, safety location, coverage type, are we playing on grass of turf, indoor or outdoor, etc.) that get put into that equation. A split second is a second that gets split. Into two halves. That each last .50 seconds. The entire field finishes this measurement in a time span shorter than a split second.

In what other universe is achieving 90% of the optimal measurement considerably different? If you decided to drink a diet soda and found out that it had 90% of the caloric content of the regular version of the soda, you’d say “That’s the same thing” and go back to drinking the non-diet one. If you were buying a car and the $5,000 used car had 90% of the speed, safety, design and entertainment features of the brand new Bentley, you be plenty satisfied with that used car. In general, something that is 90% of something else is the same as that thing.

Even if you take the small range of results seriously and inflate the difference between 4.3 and 4.5 in your mind, you can’t possibly take the measuring process seriously. What does it matter how fast you run in shorts and a t-shirt? You’re never wearing that in a football game.

Starting with one hand on the ground like a sprinter coming out of the blocks? Not unless you’re a defensive lineman. And even then, those players run about a single foot before they’re contacted by a blocker and the skill that takes over is evading the protection.

What about running backs? Do they have the speed to get around the edge or outrace a linebacker? The 40 might tell you something valuable about them, but they’re constantly changing direction and oh yeah, holding a football. Not even holding it either, protecting it. That takes an awful lot off your speed.

Wide receivers sometimes run routes where they’re going 40 yards at a time on a single play, the drill is probably best suited for them. But how often is that 40 yards in a straight line? Do they ever do it without looking back and adjusting to the path of a ball?

Can a cornerback keep up with a speedy receiver? The 40 doesn’t measure how fast they run backwards, which is usually how the play starts for them.

What are we really measuring here? NFL Combine participants might as well be measured on ability to dump a Gatorade cooler on a coach or maybe bring homemade cookies to a bake-off.

Sure the 40 is fun and exciting (for a Combine drill), but it’s pretty hard to say it’s actually useful. The lack of advanced stats (or any stats at all for most positions) in football limits a lot of what we can measure about players to a point where we really, truly care how fast a Defensive Tackle can run upfield at top speed. Maybe they do the whole drill just to make it easier for the Madden video game people to determine a speed rating for rookies.

At some point, this will get better. Until then, just stick to the game tape.