The NFL draft is a week away, and team executives and fans alike are drooling in anticipation of the next big thing to come to town.
Sometimes a team gets a real difference-maker (hello, Cam Newton!) and sometimes not (how is prison life, Rae Carruth?).
One of the most heavily scrutinized parts of a player’s profile is also one of the most erroneous stats in the history of pro sports. The 40-yard dash.
Where a player goes in the draft is heavily influenced by that figure, both the city in which he plays and the amount of money he can earn.
And it’s all nonsense. Only Oscar Mayer has as much baloney.
Nothing about it makes sense. From the way the dash is timed to the irregularity of running surfaces to the sprint’s relevance in playing the game of football.
First, let’s consider how absurd the numbers are.
According to the NFL’s combine numbers, 16 players ran the 40 yards in less than 4.45 seconds. The fastest time posted was by defensive back Josh Robinson, Central Florida, at 4.33 seconds.
Back in 1988, Canadian Ben Johnson beat USA star Carl Lewis in the 100 meters with a world-record 9.79 seconds. He was later stripped of his gold because of steroids.
When footage of that race was analyzed by number-crunchers, it was reported on a national sports channel that Johnson’s time in his first 40 yards was 4.38 seconds.
Let that sink in. A man who cheated with steroids to be the fastest runner on the planet ran a 4.38 40. Five people at the NFL combine scored lower than that.
If Josh Robinson can beat that mark, let’s slap the man in a USA jersey and send him off to the London Games this July. Should be an easy medal.
Why the screwy numbers? First off, the super-rich NFL doesn’t use electronic timing for all its draftees. The players are still timed with a stopwatch.
Second, the NFL doesn’t use a starting gun. The people holding stopwatches at the finish line go on the athlete’s first move.
In the Olympics, sprinters hear a gun and then take off. The automatic timer begins at the same instant as the gun. So the timer is already running before the sprinter makes a move.
When Usain Bolt set the world record, the sprinter actually got a tiny bit of a slow start out of the blocks. It was measured at 0.165 of a second. And this is a world-class track star, not a football player who is being asked to sprint.
So you have to figure that these athletes are saving two-tenths of a second by not having the starter pistol.
Then, those using the stopwatches are aiding the runners. They have to see the player move and then push the button to start the clock.
Surry Central track coach Jason Bryant said the track and field norm for this is to add 0.24 of a second for the reaction time of the watch holder.
Therefore, if a player boasts a Ben Johnson-like 4.38, that figure would be closer to 4.82 using official track timers.
Here’s the rub: these numbers don’t really mean anything to the average football fan, except to compare them.
The NFL could just admit that 5.2 in the 40 is actually a really fast time. Then I would say, “Oh, so Chris Johnson running a true 4.7 is actually lightning fast.”
The times would be legit, and we fans could learn to adapt to numbers that look higher than they used to.
The problem is that many college players refuse to run at the NFL combine.
There are many reasons for this. They may still be recovering from football injuries. Or they might have tweaked a hamstring practicing for the event.
The biggest reason is to get away from the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Some players believe the surface is “slow” and causes them to be a tenth of a second slower than other surfaces.
A San Diego newspaper had an article a few years ago that mentioned some of the many surfaces that were used by guys at the pro days.
N.C. State had players run on a rubber surface inside its fieldhouse. Another place had guys running on artificial turf in cold weather. Another had players running on the school’s tennis courts. How can these times be comparable?
Some ran indoors, while others were outside and could have been hindered or helped depending on which direction the wind was blowing.
And with all these many places, none of them were electronically timed. So you can’t have people electronically timed at the combine and others hand-timed; that is apples and oranges. Or apples versus apples with a head start.
Of course, all of these other problems lead me to my two biggest gripes with the 40-yard dash: The separation and the weight.
The weight issue is that these guys are running in street clothes instead of full game gear.
Depending on which pads a player chooses, the helmet and gear can come to 25-30 lbs. Put 25 lbs. on a 190-lb. wide receiver, and suddenly he is running slower. Put the same pads on a 250-lb. linebacker, and he isn’t going to notice the gear as much. His speed won’t drop as much because of his powerful legs.
That’s how Julius Peppers is able to run down halfbacks with better 40 times.
The last issue comes to separation. A wide receiver who runs a 4.4 can get separation, but a guy at 4.55 is going to have trouble getting free of defenders.
When Bolt set a new world record, the sprinter beat the old mark by a full tenth of a second.
At the time he approached the finish line, Bolt was traveling at about 40 feet per second. In that tenth of a second he shaved off the record, Bolt traveled 4 feet.
In a race of 100 meters (more than a football field), he managed just 4 feet of “separation.”
In a 15-yard route by a wide receiver, the difference between a WR with 4.4 speed and another at 4.55 is less than the length of a football. Even Aaron Rodgers has difficulty being so very accurate that this difference matters, yet it can mean a difference of millions of dollars in salary.
Like always, the best way to judge a prospect is to see him play the real game.
Oh, and go Panthers!
Jeff Linville is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 719-1920.