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Don't be so quick to judge a player by his 40 time

Ben Liebenberg / NFL
It's one thing to run a fast 40-yard dash in shorts on a fast track, but does that speed translate to the football field?


INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul Brown started this whole mess. But I bet the man who invented the use of a 40-yard dash never thought it would become this big.

How big? So big that when I worked with the Oakland Raiders, the 40 dictated everything we did -- and I mean everything.

Brown, the former Cleveland Browns head coach and Bengals founder, wanted to determine how fast his players were covering a punt, so he chose 40 yards -- the distance most punts traveled -- as a measuring stick. Little did he know that a 40 time would become such a huge phenomenon.

Michael Conroy / Associated Press
Chris Johnson has the fastest 40 time since 2006. His speed has translated to the NFL, but that's not the case for everyone. Check out the entire list here.
Fastest 40s at combine since 2006 (top five)
Player Year Time
Chris Johnson 2006 4.24
Jacoby Ford 2010 4.28
Yamon Figurs 2007 4.30
Darrius Heyward-Bey 2009 4.30
Tye Hill 2006 4.30

Think about it: What's the one question every single prospect leaving the NFL Scouting Combine this year will be asked? "What was your forty time?"

Maybe Brown should have patented his idea.

The 40 time has become the measuring tool for most teams and, yes, I have to admit, I relied on knowing the times of each player. And if I was building a team I would want specific requirements of height, weight, and speed for each position. My goal would be to have a big, fast football team -- not a track team that forced me to rely solely on the 40-yard dash in shorts.

Back in his day, Brown's 40-yard test looked vastly different than the one being utilized at the combine today, even though the distance traveled is the same. In today's 40, players work on their start from an elongated three-point stance -- unlike the one used in football -- trying to gain yardage with their first step. The runners stay low for the first 10 yards, not raising their head, and finish 10 yards past the end line.

Little did Coach Brown know that agents would one day send their clients to speed camps hoping to improve their 40-yard times and their draft status.

With time comes improvement, so naturally the 40 times have improved as players have gotten stronger, highly trained and in peak condition. But the essential value of this quick dash as a measuring stick has not changed. The most fundamental question that must be asked after knowing a player's time and what makes the 40 a valued tool: Does he play the game of football with that speed?

For example, Deion Sanders was lightning fast at the combine in New Orleans in 1989. By more than one account, he ran the 40 in 4.19 seconds, thought to be the second-fastest ever run at the combine (Bo Jackson has the fastest verifiable combine 40 time of 4.12 seconds in 1986). And Sanders just kept on running, Forrest Gump-style, right into the locker room. However, the key validation came when Sanders showed he was fast on the football field, as well. His speed translated to his game, which then validated the 40-yard dash.

There have been players that time fast in the 40, but when watching them play football they don't look nearly as fast. Jets defensive end Vernon Gholston ran extremely well at the combine, but when he was evaluated on tape from Ohio State, his speed never translated to the field. Little wonder he has played three years in the league and has yet to record a sack. He isn't the only one. There have been countless workout warriors who have shown well at the combine and failed in the NFL.

Some players are fast, but do not play fast, while others time slow, but play fast in pads. And that is the key for finding the right balance when using the 40 times as a measuring stick. Like all things, when evaluating college players, everything falls back to the evaluation of playing the game. Does this player play fast? Can his 40 time be seen when he puts on his pads?

Surfaces can be deceiving, too. When Coach Brown started running his 40s, grass was the only surface he had his players run on. Today, with many different surfaces available, it becomes a challenge to adjust the time correctly. It is widely understood that a player is much faster on a track and turf than grass, but the question remains how much faster. When I worked with the Raiders, and even now, they adjust every time from the combine slower. If a player runs 4.47 at Indy, the Raiders will adjust it to around 4.51. For the Raiders, the 40 is everything, so they make it difficult for prospects to run a great time.

Adjusting the times can create a problem. What happens to a player who runs bad at the combine but improves his time at his campus workout? Does he move up the board? If he does, then why should players even run in Indy? And is the adjustment the right number or a number arbitrarily picked out of a hat?

When I headed the Browns' personnel department, we would always use the natural Indy time as our official 40 times. Jim Schwartz, a scout of ours at the time and current head coach of the Detroit Lions, kept a database of times run at Indy and those run at the school's pro days. Believe it or not, some of the 40 times were actually slower on the home surface than at Indy. We wanted to have some consistency of adjustments.

But even with the consistency of adjustments, all these variables made the 40 time extremely difficult to use as the sole measuring stick. In Cleveland, we knew it was an important tool, but it can't be the only tool because the playing speed must match the time speed.

When sitting at home this weekend watching the combine, remind yourself of two critical points when making an evaluation. The first, never begin with the end in mind, and secondly, never believe the 40 time unless you can see the speed during a game.

If you follow those two rules to the end, then even from your couch you can pick the right players.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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