The mystique of the 40-yard dash
Texas' Aaron Ross (left) and Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson run at the NFL Scouting Combine.
As NFL teams go about the evaluation process for the draft, many numbers will dot scouting reports. No number is more glamorous, hyped or examined than a time in the 40-yard dash. For the 327 players who were in Indianapolis last month, to those not invited to the combine, the 40-yard dash time can represent a chance at a new life or the chance to begin their life's work.
• Special Report: The Short Run
Since Paul Brown's days, fleet feet have been a sure way to get on NFL's fast track
01:06 AM CDT on Sunday, March 18, 2007
By TODD ARCHER / The Dallas Morning News
By the time you finish reading this sentence, Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston would have finished running 40 yards.
Houston may have run himself into the first round of next month's NFL draft.
At the NFL scouting combine, Houston ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, making him one of the fastest defensive backs. Mix in how he performed against top receivers, such as Southern California's Dwayne Jarrett, Tennessee's Robert Meachem and South Carolina's Sydney Rice, and Houston is projected as a first-rounder.
"I've been the fastest in elementary school," Houston said. "Middle school, I was the fastest. High school, I was the fastest. I went out there in 11th grade in clothes, and I saw everybody running, and my coach didn't want me to run because I think I twisted my ankle. But I still ran with clothes on and still ran a 4.34."
As NFL teams go about the evaluation process for the draft, many numbers will dot scouting reports. No number is more glamorous, hyped or examined than a time in the 40-yard dash.
For the 327 players who were in Indianapolis last month, to those not invited to the combine, the 40-yard dash time can represent a chance at a new life or the chance to begin their life's work.
The 40 time is magical. It can become legendary, such as when Deion Sanders ran a 4.29 on a supposedly slow RCA Dome turf and continued all the way into the locker room or when Arkansas quarterback-turned-receiver Matt Jones stunned everybody with a 4.37.
Scouts looked quizzically at their stopwatches and then at each other to compare times. Jones' time helped him become a first-round pick by Jacksonville in 2005.
"I'm glad the Saints didn't put too much emphasis on my 40 when I came out," said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, the former Cowboys linebacker taken in the third round by New Orleans in 1985. "It's a tool. It's another thing for us to measure, grade, evaluate. I think at the end of the day you're looking for football players that produce for you on the field."
But teams have been – and will continue to be – enticed by 40 times.
Paul Brown, founder of two NFL franchises, is credited with many innovations, from the playbook to the draw play to a radio in a quarterback's helmet. In addition to his on-the-field successes, Brown's off-the-field ideas played a part in his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Another of Brown's legacies is the 40-yard dash.
Coaching at Ohio State in the 1940s, Brown was looking for players to cover punts. He figured the average punt traveled 40 yards, so he had his players timed. The fastest covered punts.
Some 60 years later, the 40 remains one of the most important tools in professional football, serving as a way to compare running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen to defensive backs, linebackers and defensive linemen.
In the early '60s, the Cowboys began timing college players in the 40 in the evaluation process.
"Our biggest thing was we had to get accurate information into the computer, so the more information you got the better results you got," former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt said. "So we had a chart made up that if a player was X height and ran a 4.45 he'd get 40-plus points. If a player was X height and ran a 4.6, he might get 10-plus points. To me, what the  does is it becomes something of a tiebreaker or it's something that alerts you to a player that can be pretty good."
In the last 15 years, players' preparation has changed. Combine testing has become a cottage industry. One of the first questions players ask prospective agents concerns preparation for the combine.
The agents generally pick up the tab, and if a player is not chosen in the draft or picked later, the agent ends up losing money.
Some players remain at their colleges. At Ohio State, they work with three-time Olympian Butch Reynolds. Most go to performance centers across the country to prepare for the combine, from the vertical leap to the 225-pound bench press to the interview process. NFL teams are becoming so turned off at the preparedness of the players that they look at the combine more for the medical records than anything else.
Disney's Wide World of Sports hosts Tom Shaw's Performance Enhancement. Chip Smith and Robby Stewart run Competitive Edge Sports in Duluth, Ga. Athletes Performance Institute has facilities in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Tempe, Ariz. MakePlays.com Center for Human Performance is in Phoenix.
In a testimonial on the CES Web site, Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher said his 40-time was lowered from 4.69 to 4.49 in three months of work with Smith, helping make him a first-round pick.
There are races within the 40-yard dash. Scouts line up at 10 and 20 yards, as well as the finish to document times.
The 10-yard time measures a player's explosiveness. How quick can a receiver get off the line of scrimmage? Can offensive and defensive linemen fire off the ball? The 10 can help answer those questions.
For linemen, teams will be more interested in the 10 than the 40. As Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, Tennessee's line coach, said, "If my guys are running 40 yards, we're in trouble."
Munchak is not a big believer in the 40 for linemen, "unless it's just extreme one way or the other. If he runs a 4.8, that's something that would make you go, 'Wow,' or if he's a 6.0 or slower, then that's something you notice. I think it's more the quickness you see on tape, how well he gets out of his stance."
The 20 can measure the recovery speed of a cornerback or linebacker. It can also help determine a receiver's separation on intermediate routes. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, the top-rated receiver in this year's draft, was timed at 1.55 seconds after 10 yards and finished with a 4.35-second 40. Impressive for any receiver but more so because he weighed 239 pounds.
A player who runs a 4.6 might be as fast or faster as the 4.4 guy because of his closing speed. Yet the snap of a finger – or even less – can determine if a cornerback is fast or slow.
"It's been like that for years," Syracuse cornerback Tanard Jackson said. "Nothing's going to change it. But I'd still like to think the decision-makers want a football player. They want a guy with speed, especially at the position I play, but the film is the film. They want a football player."
The names of players with slow 40-yard times who have become legends are endless. Jerry Rice was timed in the 4.5s, but he set an NFL record for receptions and rarely – if ever – was caught from behind.
Emmitt Smith became the NFL's all-time leading rusher despite being timed electronically at the combine at 4.7 seconds. Penn State's Blair Thomas was timed that year at 4.4 seconds.
The New York Jets took Thomas with the second overall pick in 1990. The Cowboys took Smith with the 17th pick. In six seasons, Thomas ran for 2,236 yards. In 15 seasons, Smith ran for 18,355 yards.
"You can get too carried away with straight line speed because change of direction is so important in this game," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "Guys that run with their feet a little further apart, even running backs sometimes, aren't as fast but their change of direction is quicker."
To Phillips, former Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman is the perfect example of a slow 40-yard time not equating to the type of player. Coming out of Ohio State, Spielman was timed at 4.85 seconds, slower than some offensive linemen at this year's combine, but he played 10 seasons and went to the Pro Bowl four times.
"He was so instinctive and anticipated things," Phillips said. "A lot of times, it's the shortest distance between two points. You figure out where that point's going to be and you get there."
Before the RCA Dome changed turf surfaces to FieldTurf in May 2005, many players chose not to run for fear of slow times. Sometimes that was at their agent's request. Sometimes it was the request of the player's coach.
Depending on the surface, some NFL teams will add or subtract time. If a player runs on a rubber track, teams will add. If a player runs on grass, some will subtract. Most scouting reports will note the surface and weather conditions.