Football scouts are addicted to the 40-yard dash, and like all
junkies, they sometimes do very stupid things. Gil Brandt,
former personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, recalls
scouting a receiver from Mississippi Valley State in 1985 named
Jerry Rice. The Cowboys, who had the 17th pick that year, loved
his hands but were concerned about his feet, so they had Rice
run the 40 12 times over a three-month period. "We kept thinking
this guy played faster and looked faster," Brandt says, sounding
wistful, "but he still ran in the 4.6 range. That's why he was
drafted 16th. Nobody realized his playing time wasn't his 40
Despite horror stories like that, the 40 remains the gold
standard for most NFL scouts. A fast time--4.4 seconds for
running backs, receivers and cornerbacks, 4.6 for linebackers
and 4.8 for defensive ends--will make a coach more forgiving
than wide-leg jeans. A guy who can't run a fast 40 might get a
chance to prove himself; a guy who runs a fast 40 will always
get a chance, even if he can't play, because as Indianapolis
Colts president Bill Polian puts it, "Speed is the one thing you
can't coach." Which is why every NFL coach is pushing a
stopwatch button like a racehorse trainer does.
What's most surprising about all this is that nobody's sure how
40 got to be the magic number. It was not carved into stone
tablets by Walter Camp, and there is no proof that a player's
time in the 40 is any more indicative of speed than his time for
50 yards--or 39, for that matter. The 40 evolved the way most
things do in football--one successful coach used it, so others
followed suit. All of which is remarkable because as objective
gauges of reality go, 40-yard-dash times fall somewhere between
a Chinese election and a World Wrestling Federation decision.
"If you have 50 guys timing a player, he will have 50 different
times," says Seattle Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson. So it would
make sense to entrust the timing to one person, right? Wrong.
NFL coaches don't trust any time they get from college coaches,
who in turn dismiss every time they get from high school
coaches. Even at the annual NFL combine in Indianapolis, where
an electronic timer has been in use since 1990, coaches still
bring their stopwatches. "Nobody trusts anybody," Erickson says.
He cups his hands as if hiding a stopwatch, then casts a furtive
glance. "It's like everybody is a damn spy. You'd think we're in
Although the Olympics have been using electronic timing since
1932, football clings to the stopwatch. "This is one case,"
Polian says, "where technology might not be a benefit." Part of
the reason is logistical. NFL scouts travel all over the country
to time players, and an electronic timing system won't fit in
the overhead bin. The more important--and appropriately
illogical--reason is that electronic timing is too slow. To be
precise, electronic timing is too precise. It starts the moment
an athlete moves, not when a coach standing 40 yards away sees
him move and clicks a stopwatch. It doesn't anticipate a runner
crossing the finish line, it waits until he gets there. The
result of all this damnable precision is a slower time, .20 of a
second by most estimates. And no one in football wants to see
slower times. Pro scouts have years of data based on their
handheld times. While conversion tables exist, it's easier, says
Polian, to compare apples to apples.
Those aren't the only variables. A 40 run on artificial turf
generally is .10 to .15 faster than one run on grass. Track shoes
with rubber nubs on the soles are typically worth .10. Some
scouts are considered slow timers, others fast timers. Some are
fast timers only when they're touting the player who's running.
"The prejudices come out," says Cincinnati Bengals president Mike
Brown. "The guys they want to be fast are fast."
The development of the 40 as the definitive measure of speed is
attributed to the late coaching legend Paul Brown, who also
invented the face bar, the draw play, the 4-3 defense, the
two-minute offense, the playbook and the Saturday-night hotel
stay for the team. That list is taken from profiles of Brown
written late in his life, but none of these stories mentioned
the 40, and Brown never brought it up in his 1979 autobiography
PB: The Paul Brown Story. However, Dante Lavelli, the Hall of
Fame end who played for Brown at Ohio State in 1942, remembers
being timed in the 40 while with the Buckeyes and later while in
Cleveland. "In a training camp with the Browns," Lavelli says,
"a guy from North Carolina named Earthquake Smith, a big tackle,
never made it in the 40. He fell down a couple of times. Brown
sent him home." Brown's son Mike says the distance was not an
arbitrary designation. "He did it because he thought that was as
far as a player would run on any play," Mike says.
Old-school coaches of the time didn't believe in the 40. A young
Marv Levy, then the coach at California, asked Green Bay coach
Vince Lombardi in the early '60s how fast Paul Hornung ran. "What
the hell difference does it make?" Lombardi boomed. "He gets to
the end zone, doesn't he? Fourteen seconds, I don't know."
Well into the '50s, most NFL teams used the 100 or the 50.
Veteran scout Bucko Kilroy, now with the New England Patriots,
attended the 1957 East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco.
"Hornung ran the 50 against Abe Woodson, the Big Ten hurdles
champ from Illinois," Kilroy says. "When you think of Hornung,
you don't think of him being that fast. Hornung beat him by five
The Cowboys revolutionized scouting in the 1960s and '70s. No
detail was too small for Brandt. He sent all of the team's
coaches and scouts to Stanford, where track coach Payton Jordan
taught them how to properly use a stopwatch. Dallas is believed
to have been the first NFL team to go to collegiate spring
practices and time entire squads in the 40.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno was another early proponent of the
40. When Richard Nelson, a biomechanics professor on campus,
expressed interest in the late 1960s in doing some research on
runners, Paterno put him in touch with Brandt. The Cowboys
provided a grant of $4,950, and Paterno provided the subjects: 24
freshmen football players.
Nelson tested all the players in 40- and 10-yard dashes, which is
now routine for linemen. "The Cowboys used to run players two at
a time," Nelson says. "When possible, the two were competing for
the same position. The assumption was they were faster when
competing. We learned that when they run in pairs, they were
slower. Track athletes run faster that way, but it was assumed
football players were not used to running alongside somebody."
Two of Nelson's research subjects--Franco Harris and Lydell
Mitchell--went on to become All-Pro running backs. "Lydell would
beat Franco in the 40. He couldn't beat him at the 10," Nelson
says. "You'd have thought it was the world championship. Lydell
was so frustrated."
In the study Nelson used a new timing system that was activated
when the athlete lifted his hand off a touch pad at the starting
line. "We had a problem with Franco," Nelson says. "He figured
out how to rock backward and come forward with his hand still on
The technical term for the move Harris made is a rolling start.
Another name for it is cheating. With so much at stake,
prospects will try anything to put up a fast time in the 40. The
most common way to cheat in the early days was to shorten the
distance. In 1968 the Cowboys drafted wide receiver David
McDaniels of Mississippi Valley State in the second round after
they'd timed him at 4.5 in his campus workout. When McDaniels
came to camp and didn't run any better than 4.8, Brandt sent a
scout back to Mississippi Valley State. He measured the distance
McDaniels had run at 38 1/2 yards, although there is no way of
knowing whether the discrepancy was intentional or not. "That's
when we started taking a tape measure," Brandt says. These days
most schools conduct "timing days" so that all NFL scouts can
come in at the same time. If all 30 teams have scouts in
attendance, the track will be measured at least 30 times. "Our
yard markers are inlaid," Ohio State strength and conditioning
coach Dave Kennedy says. "You can't move that stuff. But every
year they measure our field."
The NFL combine in Indianapolis is a marvel of efficiency. It
has saved teams a tremendous amount of time and money that they
used to have to spend on travel. Unfortunately it also has
curtailed the number of oddball-40 stories. Not that they don't
continue to pop up. Brandt recalls sending scout Bill Taylor to
Jacksonville to time a prospect. After it rained for three
consecutive days, Taylor brought the player to the airport,
marked off 40 yards in a corridor between gates, got his time
and got on a plane.
In the fall of 1989, after Tennessee tailback Reggie Cobb had
been thrown off the team for failing a drug test, Tampa Bay
director of pro personnel Jerry Angelo flew into Knoxville to
put him through his paces. "He came out for the draft at his
lowest point, and he would do anything for anybody," Angelo
says. "Because of inclement weather, we timed Reggie in a
hallway of the Holiday Inn. We were in the room at the finish
line. Can you imagine? Some guy says, 'Honey, I'm going out to
get some ice,' and runs into a train weighing 220 pounds."
Players view the combine with the joy they typically reserve for
final-exam week. Angelo describes what a player faces when he
steps up to run his 40: "You got everybody in the NFL sitting in
those stands. They're not your fans. They are there to judge
you. You see Al Davis and Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson at the
starting line. Al Davis has his chair. Jerry Jones is there.
That's pretty intimidating. They are looking at you. There's no
smiling going on. In the bleachers there are rows of scouts at
the 10-, 20- and 40-yard marks. Every row for 30 rows up is
filled. On the track there are three timers at the 10, three at
the 20 and three at the 40. They are the only ones allowed on
the track. There are 300 people, and all eyes are on you.
"A lot of guys tighten up and don't run well," he says. "Every
muscle in your body tenses up, and you freeze. Ever been so
scared that you freeze? They'll sit in their stance for five
minutes before they'll say they're ready to go. You will see
kids running, going across the finish line so fast that they do
head dives into the turf."
"Truth be told, there aren't a lot of guys who like that
situation," says Ohio State's Kennedy. "A lot of people say they
want [to take] the last shot [in a basketball game]. The 40 is a
lot harder than a last shot. How many guys would like to make a
free throw that is going to determine whether they play in the
In recent years the Muhammads who expect to be among the top
draft selections blow off the combine and make the mountains
come to them, although Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning
surprised the NFL this year when he attended the combine. Some
players believe the track used at the RCA Dome is too slow.
Cowboys director of college and pro scouting Larry Lacewell
arches an eyebrow and says, "I notice it didn't slow Deion
Sanders down." Sanders ran the fastest 40 timed in Indianapolis
in the last decade, a 4.29, before the 1989 draft. The
controversy simmered to the point that combine officials asked
Colts tailback Marshall Faulk to write a letter this year to all
invitees assuring them they wouldn't be running uphill on his
Nevertheless, the advantages of running on your home campus are
unmistakable. Some schools are noted for having a larger fan
turnout than others. Kevin Steele, a former assistant at
Nebraska, says more people would come to spring-practice timing
sessions than would attend Husker track meets held nearby at the
same time. Some campuses are noted for being faster than others.
Coaches and scouts mentioned Miami, Florida State, Michigan,
Michigan State, Indiana and Tennessee as being notably quick.
Sometimes it doesn't matter. When the NFL came to Oklahoma State
in 1989 to see Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, the first
two picks already had been spoken for--Dallas planned to select
UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, and Green Bay knew it wanted
Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich. Detroit, which
had the third pick, sent a delegation led by coach Wayne Fontes.
Atlanta owner Rankin Smith, whose Falcons owned the No. 5 pick,
led his coaching contingent.
"We hadn't put a watch on Barry in a while," says Pat Jones, a
Dolphins assistant who coached Oklahoma State from 1984 to 1994.
"It was hard to tell how fast he was. No one ever caught him."
Some players show up in track shoes, trying to pull a fast one,
but Jones says Sanders wore cutoff jeans and hightop sneakers,
and warmed up by doing little more than shooting baskets. He ran
a 4.49. "Wayne jumped up, pulled a cigar out of his pocket and
said, 'Fellas, y'all can go home now,'" Jones says.
It's not impossible to overcome a poor time in the 40, and the
list of players who have done so is impressive: Rice, Emmitt
Smith, Sam Mills, Andre Reed and Zach Thomas, among others. But
for every player who makes it in spite of his time, there are
dozens and dozens who don't. The NFL has a place for players who
run a poor 40. It's called the NFL Europe League. "You see a guy
who can play, and he doesn't run a 40 well, you kind of wish you
hadn't seen his time," says Lacewell.
Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who played
for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the early 1960s, says his coach
didn't care about the 40. "He was more interested in how fast
you ran to the ball." Bill Curry, one of Bryant's successors at
Alabama and now an ESPN commentator, puts it this way: "The fast
guys get in the NFL, and the coaches put them on the kickoff
coverage unit and then they look at the film. The coach says,
'Please explain to me why there's a 4.5, a 4.5, a 4.6 and a 4.9
guy, and the 4.9 guy is hitting the wedge five yards ahead of
the 4.6?' You find out that one guy will smash into everything
with what he has, which is 4.9. The 4.6 guy turns his head ever
so slightly and just misses the tackle."
Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, says his best example of a player who couldn't run
but could play was former Vikings middle linebacker Scott
Studwell. "When I got to Minnesota, it was Scott's 10th year,"
Kiffin says. "I thought he might be on his way out. He probably
ran a 5.2 40. He played four more years and made the Pro Bowl
twice. He didn't get faster. He got slower. But he was smart."
Steele, linebackers coach for the Carolina Panthers since 1995,
says the recently retired Mills played the same way. "He's going
to see things so much faster that he doesn't need to run as fast."
Steele cut off his reverie with a dose of coldhearted clarity.
"You can't have too many guys who can't run, or the offense is
going to exploit it," he says. "Maybe one or two, but when you
have seven or eight guys who can't run, it's going to change the
way you play."
Whereas the NFL builds a dossier on a prospect that is as thick
and orderly as a government report, the information that comes
to colleges about prospective players is more like stuff you
read on the Internet. It might be true, but it probably isn't.
"It's all bull----," says Bill Meyers, an offensive line coach
for the Seahawks and a former college coach. "I never heard a
high school coach who didn't lie to me about a 40."
The NCAA doesn't allow its members to test high school
prospects, so there are only two ways to get an accurate time:
if the player runs track or if, prior to his senior year, he
attends a college coach's camp. Otherwise, there is no such
thing as a slow college prospect. According to The Forrest Davis
Recruiting Annual--which bills itself as "the most accurate and
complete football recruiting guide anywhere!"--there are 24 high
school senior football players across 10 Southern states who
have run the 40 in under 4.4. In the last 10 NFL scouting
combines only 18 players have run a sub-4.4 40. Bill Buchalter,
a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, has been covering Florida
high schools since, oh, shortly after Ponce de Leon arrived in
the 16th century. "Just remember one thing," he says. "In 1988
in Seoul, South Korea, Ben Johnson ran 100 meters in 9.79 [a
time that was disallowed after he tested positive for steroids].
Over the first 40 meters he ran 4.69. Someone told me that 40
meters is about 44 yards, so Johnson ran a 4.26 for 40 yards."
In other words those 24 high school players were purported to be
nearly as fast as the chemically enhanced fastest man in the
High school coaches aren't the only ones fudging the numbers.
Florida State announced in March that wide receiver Laveranues
Coles had run a 4.16. "If so," Buchalter asks, "why was he the
fourth-best sprinter on the 4x100 relay team?"
In the summer of 1984 a representative of Japanese football came
to the Bengals camp as a guest of coach Sam Wyche. Kaoru Kubota
was asked to compare Japanese football to what he knew of the
U.S. game. Kubota said the Japanese lagged about 100 years
behind the Americans and gave as one of his reasons the fact
that the fastest Japanese players ran only a 4.8 40. His answer
proved his point. If he exaggerated the Japanese times the way
most U.S. coaches do, his players were barely breaking 5.0. If
he hadn't exaggerated the best 40 times, he knew nothing about
how the American game is played.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM GABOR [Drawing of men with stopwatches timing runner]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM GABOR DO NOT DISTURB Be careful where you tread, the NFL could be timing a prospective player in a hotel hallway near you. [Drawing of runner colliding with bellhop in hotel corridor]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM GABOR 38, 39...Scouts from the NFL measure every purported 40-yard dash venue, lest anyone try to pull a fast one. [Drawing of men looking at tape measure reading "38 yds"]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM GABOR [Drawing of hand holding stopwatch reading, "2.5 MILLION", "500k", "100K" and "NFL EUROPE LEAGUE"]
SECOND TO NONE The Cowboys are believed to have been the first
NFL team to go to collegiate spring practices and time entire
squads in the 40.
TIME IS MONEY The NFL has a place for those players who run the
40 slowly. The name of it is the NFL Europe League.