More than 300 NFL prospects will be at the Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis. The 40-yard dash has become an annual highlight with fans obsessing over hundredths of a second and players investing significant money in working with trainers and speed coaches to improve by those hundredths.
But why do players run 40 yards and not 50 yards or 100 yards?
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys personnel chief from 1960 to '88 who works for Sirius XM Satellite Radio and NFL.com, said Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown used to have players run the 40-yard dash in the mid-1940s when they got to training camp. Often though, Brown would have some players run 50 yards, Brandt said.
Brandt decided to alter that model during an era when the Cowboys were considered the leader in scouting innovation. Brandt said that Cowboys scouts used to carry a tape measure or a 40-yard rope in order to make sure the distance was uniform when timing prospects on fields that the scouts were not familiar with. Brandt noted that he has had players run the 40 in dorm hallways, and even one in an airport in Jacksonville.
“(Brown) did it as a way of deciding which players to keep,” Brandt said. “But we decided, ‘Why not get them to run a 40 before we have them in camp?’ Some of it also had to do then with deciding who you switched over to defense, which is always where you wanted your fastest players ...
“There were all these different barometers out there. So at the end of the 1960 season, we sat down and worked out a 40-20-10 formula. Everyone would run a 40, but there would be 20- and 10-yard splits. We used the 20-yard split for offensive linemen, because how often do they have to run 40 yards in a game? And we used the 10-yard split for wide receivers, in an effort to gauge their burst of speed off the line.”
Lasers will be used at the combine to determine the 10-yard, 20-yard and 40-yard splits for each player. The start of the clock, though, is done manually by a timer standing at the 6-yard mark with time starting on the player's first movement.
Author Michael MacCambridge writes in America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation that 40 yards was derived by Brown because it was the average distance covered on a punt. "The origin of timing football players for 40 yards comes from the average distance of a punt and the time it takes to reach that distance. Punts average around 40 yards in distance from the line of scrimmage, and the hangtime (time of flight) averages approximately 4.5 seconds. Therefore, if a coach knows that a player runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, he will be able to leave the line of scrimmage when a punt is kicked, and reach the point where the ball comes down just as it arrives."
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who was a member of Brown's staff in Cincinnati, disputed Brown's obsession with the 40 in his own book, Building a Champion.
"We tried to evaluate players on how they functioned on the field, not on whether they matched some arbitrary standard. We had our own criteria and didn’t worry about others’. Much of that philosophy could be traced back to my own experience. For years, Paul Brown never gave much credence to artificial tests."
Of course, there is a difference between straight-line speed and game speed, and teams use the results differently. But a good 40 time never hurts and could be worth thousands of dollars.
The combine record was set last year by Washington's John Ross, at 4.22 seconds. Ross was selected No. 9 overall by the Bengals in the draft despite a long injury history.
If you are looking for a name to watch who could challenge the record, start with LSU cornerback Donte Jackson, a former teammate of Bills 2017 first-round pick Tre'Davious White. He has been timed at 4.24 seconds and it stands to reason that he was named the fastest player in college football.
Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward is another potential record-breaker. Ward was a consensus All-American and All-Big Ten first teamer. Ohio State has tracked him at 4.23 seconds in the 40.