Sunday, February 26, 2006

Does it really matter how fast a football player runs it?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Todd Jones

"What the hell difference does it make? He gets in the end zone, doesn’t he? Fourteen seconds, I don’t know." — Vince Lombardi, when asked how fast Paul Hornung ran the 40-yard dash.

A fascination with speed, numbers and the minutia of football has made ‘‘the 40" one of the most popular phrases in sports lexicon.

What’s his 40? Scouts don’t like his 40. Wow, what a 40!

Rarely does a football player run 40 yards unimpeded in a straight line during a game, yet there’s a fascination with the time it takes him to cover that distance.

The legitimacy of those times or the outof-proportion importance placed on them doesn’t matter. For some, the 40 is like summer ice cream: can’t get enough.

"It’s probably made to become bigger than life because people talk about it," said Gil Brandt, personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89 and now senior analyst for

Brandt will be among the pro coaches, scouts and general managers watching and timing prospective quarterbacks, running backs and receivers in the 40-yard dash today at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Other running backs and offensive linemen ran the 40 at the combine yesterday. Tight ends and defensive linemen run Monday, and linebackers and defensive backs run Tuesday.

The players will do a variety of other traditional meat-market physical drills, but the 40 is the glamour test, the moment when a player at certain positions — primarily running back, receiver and defensive back — can be stigmatized or have his credentials bolstered by hundredths of a second.

"It can mean a lot — millions (of dollars) — depending on what the expectations were for a player before he performs and why he performs poorly," said Neil Cornrich, an agent for NFL players.

Last year, defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Fabian Washington were projected as second-round draft picks before each ran a 4.31 at the combine. Both were picked in the first round.

The importance placed on 40 times is why 10 former Ohio State players participating in this combine spent recent weeks working with Butch Reynolds, the team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Reynolds, a three-time Olympic track star, tutored players such as A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter on the proper form, technique and mind-set needed to run the 40.

"The first step out is very important in the 40," Reynolds said. "You want to make sure to use your power to move forward and not upward. We teach them to stay low and fire out, like a plane taking off. A plane takes off with power and gradually moves up."

Some of the NFL’s greatest players moved down in the draft because of poor 40 times.

Emmitt Smith, the league’s alltime leading rusher, ran a 4.7 at the 1990 combine and fell to the No. 17 selection in the first round. That same year, fellow running back Blair Thomas, who ran a 4.45, was picked No. 2.

Jerry Rice came out of Mississippi Valley State in 1985 and ran a pedestrian 4.6 at the combine. Fifteen players were drafted before him.

"Whatever (Rice) ran, he could apply that speed to the game," said Dick LeBeau, defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "How many times did you ever see Jerry Rice get caught once he got a step on a guy? A lot of players are like that."

Chris Spielman can attest.

He finished his Ohio State career in 1987 with stellar linebacker credentials: two-time All-American, three-time All-Big Ten, Lombardi Award winner as a senior.

Spielman ran a 4.85 at the combine. Detroit drafted him in the second round.

"I think if I had broken 4.7 I might have been (taken) higher than the 29 th pick," Spielman said.

Nobody cared about Spielman’s 40 time during an 11-year career in which he was a fourtime Pro Bowl selection, led Detroit in tackles all eight seasons with the Lions and set a Buffalo team record with 206 tackles in 1996.

"A lot of guys can run fast in this world, but not a lot of guys can run fast with pads on," Spielman said.

In football, that’s known as "playing speed" and has more to do with explosiveness than track-and-field ability.

"Paul Brown would say it’s more important how they play than how fast they run," LeBeau said of the Hall of Fame coach. ‘‘Playing speed may sound nebulous, but it is different than what they run in a straight-line 40-yard dash. Playing speed makes or breaks you."

The innovative Brown is credited with being the first to time players in the 40 when he was OSU coach in the 1940s. He did it to determine who could cover a punt the fastest. He continued testing 40 times as Cleveland Browns coach.

The Dallas Cowboys made the use of 40 times popular, beginning in the 1960s. Brandt said he and coach Tom Landry ‘‘stole it from Coach Brown."

Now, the 40 has become so revered, the NFL Network is televising the dash today as part of its 26 hours of live combine coverage.

"Americans love a race," LeBeau said.

Some prospects might not run, choosing instead to wait to run the 40 at their school’s pro day workout when they’re healthier or more familiar with the environment and running surface.

More players, however, reportedly ran the 40 at last year’s combine than in previous years (Brandt credits TV coverage with spurring competitiveness), and this year the RCA Dome has a new, reputedly faster turf to entice participation.

Those who do run — and some have paid up to $10,000 to be instructed at "speed camps" — will have their times analyzed like diamonds.

Just remember, some diamonds are frauds.

"A lot of those times are unrealistic," OSU track and field coach Russ Rogers said.
Electronic timing has been used at the combine since 1990, just as it’s used at internationally sanctioned track and field meets. But there’s a key difference in this electronic timing.

"They time you (at the combine) from the time you move your hand," Rogers said. "In track, they time you based on the sound of the gun. That’s about three- or four-tenths’ difference."

Times from hand-held stopwatches are even less reliable.

"You’re looking from 40 yards away," Rogers said. "There’s no way it can be accurate. If you’re 40 yards away and trying to time someone, you’re going to be two- or three-tenths of a second off."

That doesn’t stop alleged 40 times of high-school recruits from miraculously appearing on the Internet or spreading by word of mouth with little or no verification.

In 2001, claimed that about 40 high-school players had 40 times in the 4.3-second range. Compare that to how the San Diego Union-Tribune reported last year that timing officials had broken down videotape of sprinter Ben Johnson’s infamous steroidfueled 100-meter run of 9.79 seconds. They determined that Johnson ran the first 40 yards (converted from meters) in 4.38 seconds.

(Incidentally, Deion Sanders is the fastest-timed player in the history of the combine, recording a 4.29 in 1989.)

"There’s all kinds of issues you’re looking at when someone says, ‘This is my 40 time,’ " OSU recruiting coordinator John Peterson said. "If I look at a high-school tape and no one catches them, they’re pretty fast."

LeBeau said 40 times are ‘‘valid for some positions" and that "if a young man runs a 4.8, he won’t play (cornerback) in the National Football League."

Yet the times of 40-yard dashes turned in today will serve as just one component of teams’ evaluations of players.

"You’ve got a database with the 40 — the times of a lot of great, fast athletes," LeBeau said. ‘‘You got something to compare with."

And for football-starved media and fans, it’s something else to chew on.

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