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The 40 yard dash, a fake event created by NFL scouts to make up for their deficiencies in scouting less measurable qualities, has become the gold standard for quantifying speed in America's most popular sport. But are football players any good at it? Compared to the men and women of track and field, not really.
Times in it at the NFL combine have made and cost men millions of dollars; most recently, John Ross ran 4.22 seconds to break a nine-year-old NFL record. Mock drafts in February before Ross ran the time had him getting selected as low as 28th overall, but after running 4.22 and without playing a down of football, he was selected ninth overall by the Bengals. The NFL draft has a strict salary slotting system: for example, the 9th pick receives a $10.6 million bonus and the 28th gets $5.4 million.
If the 40 actually has that much to do with football skill, then, NFL teams should start throwing money at elite sprinters. As one of this post's authors wrote in March, 4.22 would be unimpressive if sprinters attempted the 40. In addition to the obvious reasons why--runners are good at running, football players are good at playing football--the NFL combine also uses timing systems that would never cut it in track.
Happily, Tennessee's Christian Coleman set out to prove that exact point recently, running a 40 with combine-style timing (hand at the start, automatic at the finish) in 4.12 seconds on a football field. Coleman won the 60 and the 200 at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.
In fact, the best amateur women's sprinters have "NFL speed" as well. The infectious talk of the 40 made it to Eugene, Oregon, where NCAA indoor 60 meter champion and collegiate record holder Hannah Cunliffe mused that she would have the fastest 40 time on campus, period. No Oregon players were drafted this year, but two were last year and four were the year before. She also quickly clarified that Olympic hurdler and ex-football player Devon Allen doesn't count, which is fair as Allen has left football to go pro in track.
Me and @ButDeajahSaid think we will beat any football player at this school in a 40. Don't @ me— Hannah Cunliffe (@hannahcunliffe5) May 3, 2017
This is not an unreasonable statement. Let's start with the simplest analysis possible, and then move on to something slightly more complex and fair.
Cunliffe has covered 60 meters indoors in 7.07 seconds at altitude and 7.12 seconds at sea level. 40 yards is 36.576 meters; 36.576 is 60.96% of 60 meters; 0.6096 times 7.07 is 4.31 seconds. 60.96% of 7.12 is 4.34 seconds. Cunliffe has factually covered 40 yards in those times, which are astonishingly fast and would make her among the fastest players in any year at the NFL combine. Only three men ran 4.31 or faster this year. But the 40, although not automatically timed at the start, is intentionally short to measure explosiveness. How fast could Cunliffe run the 40 in combine conditions?
For a little help, we reached out to Oregon track and field head coach Robert Johnson, who told us his top sprinters--presumably meaning Cunliffe, Ariana Washington, and Deajah Stevens--have been electronically timed at 30 meters between 4.05 and 4.20 seconds. Again, we know that Cunliffe has run the 60 in 7.07 seconds. So knowing that she covers the first 30 in 4.05, that puts the next 30 at 3.03. This all believably lines up with Cunliffe's 10.99 outdoor best in the 100 meters: if she covers the first 30 meters in four seconds and the rest of the race at ten meters per second, that would put her 60m best just over seven seconds and her 100m best just over 11--right around where they actually are.
So Cunliffe can cover her first 30 meters in 4.05 seconds, eventually hitting 9.9 meters per second, which is the pace of the second half of her collegiate record in the 60 meters. 9.9 meters per second leads to Cunliffe covering the final 6.58 meters (the distance between 30 meters and 40 yards) in 0.66 seconds, which would give her a fully automatic 40 time of 4.71 seconds. A year of private experimentation with fully automatic timing at the NFL combine yielded times that were 0.20 to 0.24 seconds slower, which puts Cunliffe in the 4.51 to 4.47 range if the NFL swapped from half-automatic to full. Here's where we think she'd end up under NFL combine timing.
Right now, the NFL does not automatically time the start, and starts when the runner starts. Reaction times among elite sprinters range from one to two tenths of a second; let's split the difference and lop off 0.15 seconds from Cunliffe's time. Even with fully automatic timing, with reaction times out of the picture, Cunliffe is already down to 4.56 seconds. The NFL only uses automatic timing at the finish, though, and halving the accepted hand to FAT conversion of 0.24 seconds gets Cunliffe down to 4.44 seconds. If her reaction time is slower than 0.15 seconds, then she can run even faster.
By NFL standards, 4.44 is incredibly fast. It's faster than the 2000-2012 combine average at every position in the league. It would rank in the top ten at every position in this year's combine except for cornerback, where it would be eleventh. Plenty of fast NFL players that you've heard of have run slower. And Cunliffe, while a superstar and one of the greatest collegiate sprinters of all time, is hardly unprecedented on a global scale. At least 47 women have run as fast or faster than 7.07 seconds indoors.