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The NFL Combine 40-Yard Dash

NFL Football - Sports Performance Tracking

Humans are fascinated with speed – getting things done faster, microwaves, cars, productivity hacks, cheetahs, and yes, human beings getting from point A to point B on their own two feet. Indeed, the 100 meter dash at the Olympics captivates us. We actually label the winner – the world’s fastest man!

In late February of every year, the showcase of athleticism known as the NFL Combine is another event that captures our attention. And, the king of all events is the 40-yard dash. Elsewhere across America, high school and college football coaches, with their stopwatches in hand, seek speed and developing faster athletes. Walk into any coach’s office, and you will hear “What’s his 40 time?”.

The 40-yard dash has been a key measure in the NFL Combine since it started in 1985. In 1986, Bo Jackson was clocked at 4.12 seconds; however, it is not recognized as the record because it was hand-timed with a stopwatch.

Now, if you want to start a heated discussion just walk into a room of coaches and tell them that you have a “4.4 guy”. This statement alone will quickly get a response of “ya, but is it hand-timed?”. We all know the quick-thumb of the coach on that button! In a research paper published in 2015, Dr. Bryan Mann and colleagues compared hand-timed versus electronic-timed 40-yard dashes in 81 Division-1 NCAA football players. Although there was a high correlation between the two timing methods (r >0.90) the average difference was 0.22 seconds faster for hand-timed vs. electronically-timed (4.90 sec vs. 5.12 sec) proving the quick thumb theory.

So, if Bo’s 40 does not officially count, who does have the fastest 40-yard dash? Take 4.22 seconds and watch John Ross here. And you can find top performers by position and year here.

However, despite all its majesty, the 40-yard dash has many critics. Many argue that football players rarely run a 40-yard dash during competition nor do they reach maximal velocity. Thus, there should be more emphasis on acceleration since this is what football players do at the start of every play. Modern-day technology and multiple timing gates now allows us to examine the acceleration phase at 10 yards and 20 yards along with the maximal velocity attained during the 40-yard dash.

Recently, Dr. Ken Clark, who studied under the tutelage of Professor Peter Weyand at the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory in Dallas, Texas, published a paper dissecting the NFL Combine 40-yard dash. Dr. Clark is not only a speed scientist but also sprinted on the gridiron at Swarthmore College as an All-Conference running back; thus, he has the experience and the know-how in terms of the evaluating sprinting speed.

Here are a few highlights from the paper:

  • Maximum velocity was strongly correlated with 10 yard, 20 yard, and 40 yard performance.
  • When the group was divided into fast and slow athletes, it was found that both fast and slow athletes accelerated in a similar pattern relative to their maximum velocity – that is the sprint profile when expressed as a % of max velocity (not absolute speed in meters per second) was nearly identical.
  • The authors suggested that more maximum velocity training may be warranted for athletes preparing for the 40-yard dash or short sprints. However, they also added that “This is not to discount the importance of the start and acceleration phase, as coaches and athletes clearly must train all portions of a linear sprint.”

Another view on this topic has been provided by Cameron Josse in the Simplifaster article ‘The Truth About Athlete Speed in the NFL’. Not only does the author critique the 40-yard dash but also provides additional insight into some of the methodology used by Dr. Clark in the above mentioned research paper. Josse also proposes the use of a Flying 10-yard sprint as a better test, and finally discusses developing technique and training to increase acceleration and max velocity including some target speed goals for high school football players.

Learn more about quantifying the game demands of American football here and how SPT measures Top Speed and Sprint Efforts.