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 mat 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 time."
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 man 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 the CIA."
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 yards."
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.