No event at the NFL Scouting Combine is more heavily weighed or anticipated than the 40-yard dash.
The setup of the now-annual exercise couldn't be more simple: Each athlete invited to the combine—regardless of position—is expected to run a series of timed, straight-line sprints 40 yards in length.
These tests occur individually and they are sorted and administered by position. The NFL uses start-and-stop laser technology, which begins exactly when the player starts his sprint and ends when he has passed the 10-, 20- and 40-yard marks.
During the vast scouting process for the NFL draft, team decision-makers use the results as a measure of an athlete's true speed. These scouts want to see explosion, burst and speed—both in a short area (10 yards from a still start) and over a long distance (40 yards).
In 2013, one could realistically argue that no other event at the combine is given more importance to an individual player's draft stock than the 40-yard dash. Speed is a valuable commodity in the modern game of football, and few tests are better at separating the slow from the fast.
However, the origins of the prestigious event are somewhat cloudy.
According to Rich Eisen of the NFL Network (via the Patriots' official blog), the 40-yard dash came about when former Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown wanted his fastest players to cover punts.
This makes sense, as a traditional punt can be expected to travel anywhere from 40 to 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Timing a player in that interval would have allowed Brown to find the fastest players to cover on special teams.
At one time, the 40-yard dash was only important to certain positions. Cornerbacks, wide receivers and running backs have always needed to be faster than the rest, and they therefore originally saw the most pressure to perform well in the event. But slowly, the importance of speed has grown to all positions.
How fast can a pulling offensive guard get to the corner?
How long will it take a big middle linebacker to cover sideline to sideline?
Over a 10-yard interval, how fast is a defensive end going to get upfield?
Can this tight end expose the seam of a defense with speed?
A vertical, more modern game has continued to increase the importance of pure speed.
No longer can defensive backs put their hands on receivers after five yards, which makes it more difficult for slower corners to cover large portions of the field. The game is more open, allowing for the faster to thrive.
As cornerbacks have gotten faster, so have receivers. The field is now littered with fast, explosive receivers and tight ends who are able to move as well as (if not better than, in some cases) most receivers.
Even the quarterback position—once thought to be reserved for slow, pocket passers—is depending more and more on speed. Players like Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick can create nightmares for opposing defenses by using their legs as a secondary form of offensive weaponry, and more and more teams are starting to value that asset in a quarterback.
And to combat faster offenses, defenses now need defensive ends, linebackers and safeties who can run too.
This growing attention to speed in the game has continued to inflate what the numbers actually mean.
By running a fast 40-yard dash time, a player can skyrocket his draft stock from the middle rounds to the first round. Same goes for running a heavy 40; too slow, and that first-round grade you thought you had before the combine can be in free fall.
Athletes now spend hours and hours before the combine training to run a fast 40-yard dash. It certainly makes sense, as there are millions and millions of dollars to be won or lost with a strong or slow time in Indianapolis.
As the game has evolved more and more toward attributing speed, the importance of the 40-yard dash has continued its ascension. In 2013, the event is still a useful barometer for NFL decision-makers and an important comparative tool for rabid fans.
Expect all eyes to be on the official 40 times as they roll out of Indianapolis over the next week. Draft positions and dollars depend on them.