NFL Scouting Combine: Do 40-Yard Dash Times Really Forecast NFL Speed?

Wes StueveContributor IIIFebruary 23, 2013

Nov.11, 2012;  Miami, FL, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) runs against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Sun Life Stadium. Tennessee won 37-3. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Every February, NFL draft analysts rant and rave about the NFL Scouting Combine. At the center of the combine is, of course, the 40-yard dash.

Along with the people freaking out about 40 times, there are many who claim the event doesn't say anything about actual speed. What does someone running on a track have to do with how they play in pads on a football field?

Which of these two groups is right? Is the 40-yard dash an indicator of football speed or another example of NFL teams overrating a meaningless event?

Well, like most statistics, the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. The 40-yard dash isn't the almighty, always accurate indicator of speed many wish it was. It isn't worthless either.

When thinking of the fastest players in the NFL, Mike Wallace and Chris Johnson are two of the first names that will come to mind. Wallace ran a 4.28 at the combine, and Johnson holds the all-time record at 4.24 seconds.

Other stars such as Calvin Johnson, Vernon Davis and Adrian Peterson also dominated the 40-yard dash, all running below or at a 4.4. 

There certainly seems to be some correlation between 40 times and explosive speed. But does that always exist?

In a word, no.

Several athletes have disappointed when running the 40-yard dash, with their on-field speed not showing on the track. Jermichael Finley, one of the NFL's fastest and most dynamic tight ends, ran just a 4.82 at the 2008 combine. Likewise, Jason Pierre-Paul ran a a disappointing 4.71.

Then there are the players who dominated the 40-yard dash and didn't perform on the field. They are also known as the Oakland Raiders. Players like DeMarcus Van Dyke, Jacoby Ford, Jerome Mathis and Yamon Figurs never amounted to much.

In the cases of Wallace and Johnson, the 40 time accurately foretold the players' dynamic speed. That didn't happen with Pierre-Paul and Finley.

So, how should analysts use the 40-yard dash in their projections?

The same way they should use anything from the combine.

The scouting combine should not be used to determine physical traits and abilities. It should be used to confirm what we already know. If a player looks fast and explosive on tape, then runs an impressive 40-yard dash, we have confirmed what we already knew. The player is fast.

That's exactly what happened with Wallace and Johnson.

Additionally, the 40 can be used to show what isn't easy to see on tape. If a player rarely has the chance to demonstrate his true speed, the 40 can show what he is capable of. 

For example, if a tight end was never used as a downfield weapon in college, NFL teams don't know if he's capable of stretching the field down the seam. The 40-yard dash helps teams determine if he will be able to do so in the NFL.

When the results of the 40-yard dash conflict with what is seen on tape, ignore the numbers and remember what happened on the field. That is what really matters, and too many variables, such as a poor sprinter's technique, can throw off a 40 time.

So does the 40-yard dash forecast NFL speed?

The best—and most boring—answer is yes.