Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Myth-busting popular perceptions of 40 times

We pause in our regularly scheduled discussion of Big 12 preseason thoughts to talk about the ubiquitous 40 time, everyone's favorite barometer of player ability.

It hardly matters what position a player occupies on the field, the 40 time is always mentioned as a relevant factor. People even ooh and ahh when an OL can post a 4.75 in the 40 and there's a general sense that this metric is our ultimate test for overall athleticism.

There are just a few problems with the 40 time. You see, it's not an all-inclusive test that can tell us how great an athlete a given player is and what might be worse, the average college football fan's mind has been polluted by bogus 40 times.

There used to be a very amusing game you could play called "watch that kid get slow!" in which a player would have a listed 40 time of 4.4 on the services' website coming out of high school, go to college, and then be invited to the combine four years later where he would promptly run a 4.7.

Take Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis. On his Rivals page you'll see the number "4.34"but at the NFL combine he barely made it under 4.9. What happened? Did he get slower?

Probably some, Lewis did play through some injuries and judging by the photo he clearly gained some weight, but it's still safe to assume that he could never actually run a 4.34. The freshman Travis Lewis who had well over 100 tackles for OU was probably a 4.6 kid at best, but that was more than fast enough.

There's another game you can play where you take the 40 times that colleges offer for their star players and then compare those to the 40 times they run at the combine. Baylor is a serial offender, and Art Briles insisted to everyone at Big 12 media days in 2014 that Petty had the athleticism of an NFL linebacker with a 4.6 40 time.

Yeah...maybe on your stopwatch but not under the laser-timed parameters at the NFL combine where he ran a 4.87.

Nowadays we have an added resource for providing more consistent, laser-timed 40 times to the world of college football recruiting. Nike's SPARQ testing which measures an athlete's 40 time, shuttle time, vertical leap, and power ball toss. It's become invaluable for filtering out the truly elite athletes from the kids who post normal, strong numbers and for filtering out the nonsense that is peddled.

The only problem? College fans hear that a WR they thought was awesome only runs a 4.64 and freak out. "SLOW! DO NOT WANT!"

So let's just do a little bit of myth-busting about 40 times:

Myth #1: Football players that can run the 40 yard dash in >4.5 seconds are common

The 40 times offered for fan consumption by high schools, recruits, colleges, and agents are almost always totally bogus. You basically have to add at least two tenths of a second as a rule of thumb in anticipation of the speed-inflation that is rampant in reporting.

Does a HS player say he runs a 4.4? Maybe he's a 4.6 guy. Is he claiming a 4.6? He's probably about a 4.8 guy when laser-timed. Sometimes these players aren't even lying, those are just stopwatch times that are not as consistent or harsh as the laser-timed numbers that you get at the combine.

But not everyone tracks the speed inflation, or realizes that at the NFL combine college football's most freakish athletes always end up running in the 4.4 or 4.5 range that nearly every skill player claims.

Jamaal Charles, who is far and away one of the fastest players in the NFL, ran a 4.38 at the combine. Do you really think that half the wide receivers on your favorite team are even close to as fast as Jamaal Charles? No. They are not.

Myth #2: Football players and their teams or representatives self-report accurate 40 times

They do not. Not even close. It is now common for players to include "SPARQ verified" results on their HUDL pages because it's understood that anything else is going to be garbage.

Myth #3: Successful players that can't run 4.5 or better are the exception to the rule

Here's a common exchange that will happen on recruiting message boards.

Fan 1: "Oh, this receiver only runs a 4.6. DO NOT WANT!"

Fan 2: "Oh yeah, well Jerry Rice ran a 4.71 so I guess you wouldn't want Jerry Rice on your team."

Fan 1: "Rice is the exception that proves the rule."

Well Rice isn't the exception that proves the rule, actually. Lots of players have been successful in the NFL without posting impressive 40 times, much less in college. Sometimes you'll hear averages like "the average NFL safety runs a 4.55" or something to this affect, but averages are exactly that, and that's the average number for players measured at the combine who are generally the cream of the athletic crop. What's the average 40 time for hall of famers?

Ed Reed, long known as one of the rangiest and most explosive athletes to play the game, ran a 4.57 at the NFL combine. Perhaps this is why he slipped to the end of the first round despite proving to be a HOF player.

Somehow, his lack of ability to perform a tenth of a second better in a straight line race run without pads on did not disqualify him from finding success as a pro.

Myth #4: 40 times are a reliable test of playing speed

As we've just observed with Ed Reed, they are not. This becomes plain enough to see when you consider the typical movements and context of a football player in actual game scenarios. He's rarely running in a straight line, he's rarely moving at an all out sprint for a full 40 yards, and he's wearing pads.

This is a reason why the SPARQ numbers add a little extra value in that they ask a player to demonstrate raw athleticism moving laterally (shuttle time), throwing a ball without the ability to use their legs (power ball toss), and moving explosively summoning power from the ground up (vertical leap).

Even then, these numbers don't always indicate the true athlete behind them. There is a technique to running a good 40 time that players will pay trainers to help them master before they attend the combine. A player could go from a 4.65 to a 4.51 simply through technique and jump up a dozen spots on the "fastest at his position list" but still be the exact same player on a football field with no added speed.

40 times always have to be considered in light of film study. Richard Sherman is a classic example, who couldn't break a 4.6 at the combine. But if you watched film of Richard Sherman at Stanford how often did you see him get whipped due to lack of speed? Sure enough, after entering the NFL, Sherman emerged as one of the top corners in the nation.

Players that can diagnose what's happening on the field and perform the kinds of movements that allow them to react quickly and efficiently are the best athletes on the field, and SPARQ numbers may or may not capture that ability.

Myth #5: 40 times are useless

Well easy there, they still have value. Namely, laser-timed 40s give us a universal standard of basic explosiveness and speed moving forward in a straight line that can be applied to multiple players.

There are also a few rules of thumb that can be applied from a 40 time, take Bryce Petty for instance. If you watched Baylor in 2013 or 2014 you knew that if Petty escaped the pocket he was not at all quick enough to evade good tacklers, nor fast enough to win the sideline and put everyone in his rearview mirror.

But if you didn't have that game film and you did have his combine number: 4.87, you could safely assume that this isn't a player that could pull away from other athletes on the field.

Conversely, if you hear that a wide receiver or running back can run a true 4.4 and they have impressive film to match, now you know that they aren't just dominating bad competition. They truly have game-changing speed that you know will translate to the higher levels of play.

So with all that said, here's a handy guide to the kinds of numbers I suspect are about average in the Big 12 at various positions. Keep in mind that the best player isn't the one with the best 40 time, it's the one who's actually the best at performing tasks on the field, so if a player is slower than my guessed average that doesn't mean he couldn't still be the best. Chris Hackett and Paul Dawson (4.93) approve of this message.

QB: 4.9
It's just not that hard to do some damage with your feet at QB when guys are killing themselves just trying to reach you and you can simply sidestep them and escape before running in the direction of people who may have their back turned to you.

For a QB to be really dangerous on a zone read play his shuttle time is the more important metric. A QB that can run 4.6 or better is going to be a nightmare on typical QB running plays.

RB: 4.6
Breaking away from defenders in open grass really only requires about 4.6 level speed. A 4.6 sprinter will not be caught from behind save for by an opponent with an angle or with truly elite speed.

OL: Who cares?
Shuttle time is more valuable here as the only time OL are even in space is on screen passes where you just want them to be able to move laterally well enough to get in the way of guys in space.

TE: 5.0
Jace Amaro ran a 4.74 and was virtually unguardable in the Big 12. Most TEs are just blockers that are reasonably fluid cutting into open grass. Anything better than 5.0 indicates a guy that could become a real handful for LBs and Ss who are already at a size disadvantage when covering them.

WR: 4.7
These guys benefit from knowing where they are going before the defense does. Guys that can run a 4.6 and run good routes are often capable of getting behind a defense and beating them over the top.

DT: Who cares?
One thing a good 40 time on a DT could indicate is explosiveness that might mean he's got a first step that would be very hard for OL to handle. A good vertical leap is a safer indicator.

DE: 4.8
Ends often need to be able to offer pursuit in space, chase things down from behind, and are hopefully better athletes than either the OL blocking them or the QB evading them. Remember, the kind of short-area explosiveness that really matters here isn't always captured in a 40 time.

ILB: 4.9
Again, short area explosiveness is the real killer here. Being able to quickly diagnose plays and cover short areas with speed and power is the name of the game. Texas' Keenan Robinson, a notoriously quick and capable linebacker in coverage, ran a 4.79 at the combine. Ask any Big 12 team from that era if Keenan Robinson or Travis Lewis would offer their roster an athletic upgrade and they'd say yes without hesitation.

OLB: 4.7
By outside linebackers I mean nickels, space-backers, or just guys that have to run on the edge. Teams generally put some of their quickest players here.

S: 4.7
Chris Hackett was very good for TCU last year and then shockingly ran a 4.83 at the combine. OU's Tony Jefferson ran a 4.73 and that's generally closer to the rule of thumb for deep support players. Unless he was trying to track down Tavon Austin he was feared across the league coming downhill in run support.

CB: 4.6
These guys need to be the quickest on the field since they are covering opponents in wide open spaces who already know where they are going. Again though, players that are faster than 4.6 are much more rare than commonly assumed and the ones that are that fast aren't always particularly good at football.

You'd like to have all 4.4 guys in the secondary, like the 2005 Texas Longhorns, but if you have 4.6 guys at corner and safety who know what they are doing and can can backpedal or shuffle, you can shrink the field just fine.

Again, these are just representative of what I think the average player runs. Each team will probably have guys at multiple positions that have above average speed...maybe they are also above average football players.

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