Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski says the 40-yard dash has always been an important part of teams' evaluations, but he agrees that the modern media marvel of the past decade has overhyped it. (NFL.com)
Back in the '40s it was simply the 50-yard dash. Then in the '60s it was the 40-yard dash. And now in the 21st century the 40 has become today's starting block to pro football stardom.
Or so it would seem as the Internet and networks have turned the NFL draft into an hourly cardiogram. Jockstraps hanging off the Dow Jones. A fantasy football version of the New York Stock Exchange. At times it seems like the 40 has become the litmus test for prospects instead of just being part of the quiz. Kind of a Dancing With The Stars for college players. Not really dancing but people still watch for the celebrity and it's the same with The 40. It's not really football, but it will pass the time between the combine and the draft with a few dramas thrown in.
Andre Smith, meet Kate Gosselin.
"Remember all that stuff Andre went through in the 40 last year?" asks Ray "Rock" Oliver of the now infamous shirtless sprint Smith ran at his pro day before the Bengals made him the sixth pick in the draft. "And he didn't have a great bench press, either. But when he got on the field there was no question that he was the most powerful player in that draft. He can move the pile. You know how rare that is?"
Oliver, the former Bengals strength coach now running the University of Kentucky program, has this simple advice for his pro prospects after his own NFL experience.
"There is only one test I have to see to tell me if a guy can play NFL football," Oliver says. "An MRI of the chest. I want to see how the heart is beating. If you use the 40 as a barometer for prospects, you're going to be like an alcoholic and start doing something you're not supposed to do."
Bengals founder Paul Brown, like most everything in the pro game, was at the creation of the exercise while coaching the Browns in Cleveland in the years immediately following World War II. The way Gil Brandt remembers it, before the Cowboys stole it from the Browns at the dawn of the 1960s Brown dressed his own players in uniforms and pads during training camp and timed them over 50 yards.
"We stole it and made it 40 just because we thought it worked out better for football," says Brandt, Tom Landry's personnel guru in Dallas before his current reincarnation as NFL.com's resident draft sage. "When I asked Paul why he did it, he said he wanted to come up with every tiebreaker imaginable when he was cutting his team down, so if there was no difference between a receiver running 4.65 and one running a 4.72, he had something else to go on. Kind of like a tie game in the ninth inning and it's a squeeze bunt."
The Bengals are in the late innings of the draft process, which meant on Tuesday they held their day for local prospects in which they were allowed to host players that either played college football in Cincinnati or live here. That meant another visit with University of Cincinnati wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, perhaps the ultimate example of this draft class' timeless tension between stopwatch and tape.
Gilyard helped generate UC's high-octane offense with big plays and juiced their special teams with a dizzying return ability that included the $10 million touchdown kick return in Pittsburgh that got his team to the Orange Bowl. All despite a 40 time that Brandt has at 4.64 seconds at the combine and 4.52 10 days later at his pro day at UC. For a guy that is 5-11 and weighs just 187 pounds, that doesn't compute to a second-round pick.
But his tape does.
The projections have Gilyard anywhere from the mid second round to the late third-round, where Ourlads Scouting Services has him going to Tennessee with the next-to-last pick in the third round. He's been having a great time making visits. He has visited said Titans and when he arrived in Washington last week he got a thrill when new Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb called him over and said he was just the kind of receiver he's looking for. And, on Tuesday, Gilyard said he got a taste of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer's on-field demeanor.
"The best thing I ever heard in this process," Gilyard says, "is what my high school coach told me. He said they would rather have a 4.45 or 4.5 guy who plays 4.45 or 4.5 rather than a 4.3 guy that can't play as fast. I look at the tape and I know I can run by guys that are supposed to be faster than me. Football is all about balance and technique."
But there is a lot more inside baseball now and we're in extra innings. During the last 10 years, league execs and coaches have become miffed at how prospects, with the aid of their agents, head south and west after their seasons to train for specific drills in the combine and pro days. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made national headlines when he ripped the practice on an Indianapolis radio station during February's NFL scouting combine and Oliver knows exactly where his former boss is coming from.
"In the last four or five years, it's become about personal trainers," Oliver says. "If you work out LeBron James, you get to become the strength coach at Ohio State. But look at it. How many guys train for the combine? And only six or eight burn it up? The only way to get better in the 40 is if you get in a flux capacitor and go back in time and get different parents. It's all genetics. A guy runs a 4.3 because that's what he is."
And then there are the times floating out there in cyberspace. Ten years ago they only showed up in a couple of places. ESPN. Maybe a newspaper. Now they're all over the place on an infinite number of Web sites and which ones do you believe?
As Oliver says, a 40 time is "in the eye of the holder. The guy holding the watch. Next year the two fastest men in the world aren't going to be at the Olympics but at the University of Kentucky because I'm holding the watch."
Just take what happened to Gilyard at his pro day. Various teams clocked him everywhere from 4.52 to 4.6 and it got reported as 4.47.
That can't be a surprise to Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who has been timing prospects since 1992. He says timing the 40 is an art in itself.
"A lot of guys just flat out miss it. They don't get the right time," Bratkowski says. "You and I could be standing side-by-side at the line and we could have something like a 4.42 and a 4.51. Some guys use their thumb; some guys use one of their fingers. No thumbers allowed."
"There are fraudulent times out there," says Jaguars general manager Gene Smith. "You have to go by what your own people give you. And you have to take into consideration the conditions. Wind. Surface. Weather."
There can be more to it than that. In order to get objectivity, Bengals president Mike Brown remembers Paul Brown calling on a Cleveland-area college track coach to do the timing.
"Sometimes if a coach didn't like a player, he was too slow," Brown says, "or the other way around. He wanted to take the emotion out of it."
The Jaguars have piled up a decade of times and since they play on grass, they pump the factors in which a guy runs the 40 (surface, weather, wind) into a formula so it translates into what they would run on grass. But don't blame Smith if he loses interest early.
"I stand at 10 yards," he says. "From my perspective, football is a game of burst and I'm more interested to see what they do in those first 10 yards."
Indeed, Jim Lippincott, the Bengals director of football operations, has always said if he had his way, the best way to simulate football would be a 50-yard dash with a running 10-yard start.
Gene Smith saw plenty of burst in Jimmy Smith, the great Jags receiver from the '90s. But it wasn't so much what he got out of a 40 time.
"Jimmy was a 4.5 guy," Gene Smith says, "but when he was hip to hip with a guy and the ball was in the air, he was faster than that."
Bratkowski observed similar traits with Plaxico Burress, the Michigan State wide receiver the Steelers took with the eighth pick in the 2000 draft when Bratkowski was the Pittsburgh receivers coach, and Chris Henry, the West Virginia wide receiver the Bengals took in the third round in 2005.
"Both those guys got faster after 40 yards," Bratkowski says. "On a deep ball, they were faster than when they started, but that's something you can see on tape."
Bratkowski says the 40 has always been an important part of the evaluations, but he agrees that the modern media marvel of the past decade has overhyped it.
"But I don't think that has changed how teams look at the 40," Bratkowski says. "It has to be a piece of the puzzle. It's a combination of both the time and the tape. You look at the tape to see if he's fast enough or not fast enough. And you need to take as many 40 times you can get on a guy. If you get six, seven or eight times, you can pretty much take the average of that and that's what he is."
Bratkowski does admit a guy like Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant this spring hurt himself "by putting all his eggs in one basket and running only a couple" of subpar 40s in his lone workout.
NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly agrees with Bratkowski. Teams still use the 40 the same way despite the added exposure.
"What is different in the last 10 years is that players come to the combine in better track shape than they ever have been," Casserly says. "There are a lot of artificial times out there and teams have got to be careful that it is the same speed they see on tape."
Gilyard knows that a watch can lie. He knows that two of the more notorious 40s in Bengals history still yielded two of the team's greatest receivers.
"People don't realize this, but Chad Johnson ran real slow at the combine," Gilyard says. "But it's his quickness that separates him. And (T.J.) Houshmandzadeh proved you don't have to be a burner to be a 100-catch guy."
Bratkowski saw Johnson (now Ochocinco) implode in Indianapolis at his first combine as the Bengals offensive coordinator. But a month before at the Senior Bowl in his last act with the Steelers, Bratkowski coached The Ocho that week and paid no mind to the time because he saw his lightning quickness off the line.
"He couldn't have had a worse 40," Bratkowski says. "The Judges on Dancing With The Stars would have given him a very low grade."
And Gilyard knows the other side of the scales.
"Ted Ginn is a burner down in Miami, but he hasn't had that big of a career," Gilyard says. "I'm not saying he's a bad player, but speed is what got him (picked ninth overall). And a guy like Darrius Heyward-Bey was the fastest guy last year and it hasn't happened for him yet. (The 40) has made millionaires. But I'm confident in my ability to make big plays and that's what you have to believe in."
Yes, it all seems to get back to tape.
"To me, it's all about the matchups in college," says NFL Network's Mike Lombardi, a former NFL exec. "If a guy looks fast on tape, who is he playing against? Is he getting separation against guys that can play in this league, or against good teams? You have to balance it. Play speed against the 40. It's the same thing with the bench press and play strength. How many times do you hit somebody lying on your back?"
Mike Brown has been watching guys run 40s (and 50s) since the '40s and he believes the watch can be a valuable tool. But he also knows it can fool you. Wide receiver Carl Pickens was positively glacial, but he had some Pro Bowl seasons. Rudi Johnson's time dropped him to the fourth round, "but he was a solid NFL running back," Brown said.
And Brown has seen his share of track guys. The most famous one the Bengals ever had was Olympic sprinter Tommie Smith.
"Over 100 yards, he would be the fastest guy on his team; certainly over 200 yards," Brown says. "But over 40 yards we would have had guys just as fast when he was playing. He would have been up there, but there would have been other guys.
"Let's face it. If it was just speed, we'd be going to the track to get players. I think (the 40) can help you when you take into consideration size along with speed. There are certain ratios that just don't usually pan out in the NFL."
One former NFL general manager recalls the best line he ever heard about the 40. It was at a combine about 20 years ago and his running backs coach asked a prospect, "What do you run the 40 in?"
And the kid answered, "In my tennis shoes."
Well, they don't run them in their tennis shoes any more. But it sounds like there are still plenty of old-school sneakers out there outrunning the modern hype. More like Paul Brown's tiebreaker than a headline deal-breaker.