QUOTE: “It is by presence of mind in untried emergencies that the native metal of a man is tested.” -- Abraham Lincoln
The question most often asked at the NFL Combine this week will be, “What did you run?” No other event will generate more interest than the 40-yard dash. Paul Brown, the great Browns coach and Bengals founder, never could have imagined that the test he invented would become so significant and vital in evaluating potential NFL players. But does the 40 really matter? Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith both will enter the Hall of Fame this year, yet their 40 times were not Hall of Fame-worthy. So is this test the real deal when evaluating prospects? For example, have you ever heard of Greg Richardson from Alabama? He ran 4.26 and 4.28 in 1987 and was drafted in the sixth round by the Colts, but he never played for them and bounced around the league, spending just two years in the NFL.
For every Deion Sanders or Rod Woodson, there are many players who can run fast in a straight line but are not football players. In evaluating, there has to be a balance between 40 times and the actual playing of the game. When I worked at the Hotel, the 40 times dictated the level of interest we had in a prospect. Everyone in the building knew that if a guy ran extremely fast and had size, he would become a favorite of the owner. But running extremely fast for the league might not be fast for the Raiders. When the combine is over, the Raiders will add .04 to each player’s 40 time. For example, on all the Raiders’ combine sheets, the name Greg Richardson would appear, but instead of his time reading 4.26, his Raider 40 would actually become 4.30. That slight change can mean the difference between a player being a potential draft pick and not being noticed. At the Raiders, the man who controls the 40 times controls the draft. And trust me, there’s manipulation of those times based on the interests of the scouts, not the coaches.
Starting this week, prospects will start running 40s to help their draft status. Some will run at the combine, some will run at their schools, some will run on grass, some will run on turf and some will run on a track. With all these times, which one do you use as the official time of the player? For me, I converted the times to grass, but if a player ran his best time at the combine, that would be his best time. The combine is a tough setting to run, so if a player ran fast there, that was his time — it became like a grass time. Any other turf times had to be converted to grass because turf runners are faster than grass runners and there has to be a level playing field for the 40. But each turf is different than the combine, and there has to be a way to actually convert the time, besides the random .04 added to the time. For example, over the years Florida State might have 10 players who have run at the combine and at the school. The variance of those times from surface to surface would be the number used in the conversion. So it was vital that we kept precise records of each school time as it related to the combine and loved players who ran 40s at both venues.
But what do you do with a player who has no data from his school to support the conversion and did not run at the combine? This is the hardest question to answer regarding the 40, and hopefully, the scout runs the player on a grass field. If not, then the time must be converted using .08, which is the universal conversion time from turf to grass.
With all these conversion times, the real determining factor lies in the playing of the game. Playing speed is as vital as any 40 time, and often times good players play fast because they know how to play the game. Running a 40 without pads is great, but playing fast with pads on is what makes an NFL player. Terrell Suggs was a great pass rusher at Arizona State, but he never ran a good 40 time, which made many teams skeptical of his ability to translate his rushing skills to the NFL.
I remember working for the 49ers in 1986 when a pass-rushing specialist named Tim Harris from Memphis State could not run a 40 below 5.0. We were in search of a pass rusher and loved the way Harris played, but we worried that he was not going to be able to translate his skills to the NFL. Harris had enough skills to beat the tackles he faced, but Memphis was not the SEC, so he had to be projected to the next level and with a bad 40 time that made it difficult. I raked some serious frequent-flier miles going to Memphis that year but could never get Harris to run faster than 5.10 on grass, which made us pass on him and select Charles Haley instead. It worked out well, but Harris was a great pro and eventually ended up playing for the 49ers. The moral of this story is very simple: Trust your eyes from watching tape, not the 40 time.
So once the combine begins, teams must always think about game speed -- not necessarily the track events on the field.
Follow me on Twitter: michaelombardi
The best way to follow the combine and events leading up to the draft is to check out the NFP’s new draft page, which provides everything you need to know, from prospect rankings to grading scales.
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