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Steelers NFL Draft 2001: The fuss over 40

Sprint measures players' position for scouts, GMs

Friday, April 20, 2001

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Turning the big 4-0 can signal the end of a football player's career. It has nothing to do with age, yet everything to do with time.

(Illustration by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

Long before a player turns 40 years old, he must take his turn at the 40-yard dash. How fast he runs it can go a long way in determining how high he's drafted, which can go a long way in determining his career.

Nothing a college football player does outside his performance on the field is more important than getting timed in the 40-yard dash by NFL scouts. Sometimes, it can be even more important.

The order in which many players will be drafted tomorrow and Sunday is determined, in some part, by their 40 times.

"Regardless what the scouts say, it means the world," said longtime attorney and sports agent Ralph Cindrich of Mt. Lebanon. "When you have a player coming in with exceptional 40 times, as you get close to the draft, his value goes off the charts."

Cindrich represented the late Tim Hall, a running back at Robert Morris College, in 1996. Hall was getting little attention from the NFL until he ran the 40 for a large group of scouts who were timing players from Pitt. He was timed at 4.32 second, exceptionally fast for a back.

"The scouts were looking at their clocks in disbelief," Cindrich said. "He ended up being a sixth-round draft choice based solely on the way he ran."

It's not just the little-known players, either.

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth became Steelers because of the diligence of scouts to get decent 40 times in 1974. Neither was considered fast for a wide receiver, but today their 4.6 times might put them in the middle of the draft or maybe not at all.

Coach Chuck Noll liked everything about Swann except the 4.7 times.

"Coach Noll was right," said Art Rooney Jr., then the Steelers' player personnel director. "He said the guy can't run. He really liked him and he said, 'Get a good time.' "

 
 

Draft Forecast
Get a look around the corner with Ed Bouchette's review of the top NFL draft prospects in the weekend ahead.


Draft Details

What: 66th annual National Football League player selection meeting.

Where: The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

When: Noon tomorrow (rounds 1-3), 11 a.m. Sunday (rounds 4-7).

The first three rounds will conclude tomorrow by 10 p.m. In 2000, the first round took five hours and 30 minutes, the second two hours and 52 minutes, the third one hour and 33 minutes.

The Sunday rounds will conclude at approximately 5 p.m.

Drafting: Representatives of the 31 NFL clubs by telephone communication with their general managers, coaches and scouts.

Rounds: There wil be 246 seletions, including 31 compensatory choices that have been awarded to teams that lost a certain quality of free agent last year.

The following compensatory choices will supplement the 215 regular choices: Round 3: Dallas 31, Jacksonville 32, Buffalo 33; Round 4: Seattle 32, Seattle 33, St. Louis 34, Minnesota 35; Minnesota 36; Round 5: New York Giants 31, New England, 32; Round 6: Buffalo 32, Buffalo 33, St. Louis 34, Green Bay 35, Tennessee 36, New England 37; Round 7: Tennessee 32, Jacksonville 33, Tampa Bay 34, Jacksonville 35, Atlanta 36, Seattle 37, Buffalo 38, New England 39, Dallas, 40, Jacksonville 41, Dallas 42, Kansas City 43, San Diego 44, Cleveland 45, Arizona 46.

Time Limits: Each team has 15 minutes for first-round selections, 10 minutes for second-round selections and five minutes for each subsequent selection.

TV: ESPN will television the draft tomorrow from noon to 7 p.m. ESPN2 will television the rest of the draft tomorrow. ESPN will televise Sunday's selections from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with ESPN2 carrying the rest of the selections.

Draft Online: The NFL and ESPN have a special Internet site for the draft. It can be accessed through www.nfl.com or ESPN.go.com. The Post-Gazette will follow Steelers selections at www.post-gazette.com.

   
 

So Rooney arranged to time Swann on the West Coast. Swann ran a 4.55. That was good enough for Noll.

Stallworth, too, did not run particularly fast when timed on the grass field at Alabama A&M. Scout Bill Nunn took his stopwatch and went back down to time him in a different spot.

"I took him to another field near the school," Nunn said. "I got him in 4.58, 4.6, 4.62."

Nunn convinced Noll that Stallworth would last until the fourth round because other scouts had times above 4.7 on him.

"Conditions are a very key part to it," said Nunn, who still scouts on a part-time basis for the Steelers. "It depends on the day. If you run a guy when there's a lot of moisture in the air, he won't run as fast. When it's windy, you run them with the wind and against it, then you try to average it. There's also track time and grass time."

Why 40 yards?

Like many of the game's other innovative ideas, timing players in the 40 was the brainchild of the late Paul Brown. He began doing it in the late 1940s with Cleveland Browns players in training camp, in full uniform.

"He determined that for football purposes 40 yards was the best measurement for football speed," said his son, Mike Brown, president and general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals. "It began to become accepted. Before long, everyone was doing it."

How effective, though, is the 40 in determining how good a player can be? Taken by itself, most football people say, it doesn't. It's just another tool used to assess players.

"It's a barometer," said Ken Herock, the Packers' vice president of personnel. "You're always concerned with size and speed. But you want to see how a player plays on tape. He can run a 4.2, but if he can't play it doesn't matter, he can't play. But if you have two receivers and they're close in all the other parameters and one guy runs a 4.43 and the other a 4.76, you will lower the slower guy. That's where it comes into play."

Nunn has been scouting for more than 30 years, and while he knows a 40 time is important, he also knows more goes into playing speed than a run against a stopwatch.

"The 40 time is just straight speed, and straight speed is one thing, but in football you seldom just run straight," Nunn said. "To me, there's a difference between quickness and 40 speed and how you come out of cuts. Some of the greatest receivers you had didn't have great speed -- Jerry Rice, Lynn Swann, Steve Largent. They were not 4.4 guys."

Cornerback Willie Middlebrooks of Minnesota is a good example in this year's draft. He ran under 4.0 and has flashed to near the top of the list at his position by many teams. However, he's not held in such high regard by the Steelers because they believe that, while he has great straight-ahead speed, he does not use it well.

"Dwight Stone ran his butt off, right?" Nunn said of the former Steelers wide receiver. "Speed was not his problem, know what I'm saying? Bob Hayes never ran a 4.3 and he held the 100-yard record. Bob Hayes was picking up speed after the 40.

"There's competitive speed. If you're chasing a guy like Franco Harris, very seldom was he caught from behind. He had competitive speed."

Nunn also believes Paul Brown had the right idea 50 years ago.

"When you run the 40, you're running in your underwear," Nunn said. "What about when you put the uniform on? You never time a guy in uniform, but some guys carry pads better than other guys."

And some guys cheat. Swann was known for leaning at the start of the 40 to get momentum, which might be why they got a better time on him. Some, such as Frenchy Fuqua, would try to get a rolling start. Some even shortened the track, with the help of their own schools.

One spring, Herock and another scout, Jack Bushofsky, went to Indiana University to time players. The Hoosiers coaches gave them sheets with the 40 times they had clocked for their players.

"I said, 'Man, they must have the fastest team in the nation. This is really a fast football team,'" Herock said

He and Bushofsky went to the timing area of the track, already marked off. They pulled out their tape measures to check it, and the distance came up a little short.

"It was 38 1/2 yards," Herock said. "I said, 'Jack, I can't believe this. We had good times on those seniors.' We moved the starting line a yard and a half up and put down a white strip of tape. A couple of kids came down and said, 'What are you guys doing? We're going to run the 40.' I said, 'Yeah, you're going to run the 40 now, not the 38 1/2.'

"You have to make sure you carry your tape measure."

Getting an edge

Times have been lowered through the years through means other than cheating. Players have learned to get off to better starts, they have better shoes and run on faster surfaces. They also train for the 40. An entire cottage industry has sprouted to prepare players not only to run the 40, but also to do all the other drills -- such as the shuttles and the vertical leaps -- that are tested at the NFL scouting combine each February in Indianapolis.

A sports agency, SFX, sent their clients to the UPMC Sports Performance Center this year. Cindrich sends some clients to speed trainer Tom Shaw in New Orleans. Another top football agent, Eric Metz, a Monroeville native, has long had his players train with a specialist near his agency in Phoenix.

Metz represented Lamar King, a defensive end from tiny Saginaw Valley State, in 1999. King left his second Senior Bowl practice with a hamstring strain and did nothing the rest of the week. No one projected him as a first-round pick. But he went to Phoenix for five weeks "to do nothing but run the 40," Metz said.

He ran a blistering (for his position) 4.72 for 22 NFL scouts during his workout. Seattle drafted him with the 22nd pick in the first round.

"But it's just one criteria of who goes in the first round," Metz said. "If Lamar King didn't have good film and 17 sacks, he could run a 4.6 and it wouldn't matter."

Most of the top players, such as King, now have their own workouts or several from the same school will have them together. Many players skip the 40-yard timing at the combine for many reasons, including the practical.

"College kids are not used to waking up at 6 in the morning," Metz explained of the Indianapolis routine. "They've been up all night, nervous, and had their knees and ankles tugged on by trainers. It's virtually impossible to run a good 40 at the combine because the odds are stacked against you."

The 40 is vastly more important for receivers and defensive backs than it is for linemen.

"When we're looking at an offensive lineman the 40 isn't going to make or break him," Herock said. "You want to look more at their times in the 10 and 20."

Science of timing

Herock, a Munhall native, wasn't timed before he left West Virginia University as a tight end, but the Raiders timed him as a rookie in 1963.

That's around the time Art Rooney Jr. got involved in scouting. The technique for timing in the 40 did not begin and end with the player. The scouts had to know how to do it, too.

Besides making sure the test is 40 yards long, they have to know how to click the stopwatch on and off.

"You'd instruct your guys to concentrate, to use the index finger and not the thumb to push down on the stopwatch because you have more dexterity," Rooney said. "Some guys will shield their eyes from peripheral vision by using a board."

It also can be dangerous for the scouts.

"One time, a Dallas scout got down on one knee close to the finish," Rooney said. "The kid ran right over him and knocked him over.

"There are arguments, fights as guys try not to get crowded out."

Steve Fedell, a former Pitt player who scouted for the Steelers briefly when an injury prevented him from playing in the pros, once arrived late for a player's 40 timing. Another scout offered him his time, but Fedell wouldn't take it. The player's college coach gave it to him and it was much faster than the other scout's.

"Evidently, the other scout was lying to him," Rooney said. "Steve grabbed him and threw him against the wall and let him know what he thought."

Dwight Stone was reputed to have run the 40 under 4.2, but scouts universally laugh at such times.

"If I timed a guy at 4.3, I think I missed him," Nunn said. "It usually happens if a guy gets off and you didn't hit him at the right time."

Analysis of times

A time of 4.4 is generally considered fast for wide receivers or defensive backs, a 4.5 for smaller running backs or 4.6 for bigger ones (Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris both ran 4.7 coming out of college). It goes up as the position/size of the player changes. Linemen can run in the low 5-second range and be considered fast enough.

"Offensive linemen in the old days were playing a different event," Mike Brown said. "They had to run a 4.8 to be considered acceptable; they only weighed 250. Today, if one of them breaks 5-flat, it's a news event. They're all over 300 pounds."

Speed, though, can be seductive. In 1990, Fresno State defensive back James Williams ran a 4.3 and vastly improved his standing. Buffalo drafted him with the 16th pick. Halfback Emmitt Smith, who ran a 4.6, was drafted 17th by Dallas. Williams played six unremarkable years for three teams. Smith could become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

Hines Ward, the Steelers' leading receiver the past two seasons with 109 receptions, was clocked at 4.55 coming out of Georgia in 1998. He was a third-round draft choice who might have gone a round sooner with a faster time.

"I think there's a big emphasis on it," Ward said. "Personally, I don't think the 40 time is as important. You run a certain speed but then put the pads and everything on and you can get a slow guy who runs good routes to blow past a faster cornerback with poor technique."

The unpopular truth, though, for guys such as Ward is that a cornerback likely was drafted higher and makes more money because he ran faster in the 40 before he was drafted.


Ed Bouchette's NFL Draft Forecast

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