I realize that may sound slightly sarcastic, and you're right, but don't be fooled... I love the Combine. I love coaching athletes through this process, but I don't particularly like watching it. It is fairly boring as far as the testing goes compared to actual football, but the real reason I find it hard to watch is it could be conducted with much higher accuracy. Let me elaborate...
For the past 5 years the NFL has conducted the 40 yard dash with a fully automated timing system which removes all human error. This is similar to the process that Track & Field uses for their track events with the only exception being the NFL doesn't start using a gun. The problem is the NFL hasn't implemented this timing system. They are still using it as part of a "trial period". They currently use a hybrid system with a hand held start (a person actually starts the time on the athlete's movement) and an electronic finish (sensor stops the clock when the athlete crosses the finish line). Most likely, this process is still used because it allows current times to be compared to times from previous years. But not before 2008 when the current hybrid timing system was implemented. Chris Johnson has the official combine record for the 40 yard dash at 4.24s, which he set in the 2008 NFL Combine. But many will claim that Dion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Darrell Green have the fastest 40s ever. Sanders has the only "official" time (I'll use the term loosely) as his was recorded at the 1989 combine, but it was hand timed on both ends and is not considered a combine record because of how the timing was conducted. He was recorded as running a 4.20.
And as far as accuracy is concerned it is still a flawed system. Now that the NFL Network is broadcasting the Combine they provide plenty of examples. Below is a video from the 2013 NFL Combine. In the video Marquise Goodwin and Tavon Austin both run 4.25s 40's, "unofficially". The interesting point is since 2013 the NFL Network has created a "Simulcast" where they superimpose the video of two different athletes running the 40 simultaneously. In the video it is safe to say that Goodwin finishes "inches" ahead of Austin. The interesting fact is their recorded "official" combine results were: Goodwin 4.27 & Austin 4.34.
It often comes up that some of these NFL players could beat world class sprinters in a 40. There was even a Sports Science episode on ESPN that stated that Chris Johnson would have been ahead of Usain Bolt when he set the 100m World Record.
So lets break it down. We will have to make some exceptions during this comparison. Lets list them out and determine who has the advantage:
- Shoes- Track spikes vs. football cleats (slight advantage track)
- Surface- Rubberized or Mondo track vs. field turf (advantage track)
- Starting blocks- Track has them, combine does not (advantage track)
- Training program- Track trains for a longer race, Football trains for the 40 (advantage football)
- Timing System- F.A.T (fully automated timing) track vs. Hand Timed (Pro Days) or Hybrid (NFL Combine) (advantage football)
So in order to extrapolate the 100m times using a F.A.T. system to an estimated 40 yard time we need to do three things:
1) not count the Reaction Time (RT); FAT starts on the gun
2) estimate the 6.57m split from the 30-40m split (40 yards = 36.57m)
3) Use research from the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) when comparing FAT vs. Hand timed (HT)
Those first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the third one often generates some debate. There have been countless studies done on the comparison between F.A.T timing and Hand timing and the general consensus is hand times are .20 to .26 less than those using a F.A.T system. In the table below I subtracted .20 when completing the table.
So I know what the naysayers are thinking, the NFL combine is not completely hand timed. And that is a true statement, but one only has to scroll up and re watch the Goodwin/Austin video to realize that there is a large amount of human error. In 2003 I watched the majority of the NFL Network Combine footage as I had an athlete , Blidi Wreh-Wilson, competing in Indianapolis that year and there were a few instances where the simulcast showed athletes with slower "official" times in front of athletes with faster "official" times. When it comes down to it if you have human error as part of your timing system you will always leave room for debate.
And next I have a table that will take that to the next level... what if that human error comes from a high school football coach?
Below is a list of top 200 athletes from the 2014 NFL Combine comparing their 40 yard dash times to the 40 times that were recorded from top recruiting sites for the same athletes coming out of high school. At first glance one could assume that college football makes you slower, as 150 of the 200 got slower after college. You could say that they all got bigger in college and that could account for slower times. Although that is not necessarily true as a large majority of these athletes went to big time college programs and they come out of high school physical freaks. My own case was that I graduated high school weighing 305 and five years later I finished my playing career at 303. My personal opinion on this issue is that all recruiting combines and camps use hand times, some were probably hand timed 40s that were timed by the athlete's high school football coach.