The 40-yard dash can be very exciting. People love to watch speed and players can create exciting, near-mythical stories with displays of athleticism that will follow them beyond their careers.
From Calvin Johnson’s 4.35-second 40-yard dash in someone else's shoes to Deion Sanders’ running 4.27-seconds and leaving the building because he had done enough are fantastic stories, but they really only proved what everyone already knew—they were really fast players.
The 40-yard dash has been the highlight of NFL Combine coverage for the last several decades, but its value has been steadily decreasing in front offices across the NFL, and that includes the Detroit Lions now that Brad Holmes is the general manager.
Holmes comes from the Los Angeles Rams organization, and they have leaned on different methods to determine a player’s speed. First, they use the eye test. Does a player play fast during the game when they are scouting his film? Then, they will lean on newer pieces of technology, like GPS tracking data, to help expand their evaluation.
Some larger schools have begun placing GPS chips in the shoulder pads of players so that they can determine their top speeds during games and that trend of tracking data is becoming a popular trend for NFL evaluators.
We’re about 2-3 years away from personnel departments not caring about 40 times. The game GPS data is going to replace it. Who cares what he ran in the 40, I know exactly how fast he ran in game conditions & I have 5 years of data for context.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) February 27, 2021
The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue wrote a terrific piece on how the Rams used these methods/technologies to scout and draft safety Jordan Fuller late in the sixth round, who started for them as a rookie last season.
“The Rams view the 40-yard dash a little different than most teams,” Rodrigue said. “Instead of making it a major qualifying factor for a prospect, they consider it to be a cognitive bias—an untruth that, because of its recency in the mind and the splashy marketing around the run as an event, needs to be unpacked from the mind as a deciding factor in prospect evaluation.”
Rodrigue talked with Holmes about this topic and he explained it in more detail:
“That coherent-seeking part of our brains, it will value that piece of information so highly that it will trump the logic that you could combat that information with, like a 40 time. Then you back that up with recency bias because that’s like, the last thing you saw (from him). When you look back at it, it’s like, ‘What really holds more weight? The real evidence that you saw with your own eyes? Plus the elite intangibles and intelligence that he has? Or that number that he produced at the combine, (which doesn’t involve) playing football?’”
On Tuesday, Holmes spoke with the Detroit media about the 40-yard dash and once again he questioned its relatability to actual football situations.
“Is it relatable and does it transfer to actually playing football?” Holmes asked. “Running in a straight line without anybody around you and preparing to run in a straight line in spandex and a t-shirt, how much is that relatable to football?”
While the 40-yard dash won't be as significant a benchmark as it has been in the past, it’s worth noting that Holmes isn’t disregarding it altogether. Instead, his approach to the 40-yard dash will be as a crosscheck to the other data he has collected, including GPS tracking and film study.
“From an analytical standpoint, that’s how I’ve always viewed the analytic game period, is that the analytics can really be a piece to hold you accountable,” Holmes said. “If the data is telling you something that your eyes aren’t seeing, you shouldn’t be stubborn and say, ‘Well, let’s ignore that because my eyes are correct.’ Let’s actually look and see why the data is actually saying that versus what your eyes are seeing. I think the more that you dive into that, I think you’ll actually come up with the answer in terms of exactly what you’re asking for about speed, whether it be 40-yard dashes or GPS timing.
“At the end of the day, we’re looking at play speed in relatability to how fast a guy’s playing football.”
Keep this in mind on draft day, when the Lions draft a player with a below-average 40-yard dash. That time doesn’t necessarily mean the player is slow, but instead, maybe he’s just the right kind of fast.