Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About the Forty

Published on: February 24, 2012 | Written by: Clay Travis

I spent three months training for the NFL Combine alongside future NFL draft picks like Peyton Hillis of the Cleveland Browns, Jason Jones of the Tennessee Titans, and Brad Cottam of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 and I learned everything a non-athlete could possibly know about the forty. 

Here's my tutorial for y'all. 

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The forty is the single most important measurement in American sports today and there isn’t a close second. Current players know it, fans know it, and would-be draftees know it. I’ve seen future NFL players turn from making fun of one another to expressions of grave seriousness in less than a second when they realize they’re about to run a timed forty. There’s something about staring down that expanse of eight five-yard intervals that gives even the best athletes today pause. The forty is equal parts silent explosion, weighty lightness and organized anarchy.  Basically if Charles Dickens were writing today, he’d include it in the opening to "A Tale of Two Cities" because in its few seconds’ wake lies the totality of gridiron life.

Each year the forty becomes more important and more widely discussed. Partly that’s because the Internet has allowed the NFL Draft to become an actual sport in and of itself but it’s also because there’s something about these raw measurements of athleticism that speak to us in a way that baseball projections or basketball projections don’t. If you’re a fan of baseball, you might know how hard a pitcher your team drafts can throw. What else do you know about the draftee in terms of raw athleticism? You might know his high school stats or his college stats, but how fast is he, how strong is he? These numbers might be out there but they don’t capture us like the numbers in football do. It’s the same with basketball-- the NBA has its own combine but other than an occasional vertical jump what do you hear of these results? Hardly anything. But the NFL Combine? We all hear how players do at the NFL Combine.

And what measured skill do we hear about more than any other? The forty.

I’d argue this is because of all the NFL skill tests anyone can attempt the forty. Even if most of us never actually try it. There’s a simplicity to the forty that appeals to us. Most people can’t benchpress 225 pounds even once. It’s hard to approximate what making a catch and getting hit in an NFL game actually feels like. The three cone drill? 99% of football fans couldn’t even set up the three cones correctly. The pro shuttle? Same thing. But the forty, we understand the forty.

Yet for a measurement that we all care about there’s a striking lack of knowledge out there about the forty itself. That’s how you and I manage to have an incredibly overinflated sense of what we would run in the forty. Everyone thinks they're faster thant they actually are. My friend, and stellar Atlanta attorney, John Ducat refused to believe he wouldn’t break a 5.0 in the forty. Even going so far as to say, “I would bet my house that I can run a sub 5.0 forty. I’m not slow.” I told him then that if I accepted his bet his wife Heather would arrive home to find me sitting in the living room with my feet propped up on their ottoman with the deed to their house. Which wouldn’t make her very happy.

That’s because we rarely see any football player voluntarily admit to running over a 5.0 forty because doing so means they’re slow. Speed is king. Most football players would sooner admit that they have herpes than admit that they run outside the 4’s. So fans have come to believe they must run in the 4’s too. You’re wrong, you don’t. A 5.0 forty time is actually fast for your average guy. I’ll put it to you this way, if you wanted to make a second career out of betting guys at bars that they couldn’t break a 5.0 forty you could become a forty hustler. You roll into the bar, challenge them, have an official timekeeper and then collect your money. Trust me, breaking a 5.0 in the forty means you’re very fast.

To prove this fact we set up a forty challenge with our 3HL radio show here in Nashville. Dozens showed up to be timed.

One guy broke a 5.0.

One.

Every single person thought they were going to.

Many didn't even break a 6.0.

That’s just one of many things I’ve learned about the forty while training alongside some of the top college athletes in America for the NFL Combine. (Note, I did this in 2008 and a version of this column ran on CBS then). 

Here are 13 other things:

1. Every kid in high school has an inflated forty time. Every single one. Every coach steals time for their kids and it’s always to the kids advantage.

I read about this in Bruce Feldman’s "Meat Market" where every college coach insisted on timing kids at their football camps to assure accuracy because they didn’t trust the provided times. This has been reiterated for me a thousand-fold since. According to the head trainer for the NFL Combine at D1 Sports, Kurt Hester, “High school coaches are liars. They tell a kid he runs a 4.5 and the kid believes them because they’re the coach. Then they show up at a camp and we get them and they’re barely breaking a 5.0. These kids may look like they’re running a 4.5 on tape but it’s because the other guys they’re playing against are running 5.5’s.” 
 

2. Stealing time in the forty with a stopwatch is easy.

Start a stopwatch just a fraction of a second after the start and finish it just a fraction of a second before a kid truly reaches the finish line and you can manipulate a couple of tenths of a second on either side. That might not sound like much but it’s huge. The difference between a legit 4.5 and a legit 5.0 is seismic. With a stopwatch it can seem infinitesimal.

The same is true of a laser timed forty vs. a hand timed forty. A laser forty is going to be at least .15 slower than a hand-timed forty. Potentially more. 

That's a seismic difference.   
 

3. College strength coaches are not much better about timing their athletes than high school coaches.

Says one of our trainers, “Look, strength coaches get paid by making guys look faster and stronger than they actually are. They want measurable differences so they can show the head coaches and say, ‘Look how much faster and stronger I’m making your players.’ They need measurable improvement and most coaches buy it. Lots of players buy it too. Then they start training for the combine and we start timing them and they say we’re wrong. But we’re not. They’ve just been lied to for so long about their times that they believe it.”


4. Surface matters.

There are fast surfaces and there are slow surfaces for the forty. It’s generally acknowledged that a track time is going to be the fastest. That a particularly soft grass field or a spongy astroturf (where the foot pushes through and sinks into the ground and doesn’t explode back up) is going to be the worst. But there are a ton of variations throughout. The NFL combine surface was considered particularly tough (and slow) up until a few years ago. It was why many players chose not to run there and elected to run at their pro days instead. Since that time the NFL has modified their surface and more top players have begun to run at the NFL Combine.
 

5. The start is the most important part of the forty.

By far.

Most players who are training seriously for the NFL are fast. Once they get moving they’re going to eat up the final 20 yards of the forty. But the first 10 yards? That’s where the money is made. And it’s all about explosion. The image I’ve latched on to thanks to my Civil War obsession is that of a cannonball firing out of a cannon. You have to picture yourself as the cannonball and come flying out at full speed. Of course I never come out that fast but my start has become the best part of my forty. I just have no speed afterwards.
 

6. The most important part of the 40 start is the first step.

And that first step needs to explode out as far as you can possibly get it to go. This sounds basic, but it’s difficult to master. Even for great athletes. Part of the difficulty is that you need to come firing off both feet at the same time. The farther you cover with that first step the less ground you’ve got to cover thereafter. But you have to accomplish that stride without losing your balance or compromising your second step. So it’s a controlled explosion at the start. We all know how well oxymorons like controlled expression work in real life.  
 

7. The faster your arms move the faster your legs move.

I’ve played sports all my life and no one had ever told me this before. Either I’m an idiot and everyone else on earth already knew or an embarrassing number of coaches don’t know this.   
 

8. The slowest player on an NFL roster is almost assuredly faster than you are unless you’re a superb athlete.

I know it’s sort of fun to make fun of the lumbering lineman when he picks up a fumble and tries to run. The reality is that you would look worse, much worse than that lineman if you picked up a football and tried to run in an NFL game. Speed is relative. The NFL linemen look like they’re moving slowly because everyone around them is moving so much faster. You and I, my friend, are much slower. It’s not just the size in the NFL that’s astounding. It’s the size and speed combination.
 

9. Until you see this up close and personal you truly have no conception what this size and speed combination looks like.

One of my favorite quotes in this regard is from Carolina offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz who is 6’7 and weighs in the neighborhood of 335 pounds. “I’m really athletic for someone of my size…sort of.” I love the pause there. Do you know how many guys there are in America who are even capable of running at 6’7 and 335 pounds? Keeping in mind, for instance, that if you are 6’2 or taller you are taller than 98% of men in the world. The answer is very few. And no I’m not just writing this because Schwartz beat me deep for a touchdown on a pump and go route yesterday afternoon. This is made all the worse because the quarterback wasn’t Andre’ Woodson but Texas defensive tackle Frank Okam.
 

10. The forty is incredibly mental.

Here are a list of things that all of us who trained together are supposed to keep in mind as we line up in our three-point stance: put all your weight forward on your right hand so that you’d immediately tip over if you moved that hand, line up your right leg behind your left leg (ideally just at the back of the left foot which is lined up as close to the line as you can manage and still have the lean), tuck your chin into your chest and when you explode out of the start don’t raise your head up, cock your left hand up just above your back and fire it forward at the moment of your start, don’t flinch at all before you start because as soon as a flinch happens in your body they start the clocks, explode forward as far as you can with your first step and immediately commence pumping your arms as fast as you possibly can while striding as far as you possibly can. That’s all. And you only have to do it all at the exact time with millions of dollars relying on each element working perfectly. And the difference between a great time and a poor time is .2 seconds.

Good luck. 
 

11. Bama tackle Andre Smith, the fat dude pictured above, he'd dust you. 

I mean destroy you. 

If you still doubt it consider this, Arian Foster, the NFL's top running back ran a 4.69 at his pro day. That's why he didn't get drafted. 

Have you seen anyone catch him from behind in the NFL?

Okay, now consider this, if you think you can break a 5.0 that means if you lined up alongside Arian Foster that when he finished his forty yard dash, you'd be within three yards of him. That is, after forty yards of running you could still dive and make a tackle attempt on him. 

Or if you lined up out wide and covered him down the field, you'd be able to make a play on the ball in the air.

Face it, no you can't.

You don't have sub 5.0 speed.

Yeah, right.