Why do NFL rookies run the 40-yard dash?

The NFL's most famous standard of speed measurement has its roots in 19th century America.

John Ross
John Ross during his record-setting 40-yard dash at the NFL rookie combine on Saturday. Ross ran the distance in 4.22 seconds. –Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With a single 40-yard dash, John Ross’ time of 4.22 seconds sent shockwaves rippling around the NFL this past weekend. Shaving a mere two one hundredths of a second off of Chris Johnson’s famous 2008 time, Ross catapulted himself into the rarified air of one of the NFL’s strangest, yet most coveted records. He became the new king of the 40 time.

The circumstances of his newfound fame defied logic in a way, given that Ross–a 22-year-old who has yet to play a down in professional football–did his run without pads, or defenders or even a football. But such is the mystique of the rookie combine’s signature event that it commanded attention despite making (by itself) zero impact in a football game.

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The fixation with the 40-yard dash is a phenomenon in the NFL. After all, Adidas wasn’t planning to give away an island to a record-breaking performance in weightlifting or any other event at the combine. It was all about the 40:

Yet the heavy focus on the 40-yard dash is strangely isolated to the NFL. In international terms, it’s an unknown race. Obviously, the measurement of yards isn’t applicable in the International Association of Athletics Federations. And even in meters, 40 is not a usual distance that sprinters run.

Stretching decades into the past, the 40-yard dash actually has deep roots across the United States. Newspapers have reported on thousands of 40-yard sprints over the years, mostly from local town or school events at various levels.

According to Newspapers.com, the first New York Times reference to a 40-yard dash coincidentally came in April, the same month as the NFL draft. The only difference: it was 1885. The reference was a track and field competition between soldiers of the locally-based Eighth Regiment Athletic Association, and the 40-yard dash was won by a James Gillespie (whose winning time was clocked at five seconds).

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the 40 became tied to the NFL in a serious way. As America’s Game author Michael MacCambridge described, it was Paul Brown (coach of the Cleveland Browns) who first harnessed it:

Intent on building a fast team, he began timing players in the 40-yard dash, rather than the 100, reasoning that the 40 was a more meaningful measure of true football speed, about the distance a player would cover on a punt.

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Football scout and executive Gil Brandt, working for the Dallas Cowboys, helped to make it the NFL’s central measurement of speed among rookie evaluations during the 1960s and onward.

“It’s a universal way of doing things,” Brandt told Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones in an interview. “It’s like zip codes and postal mailings and area codes. It’s a part of life.”

Interestingly, despite starting the trend, Paul Brown was not nearly as wedded to it as might have been thought. In his book, Building a Champion, legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh (who had been an assistant under Brown in Cincinnati) dismissed the dogmatic obsession of the 40 by citing Brown himself:

We tried to evaluate players on how they functioned on the field, not on whether they matched some arbitrary standard. We had our own criteria and didn’t worry about others’. Much of that philosophy could be traced back to my own experience. For years, Paul Brown never gave much credence to artificial tests.

Walsh also dismissed the Cowboys’ methodology, believing that most of the credit in those years belonged to his Hall of Fame counterpart, Tom Landry:

A lot of self-promotion emanated from the Cowboys’ personnel department about their superior scouting system and draft decisions. Whenever a free agent made the team, it would be credited to scouting, not coaching.

I believe the major reason for their success was a great job of coaching by Tom Landry and his staff.

Given that Jerry Rice ran a comparatively slow 40 (4.59), Walsh was vindicated in many respects. The 40, despite its fame, is far from every NFL team’s specified measurement for success. Former Raiders owner Al Davis obsessed over acquiring 40-yard dash superstars, with mixed results.

And as Bill Belichick’s Patriots aren’t composed of too many combine superstars, it’s safe to say that he too has his doubts about the importance of the NFL’s 40 phenomenon.

One final note: John Ross sadly didn’t win an island despite breaking the official 40 record. As was pointed out almost immediately, he was not wearing the requisite Adidas shoes.

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