The Difficulty of Judging Football Speed

A common refrain among experienced coaches, scouts, and personnel managers is that football players rarely run untouched in a straight line for 40 yards. I’m not knocking the 40-yard dash as a combine activity — only attempting to place a proper frame around the evaluation tool when the media and fans magnify its importance.

Whether using a stopwatch for game film, judging football speed can be a difficult endeavor. Beyond the likes of Deion Sanders, Randy Moss, Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Chris Johnson, and Dri Archer, most football players lack blazing speed by NFL standards. Some players don’t have great speed beyond a shorter area of the field, but the precision of their technique for their position combined with a fast mind for processing decisions makes them faster than their peers who don’t possess the same conceptual and technical acumen for the game.

When it comes to evaluating speed on the field, sometimes fans and analysts pass judgment on a player without examining the proper context of the play they’re watching. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is a good example. I’m studying the Nebraska senior’s game to kick off another season of my Futures column at Football Outsiders as well as continue my research for the 2015 RSP. Although I don’t know how others have judged Abdullah’s speed within the canon of running backs in the 2015 draft class (Abdullah’s speed is not the point of this article), the play I’m sharing today illustrates how people can get speed wrong because they don’t account for context.

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4 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2014, 2:04pm

#1 by Mikey Benny // Aug 25, 2014 - 11:45am

Great article, Matt.

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#2 by JonFrum // Aug 25, 2014 - 1:46pm

Presumably, you don't judge speed on a single play. If I see a receiver consistently pull away from defensive backs when they start shoulder to shoulder, I figure he's probably pretty fast. When I see a receiver getting caught from behind by bigger guys when he's unhindered, I figure he's probably not very fast.

The sentence in the caption under the photo at the top needs some tender loving care.

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#4 by Thomas_beardown // Aug 26, 2014 - 2:04pm

The problem with scouting college is that the speed and quality of defenders is so variable. At some point you need hard numbers about how fast they can run to put what you're seeing into context.

Someone like Johnny Knox, former receiver for the Bears, was blowing past 2nd level defenders in college, but that doesn't really mean anything because he could have run a 4.6-4.7 and probably have still done that. When he had the low 40 time, you know ok, he actually is fast.

Points: 0

#3 by justanothersteve // Aug 26, 2014 - 1:00pm

Excellent analysis. Completely agree that context for speed is important which is my main issue with 40 times. It isn't the running in a straight line, it's that no players run on a football field wearing gym shorts and track shoes.

Points: 0

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