- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Darnerien McCants was running for his life. His football life, that is.

On a cool spring morning a few weeks before the 2001 NFL Draft, McCants stood on a track at Delaware State University, preparing to run a 40-yard dash. Scouts from half a dozen pro teams including then-Washington Redskins receivers coach Richard Mann looked on, stopwatches in hand.

Easing his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame into a sprinter's crouch, McCants took a deep breath. Stay down, he told himself. Stay low.

"Being that I'm tall, that had a lot to do with my start," McCants said. "And those first 10 yards are probably the most important."

McCants had reason to sweat the other 30 yards, too. A fast time around 4.4 seconds likely would make him the first player drafted out of Division I-AA Delaware State in almost a decade.

Anything slower, on the other hand, would leave McCants out of luck. And probably in NFL Europe.

"Everybody thought I was slow, but I ended up running a pretty good time for my size," said McCants, who clocked a personal-best 4.41 and subsequently became Washington's fifth-round draft choice. "That's when the Redskins coaches picked me up. When I was coming out, they made it seem like the most important thing in the world."

For NFL Draft prospects, the 40-yard dash is just that. While football talent evaluators prize strength, skill and the ability to lay the other guy out, nothing captures their undivided attention and their undying affection quite like the promise of knee-buckling speed.

And nothing says speed like a track-scorching 40.

"It's a tried and true tenet of what it takes to play in the National Football League," former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf said. "The hype it gets is certainly deserved."

Dash for cash

In the blink of an eye, draft day fortunes rise and fall. A swift 40 4.4 seconds or below for corners, receivers and running backs, 4.6 for linebackers, 4.8 for defensive ends can be the difference between a first-round pick and third-round pick. Between a third-rounder and a seventh-rounder. Between getting a shot at the pros and finding another line of work.

Heading into the 2000 draft, then-Florida State receiver Laveranues Coles was considered an iffy prospect following an abbreviated senior season that saw him catch only 12 passes before an unauthorized discount he received on merchandise from a department store led to his dismissal from the Seminoles.

At an on-campus audition for pro scouts, however, Coles ran a speedy 4.37 even though an all-day rainstorm forced him to run indoors. On a wet floor. In soaked shoes.

Impressed, the New York Jets made Coles their third-round pick.

"You just want to do well on the [40] so bad," said Coles, now a Redskin. "It's your only chance to try and turn some heads."

Just ask Redskins running back Trung Canidate. Slightly undersized at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, the former University of Arizona star generally wasn't seen as first-round material in the 2000 draft.

But in the span of 4.25 seconds, he made St. Louis coach Mike Martz a believer.

"Nobody runs a 4.25," Martz gushed after watching Canidate run in an on-campus workout. "He just kind of took my breath away, to be honest."

The Rams, in turn, made Canidate their No. 1 selection somewhat surprising, given that the defending Super Bowl champions needed offensive linemen and already had MVP-caliber runner Marshall Faulk on their roster.

Nevertheless, the speedy Canidate cashed in, signing a five-year, $5.58 million contract.

"All I remember is a couple of scouts saying, 'cha-ching,' " Canidate said of his run, which scouts clocked in the 4.19 to 4.28 range. "Speed is one of my big attributes. And I wanted to make sure that was out there in stone."

Conversely, few numbers can sink a draftee's stock faster than a plodding 40. In 1985, then-Mississippi Valley State receiver Jerry Rice who would become the greatest pass catcher in league history was timed in the 4.6 range. Despite his unmatched hands and route-running acumen, he dropped to No. 16.

At the annual NFL scouting combine in February, highly touted Florida State receiver Anquan Boldin ran a 4.72, above the 4.7 that Redskins receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said is the bare minimum for an NFL receiver.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some mock draft boards now project Boldin as a second-to-third round pick … at best. Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. doesn't even list Boldin among his top-10 receiver prospects.

Then there's Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs, a speed rusher who amassed an NCAA-record 24 sacks last season and could go as high as No. 4 in this year's draft. During a campus workout for 31 of the NFL's 32 teams in March, Suggs ran a 4.8-range 40 far slower than the 4.6-4.7 most scouts expected.

Distraught, Suggs ran for scouts again last week. He failed to improve his time.

"Everyone walked away very disappointed, especially us way at the top," Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo told the Chicago Tribune after Suggs' first workout. "It probably knocked him down. It's going to hurt him."

Need for speed

With so much at stake, draft prospects prep for the 40 the way aspiring lawyers cram for the LSATs. Before the 2000 draft, Canidate trained with Arizona track coach Fred Harvey, who helped former Redskins returner Michael Bates capture a bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Likewise, Redskins receiver Rod Gardner worked with Clemson's track coaches, so much so that he said the 40 was "the only thing" on his mind between the final game of his college career and the day of his campus workout for pro scouts.

"That's all that matters," said Gardner, who was clocked in the 4.37-4.44 range and selected by Washington at No. 15 in 2001. "You need to get with [a coach] who understands what you have to work on. Some people can't start. Some people can't finish. Not everybody runs the 40 the same."

As such, NFL hopefuls increasingly are turning to specialized predraft speed clinics to lower their dash times. One of the best-known camps, the Florida-based International Performance Institute, offers personalized strength and speed training and counts first-round picks like San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson and Dallas safety Roy Williams among its alumni.

Howard cornerback Serge Sejour, a long-shot prospect in the upcoming draft, recently attended the New Jersey-based Parisi Speed School, where he worked with former NFL and Arena league player Scott Paltos.

By eliminating a hitch in his start, Sejour estimates he's shaved two-tenths of a second off his dash time, lowering it into the 4.4-4.5 range.

"You have to be precise," Sejour said. "You can be really fast, but if you step a little to the right or left, that's already two or three-tenths of a second off your time."

During a mass workout for local prospects at Redskin Park last month, Sejour left nothing to chance. While players from Maryland and Hampton ran 40s in practice jerseys and gym shorts, Sejour sprinted past Redskins owner Dan Snyder and coach Steve Spurrier wearing nothing but his skivvies.

And his running shoes, of course.

"I just felt like, hey, if this is my only chance, my only time to be here, I just want to make sure that there's no possible weight on me," Sejour said with a laugh.

Baltimore director of college scouting Eric DeCosta said that while he's never seen a prospect run in the buff a la the ancient Greek Olympians pre-40 stripdowns aren't uncommon.

"That's basically the track mentality," he said. "Any type of wind resistance can slow you down slightly. If you're out there running in sweat pants and a sweat shirt, that will slow you down a bit. And the difference between a 4.45 and a 4.55 at the cornerback position is huge."

Magic number?

Is it ever. On the average "go" route a straight-ahead run up the field 1/10 of a second gives the pass-catcher a step on his defender. Two-tenths of a second means the receiver is wide open.

Which can also mean six points, assuming the pass is on target.

"If you're a defensive back and you run 5.0 flat and all the receivers you're playing against run 4.4, you're out of luck," Redskins pro personnel director Vinny Cerrato said. "At certain positions, [a fast 40] is almost a necessity."

That said, does the 40 really provide an accurate measure of football speed? Short answer: It depends. Long answer: It really depends.

Though most NFL talent evaluators view the 40 the way NBA scouts view height, no one really knows where it comes from. Why not use the 50? Or the 35? Spurrier Jr. isn't sure. Neither are DeCosta and Cerrato.

Wolf, whose football career began in 1963, thinks the 40 originated with the Chicago Bears of the 1940s. Others insist that legendary coach Paul Brown introduced it during his tenure at Ohio State.

Though Dallas is believed to be the first NFL club to time entire college squads in the 40, many teams were still using the 50 into the early 1960s.

"I think what happened is that they saw that 40 yards usually is your longest run," Wolf said. "Other than that, I don't know where it came from."

Times themselves are often dubious. For one, no two 40s are ever the same. Despite the advent of electronic timing, coaches and scouts continue to use old-fashioned stopwatches, making one man's 4.52 another man's 4.47.

Why the reliance on unreliable thumb clicks? Scouts can't take bulky electronic timing equipment on road trips. And the NFL remains a paranoid league.

"People like to have their own time just because they saw it and they got it," Cerrato said. "That's what they know."

Surprisingly, hand times are actually faster than electronic ones. A scout with a stopwatch starts timing late (when an athlete makes his first visible move) and ends early (by anticipating a cross of the finish line).

The end result is a 40 time that can be as much as two-tenths of a second quicker than its electronic equivalent one reason that NFL prospects often complain about a supposedly slow running surface at Indianapolis' RCA Dome, home to the electronically timed combine.

"If you can run, you can run," said Cerrato, dismissing the notion that the combine track runs sluggishly. "I think what happens at the dome is that guys have done so much before [running the 40] that their legs are a little bit weary."

Other factors come into play. Track shoes with rubber nubs on the soles can save 1/10 of a second. Dashes on artificial turf are faster than those on grass. Short grass is quicker than long grass. Some schools, such as Penn State and Tennessee, are known for having speedy tracks.

"If a guy like [New York Giants running back] Ron Dayne runs a 4.54 at Wisconsin, which is considered an extremely fast track, in our minds, he's really a 4.65-70 guy," DeCosta said. "We tend to treat the Indy [combine] times as being the real times."

A fast 40 doesn't ensure game speed. After all, there's more to football than straight-ahead sprinting. Running backs stutter-step and accelerate. Receivers fight through jams. Cornerbacks swivel and change direction.

For every Bates a Pro Bowl returner in his prime there's a Renaldo Nehemiah, the world-class 110-meter hurdler who caught just 43 passes in three NFL seasons. Spurrier Jr. recalls a made-for-TV race that matched legendary Redskins cornerback Darrell Green against Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis.

"Lewis beat him," Spurrier Jr. said of Green, who Redskins coaches once clocked at 4.19. "Then they put on [football] pads. Darrell outran him."

Blind faith in the 40 contributed to one of the biggest draft day blunders in NFL history. In 1990, Florida running back Emmitt Smith turned in a 4.7-range 40, significantly slower than the 4.45 posted by Penn State runner Blair Thomas. Feeling the need for speed, the New York Jets made Thomas the No. 2 pick overall, while Smith fell to Dallas at No. 17.

Now with Arizona, the gritty Smith went on to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher, winning three Super Bowls with the Cowboys. Thomas, on the other hand, never ran for more than 800 yards in a season and has been out of the league since 1995.

"Emmitt never got caught from behind," Cerrato said. "Jerry [Rice] never got caught. You can get fooled because of 40 times, think a guy is going to be great. And then he can't run on the field. It's still not a track race. It's still about football."

McCants couldn't agree more. Still, the Redskins receiver admits to keeping a copy of his draft-making 40-yard dash on tape a vivid reminder of the most important 4.41 seconds of his life.

His football life, that is.

"I knew I had speed." McCants said with a laugh. "Actually, I felt like I could run faster."

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