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Speed Kills

The NFL Combine 40-yard dash curse is real and it is merciless

March 04, 2022

Thursday night, Baylor's Tyquan Thornton briefly seemed to have run the fastest 40-yard dash in the history of the NFL Combine. It was later corrected from 4.21 to 4.28, but it's still good for a top ten, and it's still ridiculous to watch:

But is it a good thing?

Or is he cursed?

Pardon the dramatic italics, but when you take a trip through the record books to see what has become of the fastest men in NFL history, it's not a pretty picture. Only a handful of men have done better than 4.30 in the combine 40 in the era of digital timing, and at the bottom of that superlative list is Fabian Washington, who ran a 4.29. His time turbo-boosted his draft stock, but after earning a first-round pick, his career was average at best, lasting just six years. (He only started more than half his team's games in four of those years.)

With his 4.28 run, Thornton joins a not-so-illustrious group. These are the men who share that time: Jacoby Ford, J.J. Nelson, Jalen Myrick, and DeMarcus Van Dyke. Ford was a wide receiver who only played three separate seasons and never made an impact before heading for Canada. Nelson stuck around the league for two years longer, but was similarly anonymous for a player with his speed. Myrick, a cornerback, was waived by three teams in two years. Van Dyke only started four games and was out of the league in three years.

The picture only gets a little rosier as you move to the 4.27 group. Tyrone Calico had a modestly solid rookie season, but was hurt by an illegal tackle and was out of the league within three years; Marquise Goodwin, who was also an elite long jumper, had one near-great season with the Bills, but otherwise never topped 450 receiving yards in a season. That brings us to our minor exception: Stanford Routt, who played for eight seasons and had a respectable career, mostly for the Raiders. But even Routt never made a Pro Bowl, and is probably best known today for a three-year $31.5 million contract he earned in 2011 from the Raiders that still looks like a terrible deal, since he was released a year later.

The most recent 4.27 time was run by Henry Ruggs III in 2020, and...well, to say that has not gone great is a massive understatement.

Jerome Mathis and Dri Archer each rans times of 4.26, and Mathis managed to rack up just 80 receiving yards in three NFL seasons, while Archer never even got close to that total, earning just 23 receiving yards in his entire career.

In second place, we have the ultimate exception: Chris Johnson. Johnson ran a 4.24, and obviously went on to a brilliant career, rushing for 2,000 yards in 2009 and winning offensive player of the year, and making three Pro Bowls. Look, do we wish there wasn't this gigantic wrench in the curse argument? Sure, sure. But it's also the exception that proves the rule, because in a list of 12 of the fastest humans ever to enter the NFL, only one came anywhere close to greatness.

The other man who ran a 4.24 was Rondel Menendez, and after he tore his meniscus in his rookie preseason, he never played a game in the NFL.

Which brings us to no. 1 on the all-time list, the man we thought Thornton had unseated: John Ross. Ross ran a 4.22, earned the ninth overall pick and a four-year, $17.1 million contract...and had a rookie season so disappointing that his coach Marvin Lewis came under serious criticism. He briefly showed flashes of greatness in 2019, racking up 500 receiving yards in eight games, but suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out. Since then, he's been practically invisible.

So there's your evidence: If you're a speed demon even by NFL standards at the combine, you've got about a 6% chance of becoming a decent player. We're not saying Thornton is 100% cursed, but we are saying that Chris Olave should thank his lucky stars that his time got knocked back from 4.26 to 4.39.

At this point, why even go to the combine? The true alpha here, as always, is Bo Jackson, who refused an invitation to attend the '86 combine (it was called the "National Invitational Camp" then) and simply stayed at Auburn for an informal pro day...and ran a 4.13. At last check, things worked out pretty well for him.