It happens every year like clockwork. Every incoming rookie confesses that their greatest challenge is adjusting to the speed of the professional game. This statement comprises much more than pure foot speed however. It references the pace of the action that requires a massive amount of information be processed almost instantaneously. The insane quickness off the snap, not just by the skill position players, but also by the behemoths that make up the offensive and defensive lines, always takes some time to adjust to for any rookie.
Each season multiple NFL franchises learn a valuable lesson. Not all speed is created equally. There is foot speed, and then there is playing speed. Playing speed is always far more valuable.
Every year we all become enamored with the NFL Combine, aka the Underwear Olympics. It graces us all with some semblance of football to obsess over during the long off season. Undoubtedly the most discussed individual drill is the forty yard dash. Players predict their individual times and challenges are made. Players can conceivably make themselves millions of dollars with a impressive performance, or cost themselves millions with a disappointing forty time. The big question for any NFL decision maker is does the forty time even matter for some players? For every yes vote there are just as many maybes.
For some players, speed is their greatest weapon. Players like Chris Johnson, Deion Sanders, Tyreek Hill, and Darrell Green all ran insanely fast forty times and that speed was evident every time they stepped on the field. In a league filled with large, fast individuals these players were obviously the fastest player in any game they participated in. Their forty times perfectly matched their playing speed. That isn't always the case. For every John Ross there is a Jerry Rice.
John Ross is a wide receiver from the University of Washington that became a first round draft pick for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 after running the fastest official forty time in Combine history. Ross was credited with a blistering 4.22 forty and the Bengals started drooling like Pavlov's dog. The only thing faster than Ross' forty time was his ability to get injured after being selected by the snake bit Bengals. All joking aside, the record breaking forty hasn't been evident when Ross has managed to see the field.
Living legend and undisputed greatest receiver in NFL history Jerry Rice is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum. Rice was an accomplished receiver out of small school Mississippi Valley State who's biggest question mark was his foot speed. His forty times were reportedly in the 4.7 range, which would be pedestrian for a tight end, absolutely dismal for a wide receiver. The San Francisco Forty Niners were more concerned with his playing speed and still chose him in the first round of the 1985 Draft. The rest is history.
Jerry Rice was the rare individual that didn't lose any speed once he was in uniform. If anything, he was even faster once you added adrenalin into the equation. Watching him run was a thing of beauty. There was no wasted motion. Jerry's head was perfectly still, even at full speed. This allowed him to watch the ball all the way into his hands, something nearly impossible for some players. Their heads bounce around like Ace Ventura driving that monster truck. Rice admitted he ran faster on the field because he was always scared of being caught from behind, something that seldom ever happened. Rice's forty time proved to be irrelevant.
Sometimes a forty time can have actual merit and be a precursor of things to come. Former Steelers first round selection Jarvis Jones ran a markedly slow forty that raised a huge red flag for many teams. Questions arose as to whether his college production was a byproduct of superior play design and execution more so than his athletic attributes. Sadly, the Steelers learned that lesson the hard way.
The Steelers have committed to a renewed focus on playing speed with the players they drafted this year and picked up during free agency. Their free agent additions all have displayed excellent playing speed previously and the ability to utilize it.
The draft picks are still an unproven lot, but early reports have been encouraging. LB Devin Bush's game is predicated on his excellent speed, both timed and functional. Initial reactions have proven anything but disappointing. Draftees like Diontae Johnson and Benny Snell Jr were highly successful, skilled college performers who's only real concern entering the draft was their timed speed. Both young men displayed throughout their college careers the superior quickness, balance, and playing speed necessary to have a productive professional career.
Only time will tell, but I for one am looking forward to when they throw on a uniform and start popping some pads. Then we will see where some adrenalin can take us.