Former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga cornerback Buster Skrine knew that every 40-yard dash he ran leading up to and during the 2011 NFL combine was important. Being 5-foot-9 and coming from a Football Championship Subdivision program, Skrine had to stand out from the crowd with his speed.
"If you're a smaller school player and some teams haven't been looking at you, running well will do big things for you," said Skrine, who was fast at the combine and ultimately was drafted in the fifth round by the Cleveland Browns.
His experiences running the 40 highlight how important the sprint is -- and how inexact the times can be.
In the first of his two attempts, Skrine was clocked, unofficially, by NFL Network at 4.29 seconds. That was hand-timed with a stopwatch, as was his second attempt in which Skrine posted a 4.36 despite stumbling slightly at the start.
That 4.29 brought Skrine a lot of attention both from the analysts on NFL Network and those watching on TV who then discussed it on Twitter. However, Skrine's official fastest time according to the NFL, which uses laser timers at the combine, was 4.48 seconds.
Those official times came out several hours later, long after the 4.29 was talked about again and again, and the official time appeared to be largely ignored. The same thing happened at this year's combine, during which Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill shocked a lot of people with an unofficial 4.30 that officially was a 4.36.
"The NFL combine has their times and then all of the scouts have their times, too," Skrine said. "When I ran, all of the scouts said they had me in the high 4.2s or low 4.3s, so I was fine."
In football, at least among skill-position players, no stat is talked about more than 40 times. Seldom do players actually have to run 40 yards straight in a game, but that doesn't seem to matter. For a receiver, defensive back or running back, a fast or slow 40 time can have a significant impact on when or if he gets drafted.
"If you don't run a good 40 at the combine or at your [pro] day, it could kill you," UTC coach Russ Huesman said.
When he and his staff are evaluating prospects, they don't pay too much attention to 40 times, Huesman said. That's because they don't know the validity of the times.
"Someone can say, 'I run a 4.5 40,' but we're going to watch the film to see if they're fast," Huesman said. "The times that you look at that are probably legit are, when they run track, in the 100 meters."
When sophomore running back Marquis Green ran a 10.7 in the 100 in high school, "we knew he was fast," Huesman added.
Accurately hand-timing a runner in the 40 is a skill that has to be honed, UTC strength coach Scott Brincks said. One has to know precisely when to start and when to stop the clock, and because one timer might see some movement that another doesn't, that's why it is an "inexact science," Brincks said.
"[Scouts] will always go off of first movement, whatever movement they see," he said. "So if they see a hand move, boom, they start that clock. That's why the start is so important. If you can be still and then get out and move your whole body and not have any other little movements that they can trigger off of, you're already ahead of the game."
Brincks said the clock is supposed to be stopped when the midsection crosses the finish line, not when the head or chest crosses. Like the moment when a runner starts, the finish can also be subjective.
"We're always telling them to run through [the finish line] because it's not about lunging," Brincks said.
In June 2008, prior to Skrine's junior season, he was clocked by Brincks at 4.22. Skeptical of his own timing, Brincks had Skrine run again and the second attempt was 4.26. While training for the combine at a speed school in New Jersey, Skrine said he ran times of 4.22, 4.24 and several in the high 4.2s.
"People can say that the 40 doesn't mean anything [because it doesn't always translate to the field], but at the end of the day people say, 'What did you run?'" Skrine said. "They don't ask what you bench or anything else, but everybody wants to know what you did in the 40."
Skrine, who had 18 tackles and an interception as a rookie in 2011, said he hasn't run the 40 since the combine.
"Oh, no, no more 40s," he said with a laugh. "I'm done with the 40s."