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Was the Combine 40 Clock Inaccurate?

Using video from the broadcast of the combine, Baltimore Beatdown has noticed that there seems a discrepancy between the athlete's start and the clock's start.

The time seemed a little more off than permissible error.
The time seemed a little more off than permissible error.

The storyline coming out of last weekend's NFL Combine was that the skill positions were significantly slower than in years past. There didn't appear to be an abundance of true speedsters. This was never more apparent as Hall of Famer Deion Sanders interviewed prospect Jalen Ramsey:

Sanders: And you will run the 40?

Ramsey: Yes sir--

Sanders: What should I be expecting, because we do matriculate from Florida State.

Ramsey: Elite. Prime Time, that's what you gotta expect.

Sanders: 4.2?

Ramsey: I don't know about 4.2...

Sanders: You said PrimeTime, that's what (I) did. (both laugh)

Sanders later quipped about the "clocks" being slow, after watching Ramsey and others run.

Ramsey's best was a 4.41. But what if it were actually a 4.2?

When editing the video mash for the BB Simulcam article, I noticed something. The unofficial clock on the screen seemed to be moving ahead of the participants. Obviously there is some error to be adjusted for, but this seemed to be a significant difference. See for yourself:

Before Ramsey had even moved, approximately 1/4th of a second was on the clock. The argument for the unofficial status of the on-screen clock is negated when one considers that the final time was only one tenth off of the official final time.

Ramsey could have made good on his promise to Sanders, with this difference accounted for. He would have run a 4.22. This would also register as the fastest 40 ever electronically timed at the NFL Combine, so clearly it must be calibrated. Unless Ramsey really did run the fastest one. It's possible.

The 40 timing of the Combine has come a long way. Until 1990, Hand Held (HH) timing was the method used for the 40. This might explain how Bo Jackson ran an unearthly 4.12 at his combine in 1986. HH has been studied to be consistently faster than other methods. In the 90's, a method called Electronic Timing (ET) was initiated, which uses a HH start but a laser-triggered finish, once the player crosses a beam at the 40 yard mark. For the past 5 combines, a method called Fully Automated Timing (FAT) was used, a method which enabled the time to be displayed on-screen for the home audience to see.

When watching, it is easy to overlook this huge change in the way that the 40 has been revealed; before there was a waiting period until a time was announced. Now, there is an electronic link that enables the NFL Network to directly display electronic data from the clock, for a highly accurate output.

This is still called the unofficial time, and by all accounts, the ET method is the one which the NFL uses to extract the official time. This may be how Ramsey picked up a tenth of a second credit on his final 40 time.

There are three ways to initiate the time, which is really the issue at hand:

  1. Pressure pad. When the pad that the athletes set their hands on is free of pressure, an instantaneous signal is sent to start the timer.
  2. Laser Sensor - body. Time starts when the athlete's body breaks the laser positioned in front of them.
  3. Laser Sensor - ground. Pad-level, the laser sends a signal when unblocked by the athlete's hands.
When watching the video, it is clear that there is some discrepancy between a true start by Ramsey and the

early roll of the clock. The developer of the timing technology, Zybek Sports out of Denver, did a study which shows that the HH method yields an average error of 0.1 to 0.25 seconds. But the time on screen was not HH. Last year, it was the ET measure. It is very possible that the clock could have been manually started early. The FAT method, using the pressure pad start method, also could have been the culprit, incorrectly starting the clock due to un-sensed pressure.

Either way, the challenge to produce accurate 40 times continues to exist, and this year in particular, has affected players as the timings were more slow.