CFL Combine forty times are slower, but not for the reason you think

Photo courtesy: Christian Bender/CFL.ca

We have entered CFL Combine season and that means only one thing: some dude on the internet making fun of CFL prospect’s forty times.

After the Ontario Regional Combine, that just happened to be 2019 Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Willie Jefferson. (Note: the CFL has since upgraded the fastest time to a 4.54 from York’s Daniel Amoaka)

Setting aside that Jefferson was reacting to an event specifically organized for players not yet considered top prospects and slower times were to be expected, there is a grain of truth to what the Bombers’ all-star is saying. CFL forty-yard dash times tend to be noticeably slower than their NFL counterparts, even at the National Combine.

In 2019, the last time the CFL had in-person testing, receiver Chris Osei-Kusi was the fastest man with a time 4.47 seconds. That would have tied him for 39th at that year’s NFL Combine. Coming off the fastest NFL Combine in history in 2022, you can expect similar disparity this year.

For your average internet troll, this means one thing: the CFL and its Canadian athletes are inferior. Even those who watch and cover the league sometimes cite it as evidence for why the CFL Draft is unexciting and unworthy of decent media coverage.

In reality, several other real-world factors combine to make CFL forty times slower on paper, but no less impressive.

The grain of truth within the mockery is that the highest testing numbers at the CFL Combine, even with all other things being equal, will never rival the top performances from the NFL’s week-long meat market in Indianapolis.

The NFL has some of the freakiest athletes in the world, one of a kind players you won’t find anywhere else, while some of the best potential testers in the CFL Draft opt not to take part in the Combine in favour of performing at college pro days in front of NFL scouts.

That creates an unavoidable disparity at the top, but the difference in speed and athletic ability between the rest of the prospects isn’t as large as the numbers you see. Typically, that has come down to two factors: timing method and training.

When we think of forty times, we think of stopwatches and the reality is that most scouts still rely on their own hand-timed measurements instead of what is published by the league. Those aren’t the numbers you see, however, as modern Combine testing relies on laser times to get pinpoint accurate measurements.

Electronic times are slower than hand times because they remove the variable of human reaction time, but they are a more reliable scientific metric. However, if you look back at historical Combine numbers you’ll see a subtle difference in the way they were recorded.

Times at the CFL Combine had been fully automated, using a double laser system. One at the start detected the motion of the player off the line and began the clock, the other stopped it at the finish. The NFL also uses that method, but not for their published results.

Any “official” times from the NFL Combine are taken using a manual start to the clock and a laser finish, resulting in marginally faster times that more closely resemble those that are hand-timed.

This difference has always been the source of a great deal of grumbling from CFL prospects — I’m looking at you, Justin Dunk — so much so that the league has now changed their timing protocol to identically match that of the NFL. For the 2022 Draft, CFL and NFL prospects will have their times recorded in the same way.

With the double laser no longer an excuse for the current prospects, that brings us to the biggest factor in the time disparity: training.

For most NFL prospects coming out of the NCAA, Combine training is a full-time job the second that their seasons end. With a big cheque on the line, they drop out of school and enroll in six-to-eight week programs at facilities across the United States, focusing entirely on becoming the best tester possible.

They say you can’t teach speed, but because there are so many technical elements to the start and execution of a sprint like the forty, massive improvements in time can be made. On average, trainers feel that elite football players can shave 0.2 seconds off their time with this training and some can do even more.

Everyone knows receiver John Ross for his NFL Combine record 4.22-second forty in 2017, but many don’t realize he clocked a 4.53 just six weeks prior.

While CFL prospects do train for these events, those coming from U Sports and small US colleges simply don’t have the resources or time to commit to weeks of dedicated and sequestered combine training. They are full-time students with classes and mid-terms, some even have jobs, and no agent is fronting thousands of dollars for a player who’s going to earn less than $80,000 as a rookie.

Think of it this way: NFL forty times are a mark of a player’s peak ability under ideal circumstances, while CFL Combine times are a reflection of their raw potential. The exception to this tends to be dual-sport athletes with extensive track training, like Los Angeles Chargers’ defensive back Tevaughn Campbell who holds the CFL Combine record with a time of 4.35 seconds (double laser).

There is no denying NFL numbers are bigger and flashier than any you’ll see in Canada over the next month, but slower CFL forty times are a direct result of systemic and financial hurdles for homegrown athletes.

South of the border, that 4.61 might turn into a dazzling 4.40. Here it simply has to be graded on a curve.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.