CLEMSON — The 40-yard dash has long been the standard for evaluating football players’ speed. The sprint is the main event at the NFL combine. When Clemson coaches test players’ speed in the summer, they mark a finish line 40 yards from the starting point.

1.40 seconds | Former East Carolina running back Chris Johnson set the record for 10-yard split time at the 2008 NFL Combine1.47 seconds | Sammy Watkins’ estimated 10-yard split times. Any time below 1.5 seconds is considered excellent1.48 seconds | 10-yard split time of former Clemson star C.J. Spiller at the 2010 combine

A runner with an average stride needs 17 steps to complete a 40-yard dash. But Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins says not all steps should be weighted equally. He says it’s time to rethink how speed is measured in football.

“In any race, the first steps are the most critical thing,” Watkins said. “That determines what your outcome is going to be.”

Watkins demonstrated his case against Wake Forest several weeks ago.

Watkins ran a route toward the sideline on a play designed to pick up 10 yards for a first down. The sophomore caught a pass just beyond the first down yardage at the Wake 46, then lowered his head and shoulders on his first two steps, like a sprinter coming out of the starting block. He gradually raised up over his next three steps and beat a Wake defender who took an angle reserved for a player of more typical acceleration, failing to account for Watkins’ rare burst of speed.

In 1.47 seconds, Watkins covered 10 yards — breaking tackles and pursuit angles — en route to a 61-yard touchdown.

The NFL combine record for a 10-yard split time of a 40-yard dash is 1.40 seconds, recorded in shorts and T-shirt by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson. Former Clemson star C.J. Spiller clocked a 1.48 10-yard split in 2010.

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris explained the impact of elite acceleration.

“When you can take two steps and are at full speed, you make guys go, ‘OK, your angle is here, here’s my angle, and all of the sudden he’s at full speed and the angle has changed,’ ” Morris said. “ ‘I’ve lost my angle and now he’s gone.’ (Watkins) just kind of catches you. You don’t see that, you don’t practice that, you can’t coach that.”

Despite short-area quickness being so important, college coaches rarely measure acceleration.

“I have no idea what Watkins’ (10-yard) split is,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “but it’s lightning.”

Measuring speed

The science of timing players began 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, at Hiram College. That’s where the Cleveland Browns held training camp under coach Paul Brown in the 1950s.

Brown was innovative. He is credited as the first to scout use film. He was also the first coach to quantify his players’ speed by timing them, said former Dallas Cowboys chief scout Gil Brandt.

Brown timed his players in a 50-yard dash.

“Paul told us he did it to make sure he didn’t make a mistake cutting a guy,” said Brandt.

The innovations helped Cleveland to three NFL titles in the 1950s.

In 1960, the NFL expanded and added the Dallas Cowboys. Tex Schramm was hired as general manager and Brandt was Schramm’s top scout.

The Cowboys had taken an interest in Brown’s work in Cleveland, and Schramm had been fascinated by a technological development at the 1960 Winter Olympics, which he covered for CBS. He saw new timing technology that enabled skiers’ speed to be measured down to the hundredth of a second.

The Cowboys didn’t want to time just their own players, they wanted to better understand and evaluate draft prospects. They didn’t have a roster, they were building one.

“A housewife can tell you who the top 10 percent are in a draft class and the bottom 10 percent,” Brandt said. “But how do I find out who is 11, 12 and 13 rather than 87, 88 and 89? They all look the same.”

At the end of their first season in 1960, Schramm, Brandt and Cowboys coach Tom Landry began creating a detailed player evaluation formula.

“We decided initially we wanted to time them in the 40,” Brandt said. “We thought 50 yards was too much. We did the 40.”

In 1960, the 40-yard dash was born.

They commissioned a $25,000 study at Penn State to research the difference in 40-yard times on grass and artificial turf, and in cleats versus track shoes.

In 1962, the Cowboys surveyed 50 college football coaches asking them to define key characteristics in evaluating a player. They settled on nine categories, which were weighted differently for specific positions. For instance, quickness was more important for a receiver than a quarterback.

They refined their 40-yard dash time.

“We broke it down into 10 (yards), 20 and 40,” Brandt said. “We did the 10 yards because we wanted to see explosion on the part of wide receivers. So if we had two wide receivers that ran 4.6 40s and one ran a 1.50 10-yard split and one ran a 1.53 10, we would put more emphasis on the guy who ran the 1.5.”

For the Cowboys, the 10-yard split time became more important than the 40-yard dash. It showed them that players like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent were undervalued. It was acceleration that created separation in route running, it was acceleration that caused tacklers to miss.

The Cowboys won the NFL Eastern Conference in 1966 and 1967. In 1971 they won their first Super Bowl. Skeptics quickly adopted the evaluation process.

Though the Cowboys placed more value on the 10-yard dash for skill players, the 40-time became the standard to judge speed.

Why did the 40 become the standard? Why the finish line and not the first steps?

“There are a lot of people that don’t ask a lot of questions,” Brandt said.

Creating speed

Watkins also turned to science, not to measure his speed, but to improve it.

As a sophomore at South Fort Myers (Fla.) High, Watkins decided to run track. He wanted every edge to improve his football speed. The school’s track coach taught him to improve his acceleration through technique: start low, with your head down, and gradually move into an upright position.

He taught Watkins Newton’s laws of physics — the force of placing a foot into the ground produces an equal and opposite reaction of forward motion.

Clemson track coach Tim Hall said he can tell Watkins has a track background when he watches him accelerate.

“It’s very evident he’s doing a number of things correctly,” Hall said. “Acceleration is tied to trying to keep the center of mass relatively low while exerting that force. That’s when you are going to be at your best in terms of speed on the football field or on the track.”

Watkins’ coach directed him to a VertiMax machine at a local gym, which strengthens the core and lower-body muscle groups.

“I spent just about my whole summer on it for three months,” Watkins said. “It worked on everything. It’s no weights, it’s just core.”

Watkins shaved seven-tenths of a second from his 100-meter dash time, improving from 50th in the 100-meter dash as a sophomore to a first-place finish as a senior in the state meet.

“I didn’t have the burst and the speed and the finish I have now,” Watkins said. “It came along with track and technique.”

Watch his 61-yard touchdown catch against Wake Forest, and you see that it’s not the finish line that matters, it’s the first steps in getting there.