PALM DESERT, Sep. 19, 2016 – It’s football season again in the U.S. and one of the rites of fall is to hear analysts breathlessly praise the speed of NFL players, especially if they have a track & field pedigree.
So we had the opening game of week two of the NFL season, a Thursday night match between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills, marked by an 84-yard, first-half touchdown bomb from Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor to Marquise Goodwin.
Goodwin is familiar to track & field fans as a great long jumper at the University of Texas and a 2012 Olympian, finishing 10th in London. He was seventh at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in the long jump, and at 25, it’s not impossible that he could make another run at the Olympic team in 2020.
At halftime, CBS analyst Bill Cowher hailed Goodwin as “the fastest man in the NFL” and ESPN’s “SportsCenter at Night” host Scott Van Pelt called him an “Olympic sprinter.” Cowher’s probably right, but Van Pelt got overheated.
Goodwin is fast, but he’s not that fast. The CBS gametracker measured him at 22.3 miles per hour during his touchdown catch dash down the sidelines, but how fast that is compared to guys who can really run?
Goodwin’s best-ever 100 meters under legal wind conditions is 10.38 from 2008, but he ran a wind-aided 10.24 (+ 3.4 m/s) in 2012. After checking on the wind conversions that unhinged track geeks like me refer to, we can say that Goodwin’s 2012 mark was worth 10.31 under legal conditions. So how fast is that?
A 100 m sprint of 10.31 is an average of 21.7 miles per hour. The CBS calculator measured Goodwin’s highest instantaneous speed during his run, which will always be faster than the average over 100 m, but consistent with his exploits on the track.
But what about the real sprinters?
Today’s world-class sprinters all run under 10 seconds for 100 m, and in 2016 alone, 26 men from 11 countries ran 10.00 or faster. At 10.00, that’s an average of 22.4 miles an hour, a little faster than Goodwin’s top speed.
But the top sprinters are much faster. Take Usain Bolt at Rio, where he won the 100 m in 9.81 seconds (not even the fastest time in the world in 2016, but just 0.01 short). Bolt’s actual “travel time” over 100 m was 9.655 after subtracting his reaction time; that means he averaged 23.2 miles an hour over the entire distance.
What’s that in football terms? The 0.9 mph difference translates into 1.32 feet/second, or two yards faster for every five seconds of running. For a wide receiver running a deep pattern over 50 yards, being open by two yards is a gimme touchdown pass for most quality quarterbacks.
And Bolt, in his 2008 Olympic championship race (and then world-record) of 9.69 seconds, had a top speed of 27.3 miles per hour between 60-70 meters! That’s 5 mph faster than Goodwin’s top speed, meaning Bolt would have run 2½ yards farther than Goodwin in the same time when both were at peak speed.
In track, that would be called a rout. In football – assuming the quarterback can throw it far enough – it would be called a touchdown. And Bolt would be as unstoppable today as Bob Hayes was for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s. “Bullet Bob” was drafted by Dallas after winning two Olympic golds in Tokyo in 1964, and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was so revolutionary that some credit the development of the zone defense to his unmatchable speed as a receiver.
Credit John Anderson of ESPN, also hosting a late “SportsCenter” show Thursday night for getting Goodwin’s pedigree as a “world-class long jumper” correct. That he is. Goodwin is fast and almost certainly the fastest man in the NFL today.
But Usain Bolt … or Olympic 100 m silver medalist Justin Gatlin … or bronze winner Andre DeGrasse, he is not.
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¶ Rich Perelman has served and supported organizing committees of 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, including five Olympic Games, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition to nearly 100 books and pamphlets, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Track & Field News, Universal Sports and many other publications.