Northern Iowa receiver Terrell Sinkfield wowed scouts at the University of Minnesota's pro day on Monday. According to "reports" (more on that later), Sinkfield ran the 40-yard dash in a time of 4.19 seconds. It's easy and tempting to take at face value, because it'd be a wonderful story. A no-name athlete from a small school doesn't even get an invite to the combine, but puts every other runner to shame with a record dash, ends up on multiple teams' radars, and becomes an intriguing name in draft speculation. But poke into the details, and the 4.19 time falls apart.
Here's one of Sinkfield's three runs, though it's not clear if it's the record-setting one.
He is fast, but 4.19 is insanely fast, and would be faster than the best combine run of the modern era, Chris Johnson's 4.24 seconds. Broncos return man Trindon Holliday ran track in college, and was the NCAA 100-meter champion in 2009—his 40-yard dash was a few ticks slower than Johnson. Interestingly, those timing Holliday couldn't even agree on his official time.
Which introduces the first problem with Sinkfield's time—4.19, but according to what? The apocryphal all-time record belongs to Bo Jackson at 4.12, yet it's universally disregarded today. Until 1990, combine dashes were hand-timed, which is exactly what it sounds like. Someone clicked a stopwatch when Jackson started, and clicked it again when he crossed the finish line. When dealing with hundredths of a second, hand-timing is notoriously unreliable.
The system used today isn't much better. It involves partial electronic timing, where a player crossing the finish line trips a laser, stopping the clock. But the clock is still started by hand, so the margin of error is considerable. The NFL will eventually introduce full electronic timing, like in track and field, but it's still in the experimental stage. (With full electric timing, 40-yard dash times are expected to register .20 to .24 seconds slower than with current methods.)
Sinkfield's run on Monday was fully hand-timed.
The second problem is an outgrowth of the first. Because of the imprecise nature of timing, multiple stopwatches are brought into play. (That's why no one's sure what Trindon Holliday's actual time was.) At least one of those timing Sinkfield had a vested interest in accuracy, not witnessing records, and he says the dash was nothing special:
Scott Studwell, the Vikings' director of college scouting, said he didn't have Sinkfield with any sub-4.3 times, adding, "He ran in the high 4.3s. He can run. He ran fast. He tested well."
That same Pioneer Press article brings us to problem number three: Just who had Sinkfield at 4.19? Fox Sports, the first to report the story, doesn't say. Only one outlet puts a name to the 4.19 claim, and that name is Mitchel Chargo, Terrell Sinkfield's agent. So.
Update: Over at Business Insider, Cork Gaines, went frame-by-frame on video of Sinkfield's run, and clocked him at...4.16?