Overheated expectations won't close speed gap between NFL's DK Metcalf and top Olympic stars
Seattle receiver will run 100 metres at USATF Golden Games track meet on Sunday
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf has officially entered the men's 100 metres at the USATF Golden Games track meet this Sunday, and if you're going to measure his success by wins and losses, prepare to watch him get washed.
That's no disrespect to Metcalf, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound outlier of an athlete who ran 40 yards in 4.33 seconds at the NFL Combine in 2019. But he hasn't run track since high school, and has no publicly verified 100-metre times, and this weekend he'll line up against people like Ronnie Baker who has already run 9.94 this year, and Toronto's Bismark Boateng who ran 10.17 last week.
If those two, or any of the other legitimate Olympic hopefuls entered, finish the race, they'll finish well ahead of Metcalf. That's just the difference between fast and world class.
And if you're grading Metcalf on how close he comes to running 9.88 seconds, brace for disappointment. That 9.88-second figure isn't grounded in on-track performance. It's the projected 100-metre time a football writer reverse engineered from the GPS data gathered during Metcalf's iconic, end-to-end chase-down tackle of Arizona's Budda Baker last fall.
Come for the Budda Baker interception, stay for DK Metcalf CHASING. HIM. DOWN. 😳<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SEAvsAZ?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SEAvsAZ</a> | NBC <a href="https://t.co/eeth0yseX6">pic.twitter.com/eeth0yseX6</a>—@SNFonNBC
We could get lost in the variables making a 9.88-second projection implausible. You can't, for example, use Metcalf's peak velocity — 22.64 mph — as his average speed. A 9.88 sprinter averages Metcalf's top speed, meaning his peak is much higher.
Or we could watch Trayvon Bromell blow the doors off a world class field on his way to the fastest 100 metres in the world this year — 9.88 seconds. Whatever Metcalf did in his viral walking-down of Baker, he didn't approach Bromell's top gear. And when he doesn't sniff 9.88 seconds this weekend, we can't hold it against him. The number was an invention, not a real benchmark. If Metcalf breaks 10.6, he'll have had an objectively great day.
That mainstream sports fans on Twitter are talking track and field six weeks ahead of U.S. Olympic trials means Metcalf's mission is already half accomplished. His presence lets NBC borrow some of his audience for an early-season track meet, and hope that the one-day audience bump converts into longer-term audience growth.
And if we can separate Metcalf's decision to run from the inflated expectations, we can evaluate it for what it is: refreshingly old-school and incredibly brave. It's easy to speculate that NFL players can outrun world-class sprinters, but difficult to test that talk on the track. Metcalf will lose, but he'll answer questions.
If you grew up following the NFL in the 1980s, you saw Herschel Walker take his breathtaking speed to the track each off-season, and line up against the Carl Lewises of the world. Or you watched future NFL players like sprinters Ron Brown and Sam Graddy, and shot putter Michael Carter, win medals at the Summer Olympics in 1984.
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And you followed the annual NFL's Fastest Man competition, with its starting blocks, electronic timing, and 60-yard straightaway. No ambiguity here. Fastest football player wins, and most years it was Washington cornerback and future Hall of Famer Darrell Green, outclassing all comers ending debates in a shade over six seconds.
But Green entered the NFL in 1983, when players made less money, and off-season novelty competitions (think Superstars or World's Strongest Man) could supplement their salaries. And he also played before year-round football-specific training became the norm, and it was simply understood that players at speed positions would run track to stay sharp. Walker, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are all anecdotally fast, as their highlight reels attest. But they also have verifiable track stats to help us quantify their wheels.
To football fans eager to see somebody leap from the gridiron to the medal podium, Chicago Bears receiver Marquise Goodwin is hiding in plain sight. In 2015 he won the long jump at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and the following year he leapt a world-leading 8.45 metres before opting not to try out for the Olympics. This year he's deep in training, trying to squeeze in a Summer Games appearance before training camp.
False economy of speed
But these days, multi-sport stars like Jackson, Sanders and even Goodwin are less common, and the 40-yard dash has supplanted track results as the gold standard of football speed. The focus on the 40 helped create a false economy of speed — hand-times aren't reliable, and one-off sprints don't reveal much about how a player will deploy his speed in-game. But football scouts often find comfort in familiar metrics, so the hand-timed 40 survives.
Data from GPS sensors players wear can clarify exactly how fast athletes are moving in game situations, but those numbers are also open to misinterpretation.
Metcalf's peak recorded speed, for example, is 22.64 mph. Objectively, the number is impressive. Most people reading this column couldn't hit that speed on a bike. But sprinters don't run for miles or hours, so that number can't really tell us what's happening at track level.
Translated into track-friendly terms, Metcalf hit 10.12 metres per second, faster than the vast majority of people on the planet, but not within sniffing distance of 9.88 speed. Consider that in running 9.86 seconds to win a 100-metre world title in 1997, U.S. sprinter Maurice Greene laid down mid-race splits of 11.67, 11.8 and 11.68 metres per second.
Of course, running on a track, without pads should make Metcalf faster, but even if we grant him an extra half metre per second, and suppose (generously, erroneously) that he can maintain peak speed for three seconds, he'd cover 31.8 metres. Over that same span, a 9.86 sprinter would cover more than 35.
That's a backbreaking difference in a 100-metre race. We're not talking rounding error. It's Steven Matz' fastball against Aroldis Chapman's. A greyhound against a cheetah. It's a Dodge Charger against a top fuel dragster. They're all fast, but vastly different classes of speed.
I hope the drive-by track fans watching Metcalf recognize that reality, and don't judge him harshly if he eats dust on Sunday. If Metcalf is healthy and fit, he'll run fast. If Baker et al feel good, they'll run faster. He's faster than most NFLers. They're faster than most sprinters. The gap is significant, and overheated expectations won't close it.
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