Denard versus Usain Bolt: Fight! Comment Count

Brian August 13th, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Rival fans are having their lol over this Denard Robinson statement from media day:

"I've watched him run, and I'm pretty sure I can beat him in a 40-yard dash," Robinson said at Michigan's media day on Sunday. "I'd get a better start, and I could take him.

"At 60 yards, I'd be in trouble, and at 100 meters, he'd be gone, but I could get him in a 40."

But this sort of thing has come up before. Two years ago, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Bolt would race Titans running back Chris Johnson, who ran a 4.24 40 at the NFL draft combine. That turned out to be total fiction, but it got people thinking.

It's complicated. Most 40 times are bunk. Combine times like Johnson's are not directly comparable to track sprints since the NFL uses a system that eliminates reaction time, doesn't use starting blocks, and is on FieldTurf in cleats. Also, yards are not meters and converting between the two requires integration and stuff since 100 meter athletes are accelerating until about the 65 meter mark.

Benchmarks are available. Robinson dabbled in track early in his career, winning some dual meets in the 60-meter dash indoors:

That was a 6.81 60. When Bolt set the 100 M world record in Germany in 2009, he crossed 60 meters at 6.29  Denard would get smoked at 60 meters, but it's worth noting that he'd get smoked by less than he would in the 100, where Bolt's world record time is a full second faster than Denard's best high school effort. Bolt's second 50 meters is where he makes his money.

So what about the 40? In his world-record run, Bolt hit 40 meters at 4.64. Meters are longer than yards, so that time translates to the exact same 4.24 Johnson ran at the NFL combine, give or take tenth given the fact that 40s are not track sprints. Chris Johnson's lifetime best 60m is… 6.83*. So… plausible for Denard to be in Bolt's stratsophere?

No. Johnson's best time at 60 meters was good for third place. In a semifinal. At a regional collegiate track meet. Denard's fast. He's not Usain Bolt.

*[According to a guy on the internet. Milestat confirms the time, FWIW.]



August 14th, 2012 at 11:37 AM ^

We shouldn't be comparing Bolt's 2009 World Record time to Denard's time in high school or freshman year. For one, Bolt is not as fast as he was in 2009 (and doesn't run that time consistently), and an argument could be made that Denard may be faster now than he ever was. Second, Denard didn't say he would beat Bolt to 60 yards... he said 40 yards. Third, Denard runs with cleats on grass while Bolt runs with various sprinting aids including a launch pad, lighter shoes and a "grippy", flat surface. 

All I'm saying is, you put them both on the field wearing cleats and my money is on Denard when it comes to the 40 yd dash... which is, after all, the footbal distance gauged to measure a player's speed and, as we have come to appreciate, football speed is what matters. Put me down for Denard to tie Bolt +/- .05 seconds on the track (40yds) as well.



August 13th, 2012 at 9:21 PM ^

Thank you.  Some interesting claims here.


Bolt reportedly has been working with Angel Hernandez, too. Hernandez used to be called Angel Heredia, back when he was a chemist for BALCO and later “Source A,” who supplied the documents that helped convict Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, C.J. Hunter and Justin Gatlin. Gatlin just took bronze in the 100, behind Bolt and Blake.

Before the games in Beijing, Heredia told Germany’s Der Spiegel that, regarding the 100-meter final, “the winner will not be clean. Not even any of the contestants will be clean. There is no doubt about it, the difference between 10.0 and 9.7 seconds is the drugs.”

Usain Bolt went on to win that final with a time of 9.69.


August 14th, 2012 at 2:41 AM ^

In today's sports landscape, the mistake is when we identify just one or two athletes as potential dopers. If someone is getting away with it in a sport, a lot of people probably are.

Bernstein questions Jamaica's sudden success in track in the quoted article; a valid question, but should the US sprinters face any less scrutiny? I think not--especially since one of the 100m medalists has actually tested positive and come back from a four-year ban.

In retrospect, I should have included some photographs from Olympic sports.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:01 PM ^

  Denard has never actually been challenged, so you can't be sure he wouldn't be packing extra dilithium for the big race.  He has another gear... just hasn't been forced to use it.

French West Indian

August 13th, 2012 at 6:55 PM ^

"So… plausible for Denard to be in Bolt's stratsophere? No."

It should be...

So...plausible for Bolt to be in Denard's stratosphere? Of course not, he actually ties his shoes for one thing.


August 13th, 2012 at 6:57 PM ^

Denard might not be able to beat Bolt in the 40.  But something tells me that he would come a lot closer to replicating Bolt's speed than Bolt would come to replicating Denard's football ability.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:00 PM ^

How has no one mentioned Justin Gatlin's 40 time at the NFL combine in 2008? "WR Justin Gatlin (5-11 7/8, 195): Ran a 4.45 and a 4.42 in the 40". If you watch this year's 100m final you can see Gatlin has a slight lead at around the 40 yard mark. I think the moral of the story here is that a football 40 yard dash (no blocks, timer starts on movement, etc) and a 100m split time (blocks, time begins on gun, etc) are hard to compare. We can all agree that Denard is fast (but not an Olympic caliber sprinter), and Bolt is the fastest man who has ever lived.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:09 PM ^

A few observations from this post.

"So… plausible for Denard to be in Bolt's stratsophere":  I'm not sure why this question is even asked.  Denard never said he was in the same stratsophere, he just said that he could beat him in the 40.

"Denard's fast. He's not Usain Bolt.":  Again, what is the point of this statement?

So I'm a little confused, this post suggests that Denard cannot beat Usain in the 40, but the proof provided suggests that he can.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:19 PM ^

At the 40ydish mark roughly seven of the finalists in the 100m dash are stride for stride (including Usain Bolt):

This makes me think it seems plausible that there could be a few dozen track guys out there (possibly including guys like Denard & Chris Johnson) that could more or less keep pace for 40 yds.  It also makes me think that there probably isn't anyone out there on earth who is significantly (more than half a step) going to beat these guys over 40yds.  But as you can see, the 100 is all about the last 60m.

Also, Odoms beat Denard, so there's that too:


August 13th, 2012 at 7:21 PM ^

would pay $5 for Mott's if we made this happen at Michigan Stadium?


Maybe if Denard spent everyday training to sprint instead of training to avoid LB's trying to crush him he'd have a shot.  But football guys are football fast, track guys are track fast.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:44 PM ^

I mentioned the Gatlin thing earlier today in a blog post ...

... and based on a lot of math of debatable value, I do think some of the elite speed guys in football could at least challenge Bolt and other sprinters through 40 yards. As mentioned above, the 100 is all about maintaining top speed, which is usually reached somewhere past the halfway mark.


August 13th, 2012 at 7:32 PM ^

Denard is physiologically capable of being a very good (but not Bolt level) sprinter. He'd have to spend a lot more time training to reach that potential.

However, there is no way Denard is as fast as Bolt. 40 times don't account for the starter's reactions, which are REQUIRED to be at least 0.1 seconds, and are often > 0.15 s.


August 14th, 2012 at 12:01 PM ^

you implied that transitioning to track would 'require' needles for training as if to imply football is clean...yeah...right. Never did I say TRACK was clean, look no further than ben johnson or even the women's shot put gold medalist...but football has it's share of doping, don't try and go all high and mighty...


August 13th, 2012 at 8:25 PM ^

is that Bolt is a sprinter trained to win at 100m. Denard is a sprinter who not only trained/competed in the 100m, but is now honed to get off the line as quickly as possible. I'd argue and agree with anyone that says Usain Bolt is the fastest track sprinter in the world, but I'd also say Denard might have a better chance in a football style 40yd dash than some are giving him credit for. Usain and most Olympic caliber sprinters have trained and honed their skills on the fact that 60m mark is what makes and breaks a champion/gold medal race. MOST Olympic sprinters roll out of the blocks and build speed as quickly as possible and sustain it as long as their body/training allows. Denard has a gift and training that forces him to get to top speed immediately. His lateral movement is phenominal. Granted by the 40 yard mark Bolt will be hitting peak speed, but in that first burst off the line Denard likely has the edge. It's the way they run respectively. Ben Johnson, roids or not, was stellar out of the blocks. He was a compact and powerful sprinter who ran faster than any other human at that time, He would cook Denard...well in his prime with drugs he would have, but Bolt is a long strider and makes up a lot of speed and ground. The second half of his race is where he makes his He's not as quick as he is fast.

Blue in Seattle

August 13th, 2012 at 7:45 PM ^

He could keep up through 40 but get killed beyond that.

If we're going to dream and argue and speculate, why don't we do that about that Al Borges is coming up with for the latest QB "Oh Noes" constraint play will be?  With the experience of our OL Tackles, and Denard's experience giving him more calm in the pocket, I expect to see a lot of Denard scanning 2-3 reads, then stepping up with an option to juke the spying middle LB or then hitting the seam over an aggresive safety sprinting in off coverage.

And why aren't we discussing the new bread and butter play of Gardner faking a bubble screen for a throw-back to Denard as a new wrinkle to the Lloyd Carr, throwback to QB for the Navarre rumblin' bumblin' stumblin' TD play?

seriously people, WTF?

"la gente está muy loca"


August 13th, 2012 at 7:58 PM ^

If Denard had chosen to train for track instead of football, I wonder how their times would compare. Most athletes in the US train for one of the major sports. The nationalist in me thinks the US has the world's best athletes. I wonder too what they could do to track records and other olympic records if they trained for other events instead...


August 13th, 2012 at 8:32 PM ^

At best, Brian may be right, but for the wrong reason.

The Usain Bolt-to-football player comparisons have always struck me as a bit weird, because football speed is all about explosiveness over short spaces. That's why football players only run 40 yards. Usain Bolt's biggest weakness in sprints is his starting ability; as has already been noted, his starts are unespectacular in sprinting terms and he does not start to assert his superiority until the drive phase of the sprint has been completed and he is able to use his full strides to cover more ground per stride than any other runner. 

The key physiological difference with Usain Bolt, then, is his stride length at full speed--a situation that is rare on a football field and basically irrelevant in the 40 yard dash.

You'll note that with a few exceptions (Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson) most of the fastest 40-time football players are on the short-to-average side. Think Reggie Bush, Barry Sanders, Trindon Holliday, Darren Sproles, and... Denard Robinson. I would speculate that this is a consequence of lower body weight and compact frames that have natural leverage to accelerate quickly, getting them up to top speed faster. Now, their top speeds may not be that impressive--Barry Sanders has been clocked at 4.37, but Lions fans can remember him getting run down at the end of runs because he just didn't have top speed.

So the 40-yard dash rewards a different kind of speed.

Now, we do have an interesting player comparison that is available to us: Jeffrey Demps, recent Florida player and silver medalist as a part of the 4x100 relay preliminary team this year. He is a shorter runner whose 40 times range from 4.24 to 4.32 depending on how he was clocked; to my knowledge, he did not run in the NFL combine, focusing instead on the Olympic trials. His lifetime best 100 meter time is 10.01, which wouldn't medal but is nothing to sneeze at. I think it's fair to say that while Demps was among the fastest college football players in the country when he played, he wasn't mindblowingly faster than everyone else (even on his own team).

And after roughly 40 yards, he was within a step of the best runners in the U.S. despite running only a 10.27 this year:

So there's that. Demps, a fast college football player, nearly even with the best sprinters in the world.

What does that mean about Denard? Well, I think it means that some of the fastest football players could keep up with Usain Bolt over 40 yards on fieldturf. As Denard himself said, he'd be behind after 60 and in another time zone after 100, but we already knew that.

The only flaw in this argument is that I'm not sure that Denard is quite as fast as we think; I wouldn't be surprised if he clocked in at 4.4 and change at the NFL combine. But then, maybe that's just because I'm used to seeing him run hurt. In that sense, Brian might be right, but only because Denard is only slightly superhumanly fast.


August 13th, 2012 at 8:39 PM ^

I love Denard as we all do, but I've never been convinced that he's quite as fast as some would have you believe, sub 4.35 or so. Demps was an alternate on the 4x100m team in London. I think he ran a 10.02 in high school, so it's a bit surprising that he hasn't cracked 10s yet. 


August 13th, 2012 at 8:55 PM ^

Here's a split of Usain's WR run at Berlin. What's interesting here is that Bolt was ahead of everyone there by 40m and almost everyone at 20m. Dwain Chambers, who was also in the race, is an elite 60m guy as is Tyson Gay. If you take Bolt's 40m time and figure out what that equates to at 40yds, Bolt ran about what Brian wrote, depending on how many decimal points you use for the conversion to meters to ft/yds. And also like Brian mentioned, the sprints differ in that one starts on movement rather than a gun (and the reaction time may be quite a bit more than just a tenth depending on the runner) and the other lets you have blocks, so there's a bunch of assumptions here. 

edit: it shows up squeezed on my screen and is kind of hard to read. Here's a link to the picture:

Edit 2: Here's another pic of a chart someone made with Usain's previous WR splits versus some other historic performances.