Football is a game built on speed, but coaches often don't get caught up in it. There's much more to winning at the line of scrimmage than being faster than the guy across from you.
In 2016, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick told ProFootballTalk that there was a major difference between straight line speed and how players impacted a football game in real time.
"When you run a 40-yard dash there's nobody in front of you, nobody's going to hit you," he said. "It's just Point A to Point B, and there's something to be said for that. Football's in a lot of cases not like that. So a player's running a ball or running full speed covering a kick or running the ball and there is people in front of him and people trying to tackle him, it's a little different speed than running a sprint on the stop watch.
Still, speed makes a MAJOR difference at every level of football and it's one reason why coaches are always searching for playmakers. And there's no debating one of the biggest matchups in Super Bowl LII will feature two former high school and collegiate track talents going head-to-head.
So let's take a look at Lincoln (CA) High graduate and former Oregon State University athlete Brandin Cooks, an explosive starting wide receiver for the New England Patriots, and Ronald Darby, a Potomac (MD) High graduate and former Florida State University athlete who's a starting cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Later in this breakdown, we catch up with FloSports senior editor Kolby Paxton to get his thoughts on this in terms of a straight football matchup.
This discussion is interesting, if only due to the fact that these two players will arguably be the fastest athletes on the field in Minnesota on Sunday. Based on combine numbers, Darby is approximately 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds. Cooks is 5-foot-10 and about 190 pounds. Darby, however, has the more distinguished track background, racing with prestige as a high school athlete from 2009-2012. Cooks, meanwhile, ran briefly in high school and college.
Darby won six state titles in Maryland -- even though the state isn't the strongest sprint producer in the country -- and earned two national titles, while Cooks qualified for the CIF state track and field championships as a junior and was sixth in the 100m.
The oft-spoken metric is a player's 40-yard dash time, and in this matchup it's almost dead even. But Cook owns a 4.33 time compared to Darby's 4.38 mark.
How does each athlete maintain their speed over time? Darby's top 55m times from 2011 and 2012, back when he was still racing for Potomac High, was 6.44 seconds as a senior and 6.28 as a junior, which converts to 7.02 and 6.85 seconds at the 60. He also ran the straight 60m in 2011 at New Balance Nationals Indoor and finished third in 6.77 seconds. Cooks, meanwhile, ran 6.81 seconds for Oregon State in 2012 as a freshman at Seattle's Dempsey indoor facility.
|Ronald Darby||Brandin Cooks|
Darby won a New Balance Nationals outdoor title in 2011, pushing to 10.41 seconds as a junior. He finished with a top time of 10.50 seconds as a senior. And while at Florida State, he ran at the IAAF World Youth Championships and finished in 10.61 seconds. Cooks has one result from his time at Oregon State, earning a best of 10.72 seconds at the Pac-12 Championships in 2012. As a junior at Lincoln, he went 10.76 seconds in 2010 and went 10.93 seconds as a sophomore.
At the World Youth Champs, while Darby was a freshman with FSU, he posted a top time of 21.08 seconds. His best as a senior at Potomac was 21.17 and as a junior, his best year on the track, he went 21.05 at the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational in Puerto Rico and won an indoor national title at NBNI in 21.24 in 2011. He ran 21.70 as a sophomore. Cooks posted a best of 21.59 seconds as a junior at the CIF State Championships in 2010 and went 21.96 as a sophomore.
On The Field Matchup:
By Kolby Paxton
About 11 months ago, the Eagles were said to have interest in trading for Brandin Cooks -- a player they were also reportedly interested in drafting in 2014. They made no such deal. And on Sunday, they'll have to find a way to shut him down instead.
It stands to reason that a hefty portion of that responsibility will fall on cornerback Ronald Darby (see above).
Cooks' greatest asset isn't a secret. He's real fast. Like, a guy that legitimately flirts with 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash on any given play fast. What's more, his explosiveness out of a break leaves no margin for error. One false step and he's gone.
That being said, speed alone isn't enough. Cooks is commonly mentioned among the most dangerous players in the league because he's not just fast. The Oregon State product is an excellent route runner with great hands who routinely displays elite ball skills. What's more, he appears slight but plays strong. He's sturdy after the catch and can't be bullied by press man coverage -- in the rare event that a defense is brave enough to forfeit a cushion against him.
So, what's a secondary to do?
Well it helps to have a cornerback like Darby who can match Cooks' speed.
In his first season in Philly, Darby has been a problem for opposing offenses. A week one injury robbed him of much of the regular season, but the former Florida State Seminole returned with a vengeance, picking off three passes in six games -- plus 14 total tackles over the course of the team's pair of playoff games.
Darby can match Cooks' change of direction and possesses the combination of strength and speed needed to be physical -- and the confidence needed to play within arm's reach of a 90-yard touchdown waiting to happen.
Perhaps most importantly, Darby consistently exhibits elite route recognition, which will need to remain true on Sunday against a technician of Cooks' caliber.
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