Gaitlin Tries to Harness “World Class” Speed in the NFL

With former 2004 Olympic 100 meter champion Justin Gaitlin in mini camp trying to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a wide receiver, the NFL’s fascination with “world class” speed and trying to harness it is on display again. The Bucs are attempting to find a game changing homerun player based soley on stop watch speed. The league’s fascination with world class speed began in 1952 with former Olympian Ollie Matson signing with the Chicago Cardinals. His conversion ended at the Hall of Fame, but other “speed” prospects have made varying degrees of impact. Matson and former Dallas Cowboys receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes (fringe hall of fame candidate) are the high water mark and sprinters like John Carlos are at the lower end of spectrum.  Carlos had never played the game and even needed the assistanceto of a couple of reporters just to put on his pads and uniform on when he joined the Eagles during his brief 1 year stint in the NFL. Other Olympic speedsters that have tried to make it on the gridiron have included: Special Teams Pro Bowler Michael Bates (Panthers), James Jett (Raiders), Sam Graddy (Raiders), Ron Brown (Rams), John Capel (Bears/Chiefs) and others.

With Gaitlin running an astonishing 9.77 seconds in the 100 meters, one has to ask “Does pure track speed really have anything to do with the total game of football?” Sure being able to run a forty-yard dash in 4.2 or less makes you a “special player”, but I always want to see how a player performs in pads with someone coming after them with malice in their heart. John Gruden recently said about Gaitlin “If (his speed) can transfer to football, you have a real threat,” and then he added, “If it can’t, then it won’t work.” Gruden quotes sum up the “world class” speed debate succinctly. Football is a game that requires instincts, quickness, intellect, agility, toughness, awareness, and several other characteristics that can compensate for pure speed. Having blazing speed can get a receiver past someone on a go route, but not being able to stay in bounds, get off a jam, take a hit, or most importantly catching and holding onto a ball can cause a “world class” sprinter to be a non-entity on the football field. Gaitlin who is facing a suspension of up to eight years for failing a doping test last year has only played football sparingly in high school and college is considered a long shot to make it in the NFL. By trying to get back into the game at its highest level, he has taken on an extremely difficult task. He will most assuredly have to learn how to run differently for route running (football requires short choppy steps and cuts instead of long strides), learn to follow the flight of a ball into his hands while running, and work hours with a juggs gun to help catching the ball.

The odds are long against Gaitlin and we will have to wait and see if he can make it. Hopefully he will not hear the same words Capel heard from Dick Vermeil as he was being cut in Chiefs training camp in 2002, the heartful coach said “‘John, you’ve got to go home and do what you’re best at (running)”.

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