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The Chain Gang Is Football’s Silliest Anachronism, and We Must Protect It at All Costs

If the NFL is constantly searching for high-tech and over-complicated solutions, why has the process for measuring yardage remained the same for more than 100 years?

A hand of an official marking a football AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL will generate $14 billion this year. Its teams are worth a combined $80 billion, according to Forbes, and will pay $5.3 billion in player salaries this season. NFL teams split $7.8 billion in national revenue in 2016, mainly from television deals.

Yet some of the most critical plays during any given game rely on the chain gang — people who are typically fans of the home team and get paid under $100 a game to operate a contraption that resembles an ancient torture device or a sloppy DIY project your dad conceived of and built in the middle of the night. (“It’s a portable fence to keep the dog in the yard,” your dad said. “And the big orange poles will scare away coyotes!”)

During this week’s Sunday Night Football game between the Raiders and Cowboys, the chain operation was in the spotlight when referee Gene Steratore made the unusual decision to use an index card to distinguish whether the tip of the football had passed the first-down marker.

Steratore’s actions implied that the chain gang is accurate to within the width of an index card — about a tenth of a millimeter. Of course, it isn’t. But his decision helped the Cowboys to victory; Dallas got the first down and drove for a touchdown that turned out to be a game-winner.

While chain gangs are notably meticulous and take a variety of steps the average fan doesn’t know about to ensure accuracy, the chain-gang operation is awkward and imprecise. (“Is it perfectly accurate?” Mike Pereira, then the NFL’s officiating head, told The New York Times in 2008. “I don’t think it is.”) And still, the chain gang is considered authoritative. If a ruling is close, coaches can call for a review of the ball’s spot, but the chains cannot be challenged. Their placement is considered fact, not opinion.

Football is constantly searching for high-tech answers. Most controversial calls are subject to slow-motion, high-definition replay from dozens of the most expensive cameras money can buy. Microsoft spent $400 million to become the official sideline tablet of the league, only to have their tablets referred to as “iPads” and trashed, verbally and physically. NFL uniforms and footballs have RFID chips embedded, so teams and broadcasters can have accurate data about how players move on the field. Why does such a crucial aspect of the sport rely on such an old-timey solution?

The touchdown was worth five points until 1912, when it was upgraded to six. The field goal was worth four points until 1909, when it was downgraded to three. But in 1907, Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide advised game organizers to “provide two light poles, about six feet in length, connected at their lower ends by a stout cord or chain ten yards in length.” The chains, then, are older than the current scoring system. And for most of the century-plus the chains have been in use, people have been trying to replace them. The earliest patent for a chain replacement appears to be this 1929 beauty, a gizmo with wheels and signs attached to a track that ran along the football field.

Many others have followed. There was the Pere-Scope, used in 21 college games in 1954, including the East-West Shrine Game. There was the Dicker-rod, a device that could be operated by just one man and was used by the World Football League in 1974. (It was invented by a man named George Dicker, who, quite frankly, should have known better with regards to the name.) A device featuring a laser beam was used for the 1976 Senior Bowl. Alan Amron, who claims to have invented the Post-it note — the company that makes Post-it notes vehemently disagrees — has reportedly met with the NFL several times about a system called the “First Down Laser” that would project the first-down line onto the field. (It’s untested, would cost hundreds of thousands to install per stadium, and could cause eye damage to players looking in the wrong place at the wrong time, but…. LASERS.)

Each inventor has claimed that their new device is an improvement. Somehow, we still have the chains.

While the NFL is shifting its officials to full-time status, the chain gang still consists of people hired by the home team. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Ravens’ crew makes $72 a game, and the Minnesota Star-Tribune reports that the Vikings’ crew makes $50 per game. Typically, they are well-respected local high school and college officials, but they are often unabashed supporters of the team they work for. A profile of the 49ers’ chain crew ahead of their Super Bowl 50 gig described one member as “a longtime 49ers fan,” although it notes that the crew is not allowed to interact with players or coaches unless talked to first. If you’re reading this and thinking the chain gang sounds like a nice way to spend your Sunday, do not expect to get one of these jobs. The people who get these gigs typically do not relinquish them for decades, until they’re infirm, and they often pass the job down to family members.

They fill the same role every game. There are two “rod men,” who hold the big orange poles 10 yards apart, one at the original line of scrimmage and one at the first down marker. (You need one at each end because when there is a turnover or punt, the crew reverses direction instead of changing places.) There is a “box man,” who holds the Dial-a-Down, which indicates the number of the down and marks off the line of scrimmage. (Really? “Rod man” and “box man?”) There is also an auxiliary crew that works the opposite sideline — their markings are unofficial, which is why the chains from the same sideline always get called in to make rulings, even if the spot in question is closer to the other side of the field. You can identify all of these roles from watching at home, as everyone is holding very large implements.

But I don’t think the average fan has any idea about the clip, the small item that makes the whole crew function. When the chains are brought out onto the field, the crew is not just trying to approximate the location they had on the sideline; they use the clip as their guide. When the crew resets for a new first down, the clip is placed on the chain at the point where it intersects with the closest 5-yard stripe to the original line of scrimmage — specifically, on the back side of the stripe, which is several inches thick. When the chain is moved onto the field — or, if the chain members have to drop their poles to avoid contact with a player, or if the chain moves for a first down that is later overturned — the crew uses the clip as a frame of reference to ensure the chains are placed in the exact same spot they were before. This allows the chains to always remain consistent.

But “consistent” does not mean “accurate.” The entire placement of the chains depends on an estimation — when a first down happens, the crew quickly estimates the spot for the next first down based off of where officials spot the football on the field. And of course, the very spot of the football is an estimation — a split-second judgment call made by an official’s guess of where a ball was when a player’s forward progress was stopped. To expect that officials accurately make this determination to within an inch, or even a foot, would be absurd.

The purpose of the chain gang is not to provide perfection. The reason the chain gang is still in use is because it has two jobs and does both of them well.

Its first job is to let the two teams on the field know where the line to gain is and never deviate from that initial judgment. The clip ensures this is the case. It doesn’t matter that the initial spot of the chain gang might be iffy; once the chains are down, the offense knows where it needs to get to.

The second is superficial. Whenever people propose solutions to the chain gang — perhaps, often better solutions, ones that are less clunky, require fewer people to operate, make faster decisions, and are more accurate — somebody says “yeah, but … people like the chain gang.” In a Los Angeles Times article from 1970 about the Dicker-rod that was sleuthed out by Paul Lukas of Uni Watch, the commissioner of a local Division II conference asked, “What happens when the public misses the drama of the chain gang measurement?” In 2008, Giants owner John Mara told The New York Times that while the chain crew was “subject to human error … there’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains.”

Watching Steratore bust out the index card, you can see how the dramatic ritual succeeds. “Look at this … look at this!”, Al Michaels exclaims, more excited than he has been about any football play in decades. The officials frantically clear players away from the TV cameras, so that the shot can be perfect — something Pereira said they are instructed to do in The New York Times article. When Steratore makes his ruling, he has a notable grin.

But as Cork Gaines of Business Insider and Ben Austro of officiating blog Football Zebras noted, there is a trick officials use to basically eliminate the need for chains — one that Steratore likely used before taking the index card out of his pocket. On first downs, officials can spot the ball not where the last play ended, but on top of a yard marker. This way, the line to gain for the next first down will also be on top of a yard marker, and officials can determine the next first down spot by seeing whether the ball’s tip crosses the yard line in question. The trick gives or takes up to a half-yard from teams, but the spot of the ball is an estimation anyway, and the team still has to go exactly 10 yards from the approximate spot. On the Raiders-Cowboys play, the initial line of scrimmage was the 30, meaning Steratore knew the Cowboys had a first down when the ball’s tip passed the plane of the 40-yard line. But the drama was excellent.

Lasers haven’t been tested yet, and chips in footballs don’t provide down-to-the-inch data, but I suspect there is a more precise way to demarcate the line to gain than using a chain gang. Except, sometimes, trying to be too precise can lead to more problems — just look at the catch rule. And besides, the process starts with an official’s educated guess at a spot. Adding any precision to the chain gang’s operation without coming up with a perfect method of spotting footballs would be a half-measure.

The NFL is a show and a game, and should be treated as such. The chain gain doesn’t work perfectly, but neither did your dad’s DIY projects. But you never would’ve told him to stop — remember how happy they made him? — so forgive football this quaint, stupid, and enjoyable tradition. The chain gang looks and seems dumb, but couldn’t you say the same thing about football?