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Thread: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

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    Just The Big Picture macro's Avatar
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    Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    This may be a dumb question, but it's something I've wondered. When the chains are carried onto the field to see if a first down has been made, how are they certain that the back end of the chains are placed correctly? Do they just eyeball it?

    A lot is made of the spot of the ball, but I never hear any mention of the spot of the chains.


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    Titanic Struggles Caveat Emperor's Avatar
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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    One of the games I was watching -- I think the GA Tech / VA Tech game this past Saturday -- had a commentator bring up this point. His statement was to the effect of "In 2009, we can use computers to project first down lines on the field and do amazing replay effects, but the best we can come up with for measuring first downs is two guys with sticks connected by chains?"

    Here's an interesting NYT piece I found on the subject:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/sp...pagewanted=all


    In High-Tech Game, Football Sticks to an Old Measure of Success

    By JOHN BRANCH
    Published: December 31, 2008

    Before there were four downs in football, before 6 points were awarded for a touchdown, even before there was an annual Rose Bowl or something called the National Football League, there were chains on the sideline.

    Since 1906, football teams have needed to gain 10 yards for a first down. From the sideline, far from the action, two sticks connected by a chain have measured the required distance, their placement estimated by eyesight.

    For a game of inches, it has never seemed an exact science. For a game long advanced by technological innovation, from helmets to video replays, the chains are antiques. Dozens of inventions have been patented to improve or abolish them.

    Yet the chains stand the test of time, if not distance.

    “Is it perfectly accurate?” said Mike Pereira, the N.F.L.’s vice president for officiating. “No, I don’t think it is.”

    The method, used at all levels of American football, remains virtually unchanged and unnoticed after 100 years, taking place beyond the scope of the television camera and the focus of the fans until a precise measurement is needed. Even at this time of year, in the midst of the college bowl season and the start of the N.F.L. playoffs, little thought is given to how the 10-yard increments are measured in the country’s most popular sport.

    On a first down, one end of the chains is placed along the sideline by one member of the seven-person chain gang — hired for game-day duty by the home teams — six feet from the field, supposedly even with the front tip of a football that will be snapped at least 25 yards away. When a play ends, an official estimates the spot, usually marking it with a foot and tossing the ball to another official to set for the next play. When a first down is too close to call, the chains are trotted onto the field.

    Sometimes the drive continues by an inch. Sometimes it ends by less.

    “There must be a better way,” said Pat Summerall, the longtime N.F.L. player and broadcaster. “Because games are decided, careers are decided, on those measurements.”

    There are two sides to the equation. The spot of the ball, now reviewable under the N.F.L.’s replay rules, is often a subject of great consternation. Rare is the debate over whether the chains, not the ball, are in the wrong place.

    But every couple of years an inventor patents an alternative to the chains intriguing enough to warrant an audience with the N.F.L.’s competition committee, which debates rules changes.

    “I bet you there is some type of technology that comes along in the next five years that creates that change,” said the Falcons’ president, Rich McKay, co-chairman of the committee. “I’m just not sure we have it yet.”

    Past ideas have been dismissed, sometimes because of cost, mostly because they were unproven and deemed unnecessary. Tradition is an issue, too. The ritualistic on-field measurement can be a dramatic, momentum-swinging event as anticipated as any pass or handoff.

    An official protectively holds the ball against the ground, because precision is suddenly important. The chains arrive from the sideline. An official slowly pulls the chain taut. Breaths are held.

    “When we measure, we make sure the players are clear so that TV can get a good shot of the actual measurement,” Pereira said.

    Suspense would be lost if every first down were determined instantly.

    “There’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains,” said the Giants’ president, John Mara, who is also on the N.F.L.’s competition committee. “Yes, it is subject to human error, just like anything else is. But I think it’s one of the traditions that we have in the game, and I don’t think any of us have felt a real compelling need to make a change.”

    In 1906 the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (now the N.C.A.A.) changed several fundamental rules to reduce football’s violence. Among them were the advent of the forward pass (it remained highly restricted and not a popular option for another couple of decades) and the requirement of 10 yards, not 5, for a first down.

    “To assist in measuring the progress of the ball it is desirable to provide two light poles about six feet in length, connected at their lower ends with a stout cord or chain 10 yards in length,” read Spalding’s Official Foot Ball Guide in 1907.

    Improvements were imagined almost immediately. In 1929 Luther More of Seattle received a patent for something called Measuring Device for Football Games. It was a contraption with a telescopic “sighting device” that used wheels and pulleys to move along a sideline track.

    Early inventors were keen on sights, like those on rifles. Subsequent patents focused on keeping those sights aimed properly, like one in 1967 called a “football liner up device,” using an array of mirrors.

    The focus turned toward lasers after a portable hand-held laser system was patented in 1968. In 1973 Willis Pioch of New Jersey received a patent for a “visible line marker” for football fields. Ten yards could be determined by laser beams emitted from boxes along the sideline that slid on rails.

    Thirty-five years later, the chains persist. And inventors like Alan Amron, a 60-year-old from Long Island, plan their extinction.

    In 2003, with the help of Summerall, Amron presented a sophisticated laser system to the competition committee. Using lasers permanently mounted into stadium lights, a green line — visible to players, coaches and fans in the stadium, and to television viewers — would be projected onto the field to mark the line for a first down. Amron said it would be accurate to within a sixteenth of an inch.

    The N.F.L. was intrigued but not interested — yet. There were safety concerns (“I just have visions of lasers being sent all over the place, a ‘Star Wars’ kind of thing,” Mara said last week), although Amron said fears were unfounded. More problematic is that the system costs $300,000 to $500,000 to install in each stadium, Amron said, and has not been tested in an actual game. Attempts have failed for trial runs in an N.F.L. preseason game, or in college football or the Canadian Football League.

    “What often happens in these cases when there’s a new proposal, we’re a lot more comfortable if they’ve tested it somewhere else,” Mara said.

    Rogers Redding, the secretary-rules editor for the N.C.A.A. football rules committee, said the chain method “may not be superaccurate, but it’s as accurate as you need.”

    After all, spotting the ball with an official’s foot and then setting it down across the field is hardly precise, either. The offense’s center often moves the ball before the snap. And, Redding pointed out, who’s to say that the yard lines on the field are perfectly measured in every stadium?

    “It’s kind of a diminishing returns thing,” Redding said of reinventing the chains. “How much do you want to invest in this form of accuracy?”

    That does not deter Amron and his company, First Down Laser Systems. Amron has a patent for a laser system embedded into the actual sticks attached to the chains. A built-in gyroscope and an automatic level keep the beams pointed straight.

    He sees it as a way to prove the validity of the laser concept, perhaps an intermediate step to the stadiumwide system. He hopes for an invitation from the competition committee next spring.

    Change, if it comes at all, is years away. But the issue presents itself almost every game.

    Trailing the Green Bay Packers late in the fourth quarter of a recent Monday night game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the Bears faced a fourth-and-1. Running back Matt Forte bulled straight into a scrum.

    The ball was placed on the ground and the chains arrived from the sideline. The tip of the ball peeked just past the marker.

    Forte scored on the next play, sending the game to overtime. The Bears kept their playoff hopes alive for another week with a winning field goal.

    In the aftermath, there was some debate about where the ball was marked on the fourth-down play. No one wondered if the chains were in the right place. After 100 years, why wouldn’t they be?
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    Et tu, Brutus? Brutus's Avatar
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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by macro View Post
    This may be a dumb question, but it's something I've wondered. When the chains are carried onto the field to see if a first down has been made, how are they certain that the back end of the chains are placed correctly? Do they just eyeball it?

    A lot is made of the spot of the ball, but I never hear any mention of the spot of the chains.

    The ref reaches down with his finger and his thumb and grabs the link on the chain that aligns with the foremost yard line between the middle of the two sticks. Then they bring the chains out to wherever it is on the field and place the link being held between the ref's fingers on the same yard line at the point of where the ball is spotted.
    "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference." ~Tommy Lasorda

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Brutus, that sounds simple enough. I knew there must be some way of ensuring that it got placed as accurately as possible, but never paid attention to what they actually did.

    And Caveat, thanks for the article. Good read, and helpful. I guess what I thought to be an original question wasn't so original after all. But that's okay. It's good to know that others recognize the situation.

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by macro View Post
    Brutus, that sounds simple enough. I knew there must be some way of ensuring that it got placed as accurately as possible, but never paid attention to what they actually did.

    And Caveat, thanks for the article. Good read, and helpful. I guess what I thought to be an original question wasn't so original after all. But that's okay. It's good to know that others recognize the situation.
    It usually is simple, but take it from experience, it can get confusing once in a while.

    The two instances that get a little tricky if you're not careful:

    * If the chains get prematurely moved after a first down or some sort of penalty

    * The end of the quarter and there will be a measurement and subsequent changing ends; it seems simple, and it is, but sometimes the chain guys forget to spin around when they move to the other end of the field, and it can confuse them as to where they're supposed to be placed

    (I used to officiate colt league games up through varsity, so I can confess to a few chain snafus in my time)
    "No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference." ~Tommy Lasorda

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    I thought this was quite interesting (the question and article). It seems to me that the real reason not to bother with increasing accuracy via technology is that regardless of what you do the greatest uncertainty will still be with the spot of the ball by the official (i.e. where did forward progress stop or where did a punt cross over out-of-bounds twenty feet in the air, etc).

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    In High School we had an orange plastic marker that snapped onto the chain. It was always snapped on the forward edge of the line ending in "0". (The 10,20,30 etc.) That took care of most of the problems. When you take the sticks out to measure just make sure that the orange marker is in the right place. If the sticks started to be moved prematurely you just bring them back and do the same thing. If you were changing ends of the field and the sticks weren't flipped the orange marker would not end up in the right place. Voila!

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Here's the real issue:

    More problematic is that the system costs $300,000 to $500,000 to install in each stadium, Amron said, and has not been tested in an actual game.
    Even for the NFL, that's a fairly expensive solution for something most people don't see as a problem.
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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by texasdave View Post
    In High School we had an orange plastic marker that snapped onto the chain. It was always snapped on the forward edge of the line ending in "0". (The 10,20,30 etc.) That took care of most of the problems. When you take the sticks out to measure just make sure that the orange marker is in the right place. If the sticks started to be moved prematurely you just bring them back and do the same thing. If you were changing ends of the field and the sticks weren't flipped the orange marker would not end up in the right place. Voila!
    This was my job on Saturdays at the small college I attended. I snapped on the orange marker and kept track of the penalties. However, it's still just a guess. You are instructed to snap the marker on the forward edge of the line ending in 0 but it is still an eyeballed guess from 2-3 yards away. And if a team is running a no-huddle or the chains haven't been stretched properly to begin with by guys with hangovers on a Saturday morning, it can really get screwed up. In a game where a team can maintain or lose possession by the nose of a football, it seems silly that it's the best they come up with. It's interesting too that it rarely gets talked about...
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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by texasdave View Post
    In High School we had an orange plastic marker that snapped onto the chain. It was always snapped on the forward edge of the line ending in "0". (The 10,20,30 etc.) That took care of most of the problems. When you take the sticks out to measure just make sure that the orange marker is in the right place. If the sticks started to be moved prematurely you just bring them back and do the same thing. If you were changing ends of the field and the sticks weren't flipped the orange marker would not end up in the right place. Voila!
    Yeah, that's basically how they still do it today. They choose a solid yardline while the chains are on the sideline and clip something, circular I believe, that exactly lines up with the "0" yardline. That way if the sticks are moved they can easily re-place them. When a measurement is necessary they line up that circular piece with the solid yardline and spread out the chains toward the ball.

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    The issue of knowing exactly where to place the chains during a measurement works pretty well. However, the issue that is still problematic and that has not been addressed in this thread is the initial placement of the chains after a first down.

    The way it works is that the guy holding the pole that marks the line of scrimmage walks down the sideline to the point where the ball is spotted, eyeballs the line of scrimmage and sticks the pole on the ground. He is doing this by line of sight from 25 or 30 yards away from the ball. If he is off by a little bit then the offense may have to go 10 yards and one foot to get a first down. Or they may have to go 9 yards and two feet to get the first down.

    The problem doesn't arise when you are trying to measure if they made the first down, the problem arises when the line of scrimmage was originally marked. If there is an error made in the placement of the chains it occurs before 1st down, not on 4th down. The original placement of the chains is where the guesswork comes in, not during the measurement.

    The measurement is much more precise than the initial placement of the chains.

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by AtomicDumpling View Post
    The issue of knowing exactly where to place the chains during a measurement works pretty well. However, the issue that is still problematic and that has not been addressed in this thread is the initial placement of the chains after a first down.

    The way it works is that the guy holding the pole that marks the line of scrimmage walks down the sideline to the point where the ball is spotted, eyeballs the line of scrimmage and sticks the pole on the ground. He is doing this by line of sight from 25 or 30 yards away from the ball. If he is off by a little bit then the offense may have to go 10 yards and one foot to get a first down. Or they may have to go 9 yards and two feet to get the first down.

    The problem doesn't arise when you are trying to measure if they made the first down, the problem arises when the line of scrimmage was originally marked. If there is an error made in the placement of the chains it occurs before 1st down, not on 4th down. The original placement of the chains is where the guesswork comes in, not during the measurement.

    The measurement is much more precise than the initial placement of the chains.
    Unless there is a problem with eyesight, you are not going to be a foot off. Inches, perhaps, but a foot? Hardly. Also, the sideline ref assists the chain gang with the spot and there is the down marker as a third set of eyes. While not laser precision, anyone marking a foot difference is cheating.

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by traderumor View Post
    Unless there is a problem with eyesight, you are not going to be a foot off. Inches, perhaps, but a foot? Hardly. Also, the sideline ref assists the chain gang with the spot and there is the down marker as a third set of eyes. While not laser precision, anyone marking a foot difference is cheating.
    The point of my post is not the foot or any specific distance. The point is that everyone is discussing the measurement, which is fairly precise, while ignoring the initial placement of the chains, which is not nearly as precise.

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    Quote Originally Posted by AtomicDumpling View Post
    The point of my post is not the foot or any specific distance. The point is that everyone is discussing the measurement, which is fairly precise, while ignoring the initial placement of the chains, which is not nearly as precise.
    True, but at least the system means the placement of the chains remains constant through a set of downs. It might not be exactly ten yards, but the point on the field you have to get on first down is the same on fourth down.
    What if this wasn't a rhetorical question?

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    Re: Football question regarding the placement of the chains

    I caught a few minutes of one of the NFL Films shows on NFL Network this afternoon, and the last ten minutes of the show was about this very subject. The consensus among the coaches interviewed was that so far, no better system has been devised.

    One said that he could foresee a day when there might be chips in the ball or on the field or something that would keep track of it. They also played up the drama that comes from the measurement, and also the existence of the expression "move the chains".

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