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The 10-yard lie?
2009-01-01 20:47
by Bob Timmermann

The New York Times ran a front page article on New Year's Day about one of my numerous pet peeves in sports, the first down chains.

Maybe it's not a peeve (and I have enough peeves that are pets of mind that Animal Control has cited me), but I've always wondered why a sport that seems to love technology as much as football uses such a decidedly low tech method of determining first downs.

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.”
And here's where the system of measuring for first downs can go awry:

  • The ball is not marked correctly. And I think everyone knows that spotting the football involves a lot of guesswork.
  • The field is not marked correctly. This may not be a problem in the NFL and big time college football.
  • The chain is not exactly 10 yards long. If the referee is going to judge by an inch or two if a first down is made, wouldn't it make sense to get the chains measured accurately? I've been to many high school games where the chain broke. They were reattached with tape.
  • The people holding the chain are not standing perpendicular to the goal line. I doubt they ever are.
  • There are probably a dozen other problems I haven't listed.

Why do they need chains? Why don't they just look at the original line of scrimmage when the first down was made and eyeball it? It would be just as accurate. And then you don't have to waste time in the game with people running in and out with chains.



2009-01-01 21:27:33
1.   Griffon64
Thank you! One of my dearest pet peeves, too.
2009-01-01 22:19:42
2.   110phil
Maybe the chains is how you get agreement from both teams.

Suppose the ball can only be spotted within an inch. If both teams KNEW that the difference would make or break the first down, they'd yell and scream. But if they know there's only a 20% chance that inch will make a difference, they'll shut up and wait for the chains and the 1-in-5 chance. Once the measurement is done, it's too late to complain.

Since it's completely impossible to spot the ball properly, close has to be good enough. And it's better to get consensus on the "good enough" without the referee, or either team, knowing if it's a first down or not. Makes for a more impartial placement.

2009-01-01 22:59:32
3.   Gagne55
Yeah, I've always thought that was somewhat amusing. "The ball is around... uh right here." Now measure to see if the nose of the ball reaches the end of the chains or whether it is just short!
2009-01-02 22:58:51
4.   Linkmeister
40 years ago I worked the chains on the sidelines for my HS football team. It was guesswork then, too, and since this was the DC suburbs, it was bloody cold work. "Hey! That guy's gloves are thicker! The ball's not spotted right!"
2009-01-02 23:29:29
5.   grandcosmo
Having a big orange stick and an orange mat on the sideline to indicate where the first down can be reached really helps the players on the field as well as the coaches, crowd and the announcers.

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