It has been a long time since I have done a post on the Chains and it is probably time for a refresh. I used to do one every year. It is still as maddening to me as ever when the two guys with sticks and a hunk of chain come across the field in a football game to measure ten yards. There aren't too many technologies from the 20s that you can name that are still in use today in major sports that haven't evolved in some fashion.
The NFL is an innovator in a lot of ways. This country is completely football mad and it is due to things like the NFL Redzone, mobile apps, the NFL Network, and other media plays that keep the news front and center 24/7/365. Want stats? They got 'em. Trade info? You can find it anywhere. And on and on.
The game has evolved over a century with many rule changes to keep progressing with the times. Things like the play clock and forward pass completely changed the way that the game was played. However, some things are stuck in the mud, and there really doesn't appear to be any good reason for it. The Chains are obviously one thing that is still around from the OLD days. However, the whole system of spotting the football where the player is "down" is completely random and arbitrary. I have been over it before, but I think it would behoove us for me to go over what a standard set of downs looks like again before we begin discussing where the Chains come in during the process.
First, there is a kickoff and a guy runs up the field and is gang tackled by 4 guys. A linesman 15 yards away who is standing on the sidelines (typically not at a right angle from the player) runs over and spots the ball down "here". On first down the running back slides out of bounds - again, a linesman (not at a right angle from the out of bounds action) puts the ball down "here". On second down there is a run up the middle and the runner is buried by 7 guys. The umpire standing in the middle of the field (inexplicably) is not allowed to put the ball down, but a linesman on the sidelines moves in a few yards, puts his foot down and says the ball is "here".
Before we get to third down, I need to note what is easily the most infuriating play in all of football - even worse than the chains. When a team is on the 1 yard line and there is a run up the middle into a huge mass of men, the umpire who is STANDING RIGHT THERE is apparently unqualified to put his two arms up in the air and signal touchdown or not. We have to wait for the linesman who is literally 25 yards away standing on the sidelines to run into the pile (which has shifted for about 5 seconds now) and FINALLY tell us what is going on.
Now on third down there is an incomplete pass so the linesmen get a rest (note - if you watch carefully you will see during a game even on an incomplete pass the spot of the football will shift). On fourth down there is a punt but the punter skies it over sidelines. The linesman marches up the sidelines and says the ball is out "here". So you have had at least four random events in a standard series of downs, and all of this inaccuracy sometimes gets measured by two sticks and ten yards of chain. And don't forget that the chains are placed down on the sidelines where a guy EYEBALLS where they should be in the first place. Incredible.
The question I keep asking is why are we doing it this way? Solutions have been proposed many times in the past.
While that is probably a question that is unanswerable, maddening and baffling all at the same time, we can take a look at history for some Chains nostalgia, and one guy on the field who is part of the chain gang and who you may not even know exists. More on him in a bit.
First, my all time favorite Chains play since I was actually watching it live and laughed my ass off. I am sure this game was fixed. Michigan pulls a fake punt on South Carolina in the 2013 Outback Bowl and the guys is down about a yard from where he is actually marked. As if that isn't bad enough, they measure, Michigan is short, and the ref STILL gives them the first down and Steve Spurrier (correctly) blows a gasket.
So where did the chains come from? Per this article:
“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.
Yep, 1907. They honestly haven't changed much since then.
It is difficult to find footage of Chain Gangs from the past since they weren't typically on the sidelines. I am honestly not sure how it all worked back then. Here is an interesting bit of footage from the Harvard Yale football game from 1927. You can see how the refs really inserted themselves into the action and were immediately able to spot the ball when a carrier was down. Also, if you freeze it at 41 seconds, look how close the linesman is to the players.
You sharpies out there probably noticed that there are no hashmarks on the field.
Here is Oregon vs. UCLA from 1928. This clip doesn't have anything particularly remarkable in it (as far as the chains are concerned) but while I was searching for items for this post I was pleasantly surprised to see at 1.28 the UCLA Bruins pep squad actually has a real BEAR on the field (holy sh1t awesome!). Those were the days.
But back to the chains. Here is some action between the Chicago Cardinals and Chicago Bears from Comiskey Park in 1929. I can't really see any measuring devices of any kind on the sidelines, but at 1.50 you can see a guy crouching on the sidelines with what looks to be a stick of some sort. This may be my first sighting of what are supposed to be the Chains.
Turns out I was right. They used to crouch, and the sticks used to be shorter, about 3 feet tall from what I can tell. Look at this footage from Duke vs. North Carolina from 1941. First off, you gotta see the kickoff at .39 - they try the old "dipsy doo" on the runback with, shall we say, unsatisfactory results haha. But at .51 you can see a guy crouching on the sidelines with a stick. At .59 it is confirmed. You can see the second guy crouching with a stick ten yards downfield.
Now that I know what I am looking for, it is likely that I can probably find older footage of guys crouching on the sidelines. Some of the old footage I looked at only had one guy so maybe they "staked" the one end while the other end was tended by a guy, making it a one man (chain) gang. So to say. My research continues.
But what about that one guy who I mentioned earlier in the post that is part of the chain gang, that you probably have never heard of?
He is so obscure, I couldn't even find a picture of him. If you look closely at the next game you watch, you will see a guy who is the "drive starter marker" for lack of a better term. He holds a stick and stands where the drive starts until the next drive begins, when he walks down there and plants his stick again, and remains until that drive is over. I have no idea why we really need this guy (can't someone mark down where the drive starts for the stat guys? Computers?) but he is there.
My misery every football season continues all because of two guys holding sticks with a g0ddamned ten yard length of chain in between them. Every time they bring on the Chains, part of me dies. Just ask Carl - he sees my anguish up in the cheap seats at Soldier Field.
See you next year.