Will NFL Chain Gangs Soon Be a Part of History?

When people think about a chain gang, they likely think of a group of prisoners working on a railroad in a time well before our own. Fans of the NFL might have a different, less troubling definition. For decades, the chain gang was a vital part of tracking where the ball was supposed to go, where it ended up, and whether it was a touchdown. With new technology, however, the chain gang has become increasingly obsolete. 

What is a chain gang?

The NFL chain gang holds a first-down marker
A member of the chain gang holds a first-down marker as snow falls | Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Before modern technology, one could argue that the chain gang was the most essential crew in football outside of the players. After all, there were not always marks on the field that could be viewed via a screen. Instead, people had to mark within centimeters the exact place that a ball landed, was to be placed, or where the receiver hit the ground. 

The chain gang has three members. First, there’s the rod man. This is the person who marks the spot where the set of downs began. In a time before computers, this was a vital part of keeping the game afloat. Second, there’s a box man, who holds a down indicator at the end of a tall pole. A second rod man stands further down the field to mark where players need to get the first down. 

With the slow rollout of technology, including the lines on the field that television viewers often take for granted, the chain gang’s role is a little less critical than it once was. Yes, players on the field might need to rely on them to get the ball where it is needed, but technology makes the science behind the job less important. 

Why might it go away? 

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According to Sports Illustrated, a player’s cleat stomped on a chain during a recent game in Washington and broke it. The meticulously measured chain was supposed to represent ten yards. Still, when something like that goes awry, it’s hard to know what to do. This is why technology is growing increasingly important. At the same time, players on the field will always need markers to show them where to go.

If the chain break, the gang is left guessing and doing math. On top of these potential risks, there’s also another unseen risk as far as the game goes. The chain gang is always in danger of a player hitting them if they don’t mind their surroundings. They must remain close enough to the field to be seen but not to put themselves in danger. 

The practical reasons to have a chain gang remain inarguable, but the entire structure might need to change to both help decrease the chances of human error while also doing a safer job for those involved. It’s not easy to be part of a chain gang. Every team has their crew. While many other aspects of the day-to-day operations were cut, the chain gang is essential enough to keep inside the game, but some call for a change. 

How could they change it? 

There have been requests to get rid of the chain gang for several years. But many note that it’s as part of the game as field goals and touchdowns, as The Ringer explains. However, as the game changes, so must the jobs that keep it going. Whether a change means abolishing the position altogether or merely adjusting it with safety and accuracy in mind, everything must shift with time. 

Chain gangs are the unsung heroes of football. But their job might be as obsolete as they come, given the technology that could do it for them. Still, for players on the field and a link to the past, one could argue that they are still a vital cog. Even if things change, chain gangs should be allowed to adjust rather than leave the field.