Here in the United States our Football is our american sport starting in late summer, we love our baseball, but come Football season the chants of “are you ready for some football” can be heard everywhere. What does that have to do with Metrology? Well, nothing….yet…..

Logo of the National Football League Playoffs,...
Logo of the National Football League Playoffs, 2011–present (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the American game of Football the goal is to move the ball down the field to the end zone, the team with the ball is given four chances (“plays”) to advance the ball 10 yards, if they advance it the minimum 10 yards they are rewarded with another four chances (plays) etc, until they reach the “end zone” where a touchdown and 7 points awaits. This ten yards is where Metrology should come in to play…..

Over the last several years the american game of football has used technology to improve the game by adding “instant replay” to determine if the Referee’s made the correct call or to determine if the ball was placed in the correct location on the field. In the National Football League (NFL) and in Colleges speakers have been added to the Quarterback’s helmet (Quarterback is the on field “General” for the Offensive unit) and to the Linebacker’s helmet (Linebacker is the on field “General” for the Defensive unit) so that their coaches can communicate with them so that they can make adjustments in real-time. The use of technologies in the players uniforms, shoes, helmets have improved safety and comfort of the players. Even the balls are kept at an exact temperature to ensure that when they are being kicked everything is “equal”, team benches are heated or cooled depending on the climate, technology is everywhere except…..

The aforementioned measurement of the 10 yards, what the ENTIRE games is based on that 10 yard increment. This 10 yard increment has the largest impact on a game of any one component, millions of dollars are won and lost based on that 10 yard increment, that 10 yards or 30 feet, carries a lot of weight. Jobs are won and lost based on that 10 yards, that 10 yards is everything….so how do you think it is measured in the year 2010 when the ability to measure 30 feet (9.1 meters) is down to the microns? Lasers? Total Stations? Some other sophisticated measurement system? NOPE, sorry the use of two poles and a chain….Sounds like Land Surveying dating as far back as history takes us right?

Measurement Method of the First Down

Several times during an american football game the “chain gang” will be called from the sideline, dragging out their poles and chains and the Referee will by hand “index” the pole to line of chalk, this is where the measurement is taken from, the chain is “stretched” to the tip of the football, to see if the “nose” of the ball exceeds the pole at the other end 10 yards (9.1 meters) away. This is how that all important measurement is taken, to those of us involved in the science of measurement the possibility for inaccurate measurements are endless, but yet, this is what american Football is based on, this has been the way since 1906.

When the Vice President of  officials from the National Football League was asked about this two years ago; he stated that he did not think it was perfectly accurate, and yet nearly two years later there is no advancement in how this crucial measurement is taken, why is that?

To be clear on the procedure that is used here is a quick synopsis;

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 (“eyeballed”)  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 brought onto the field.

Sometimes the “drive” by the offensive team continues by an inch. Sometimes it ends by less.

There have been several attempts at innovating this process, however, it seems that the “ritual” of calling the markers onto the field, with the suspense it brings as the crowd quiets and watches the referee suddenly concerned with accuracy hold the ball still as the chains are stretched is what stops technology from intervening. The “american football gods” will say that the newer methods are unproven, and could lead to errors in the game, however, these same people would not want to hear how the human eye leads to errors when attempting to align an object 75 feet away.

Perhaps, someone reading this will come up with the system that will change the way the “first down” is measured!