Farewell Chain Gang

While many people enjoyed Easter barbeques and egg hunts, I was busy falling in love with the USFL all over again. The spring football league debuted this weekend with all games played in Birmingham, Alabama. And let me tell you – I just witnessed the future of the NFL.

The “Chain Gang” to measure first downs will soon be gone in NFL! POV cameras from players and referees will soon be part of our football watching experience.

The NFL has a long history of adopting ideas from spring football leagues, whether it be the USFL, XFL or any of the other defunct leagues. Some of these ideas are technological. Other ideas are on the field, like 2-point conversions – which started professionally in the AFL in the 60’s.

In Sunday’s USFL game between New Orleans and Philadelphia, I became excited when one of the officials called for a first down measurement. Instead of seeing a bunch of old men trot onto the field with sticks and a chain, the USFL referee waited for 8 cameras to measure using what the announcer called “First Down Technology.” Within seconds, an animated sequence showing a yellow first down line appeared on the screen. It then showed a football short of the line. Underneath, the screen said, “8 inches short.” The whole sequence took only 10-15 seconds. Amazing!

Later in the game, a pick-six for a touchdown was replayed from the linebacker’s point of view. Vontae Digg’s helmet cam showed the ball coming his way – Vontae bobbled the ball – before gaining control and running down the sidelines for the score. Within minutes, a reporter showed Diggs the play on an iPad and asked him to describe what happened. I thoroughly enjoyed the quick access to the player.

Finally, midway through the third quarter there was a questionable call along the sidelines. A wide receiver came down with the ball, but both feet landed out-of-bounds. The referee motioned “incomplete,” but the play was challenged. Upon replay, it became clear the receiver’s elbow landed before his feet. Therefore, it should have been ruled a completed pass. Famed football referee Mike Pereira is on a hot microphone in the studio watching the replay. He quickly instructs the crew that it was a catch and for them to relay the ruling to the officials. First down! The entire sequence took less than 30 seconds. The officials did not look at the replay. It wasn’t their job. The USFL cut out the middle-man to save time. Incredible!

However, there is one USFL rule that I am uncertain about: a 3-point conversion option after a touchdown. Teams are given the option of a 1-point conversion (33-yard kick), a 2-point conversion (snapped from the 2-yard line), and a 3-point conversion (snapped from the 10-yard line). The first two options are identical to the NFL. The third option is much more difficult.

I admit, the action on the field was subpar, but that didn’t matter to me. I’m super excited about everything around the play. The quick challenge review time, the helmet cams, and most importantly – The “First Down Technology.” I can see the NFL adopting these changes in the near future. RIP Chain Gang. You won’t be missed.

  • Michael Jimenez