No Chain Of Fools

In the vast majority of games, the officiating crew is handed a chain crew not of their selection. In fact, at some schools no one selects the chain crew — they are whoever comes out of the stands in response to a PA announcement.

Many of the issues with chain crew members are minor and can be addressed politely with good results. Rabble-rousing chain crew members should be asked to zip their lips; if they don’t stifle their vocal cords, they’ll be back in the bleachers at halftime. A more problematic member of a chain crew is one who critiques the officials with the view through partisan glasses. That should spark immediate removal.

The linesman cannot keep turning his back to the field, so he has a limited ability to check on the chain crew. The line judge can help with what’s on the down box, but not with chain placement. The lower the level of play, the greater the likelihood chain problems will occur.


The most extreme case of a short chain is probably one that occurred in a youth league. Both teams were on the same sideline and the chains were in front of the offense’s team bench. And yes, the chain crew was comprised of parents of that team’s players. The ball was a few inches short of a first down and the referee called for a measurement. When the chains were brought out, the ball was three yards short. It became obvious the chain crew was not stretching the chain out in order to favor their team.

It is understood such a blatant act would not be expected and specifically checked for, but the linesman cannot simply leave the chain crew to perform completely on its own. As a minimum, the linesman needs to check after a first down to ensure the stake is planted immediately behind the foot. At same time, the linesman should say the line-to-gain and visualize the line on the field. A half-yard scam might work but missing a three-yard short stick is inexcusable.

Crooked lines.

In a prep game, the measurement (that should never have been made) revealed the ball was a few inches short of a first down. When the referee signaled the shortfall, the offensive coach screamed, “Look at where the ball is!” The referee looked to see the ball was halfway between the 30 and 31 yardlines. “So what?” The agitated coach replied, “We started from a touchback!” Indeed, they had. After a very long delay doing the checks that should have been done before the game, it was discovered that while the chains were 10 yards long, the five yardlines on the field were improperly marked — some were correct, but not all (NFHS rules only require lines every five yards).

It ain’t so Joe. In a playoff game on an exquisitely marked turf field, the line judge signaled to the referee a first down had been achieved and the referee gave the official signal. But then, no one moved — the chain crew stood fast as the umpire held the ball. Sensing a problem, the referee went to the line and noted the linesman was marking a forward progress spot six inches short of the stake.

The line judge explained that after the previous change of possession, the ball was spotted on the 30 yardline and was now past the 40 yardline, so it had to be a first down. The linesman agreed with the line judge, so the only explanation was the chains had been established near the 30 yardline but not on the back edge of the line per the approved mechanic.

Coaches and players could see the ball was short and the referee recognized it was untenable to let the first down stand. In an effort to wiggle out of the predicament, he called for a measurement, which provided no relief –— the ball was still short. No one argued when the referee declared the next down to be third down. After a short gain for an indisputable first down, the offense scored and the debacle was quickly forgotten.

Moving chains.

In a regular-season prep game, the kickoff was returned to team R’s 17 yardline. The chain crew, working on their own and not paying attention, set the chains at the 18 yardline. The error was not caught either by the linesman or the line judge. Thus the first play was first and 11. Following an incomplete pass and a false start, the next play was second and 16.

On second down, a completed pass play took the ball to the 25 yardline. The ball became loose and was “recovered” by the defense at the 30 yardline. Both the linesman and the back judge had the runner down at the 25 yardline, but neither sold his call. The linesman raised his hand to indicate third down, but did not pinch in. The back judge nonchalantly pointed at where the runner was down. That created confusion; the defense started to leave the field and the offense was entering before it was made clear that “no fumble” was ruled (video later revealed it was a fumble).

Once the officials recognized there was not a change of possession, they tried to return to the correct placement, but did not know how to reset the chains using the clip and did not seek help. They did know that the clip goes on a five yardline so after they guessed at the correct starting point, they moved the clip.

The home team noted the chain error before the third-down play and protested. To make matters worse, no one on the chain crew would admit to what had occurred. It should have been third and two, but was third and five on the field. No correction was made because no one could figure out what happened until they saw the video. The offense then took the heat off the officials by gaining six yards for a first down.

There were a variety of errors in that scenario. None of them are uncommon. But the root cause was a linesman not controlling the chain crew and allowing them to move independently.

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