USFL to eliminate chains, measure first downs with chip in ball and yellow line on TV

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When it’s time to measure for a first down in the USFL, the officials will call for a high-tech solution in place of the decidedly low-tech 10-yard chains that have been used in football for a century.

The USFL played a preseason game on Friday night that included the debut of its new first down measuring system, which combines a chip in every football and the yellow first-down line that fans are accustomed to seeing on TV. Video of its use during the preseason game was accompanied by a claim from the USFL that the upstart league has “First down measurements that are more accurate than ever.”

That, however, may not be accurate. Although it undeniably looks cool on TV to see an image of the football and an image of the line to gain — reminiscent of the way replay is used in tennis — the reality is that this kind of ball tracking technology isn’t precise enough to guarantee that first down calls will be correct.

The NFL already has a chip in every football, but it uses those chips only for its Next Gen Stats tracking data, and not for officiating. That’s because the chips in the middle of every ball just aren’t accurate enough to locate where a football is to the inch. The data works fine as a good approximation of where the ball is, give or take the length of one football. But it doesn’t tell you whether a third down play just barely picked up the first down, or whether the offense should be facing fourth-and-inches.

Replay technology works so well in tennis because tennis is a sport fundamentally conducive to it: The smaller size of the ball, the spherical shape of the ball, and the ability to always have camera angles with unobstructed views of the ball and the lines on the court make tennis well suited to its replay system. Football just doesn’t work that way. It’s not always possible to tell precisely where the ball was when the ball carrier’s knee touched the ground, especially when huge men are surrounding the ball carrier and blocking any view of his knee or the ball.

So TV viewers will probably enjoy watching the USFL’s solution to first downs, but no one should expect the actual spotting of the ball to be any more accurate than it is in the NFL.

57 responses to “USFL to eliminate chains, measure first downs with chip in ball and yellow line on TV

  1. Imagine the chunk of beneficially lucky circumstances would be taken out of Tom Brady’s all-time record for being lucky, if this technology existed twenty years ago! He wouldn’t lose his title of luckiest, but he’d lose a lot of cases. He still has enough good fortune over the years generally, to return the title of LOAT.

  2. You can take the distance from the center of the ball (or wherever the chip is) to any point you choose on the ball by simple math. The real challenge is to determine which point of the ball is the furthest along (so they should probably use 2 chips equidistant and take the difference). With 2 chips you can determine angle etc etc (again by math).

    But another potential issue is the ball gets beat up a bit (and cools down/heats up during the game) and can change the edges somewhat. But no less precise than the chain measurement (and probably if done correctly more)……

  3. I honestly really like this idea, hopefully they troubleshoot it in the nonsense league and the bigger nonsense league can adopt it.

  4. better than a ref jogging over from across the field and spotting the ball at a point where he thinks it was when the player was at the precise moment he was downed, but not sure ‘cuz there was a bunch of other big-ass dudes obscuring his vision. It always is going to beg the question at what point is the ball carrier down and where exactly was the ball. I like the electric version, myself. Is it going to be 100% accurate? no. But it has the potential to be so much better than the present method. And it will be buggy at first, to be sure. Over time it will get refined and so on. It should be used in pre-season for a few years. And USFL. etc. Eventually it will be solid

  5. Technology is alsways a work on progress. This is the beta test, and will be accepted as accurate in the NFL within a decade. And it will be measured down to the millimeter. And then we will wonder how the current system was used for 100+ years.

    Like when GPS mapping replaced having a map in every car 🙂

  6. The electric version. I pictured the players vibrating randomly around the field.

  7. Are the chips so inaccurate that after logging location A they cannot correctly determine if location B is 10 yards further away? The chips don’t require global gps positioning. They just have to determine the distance travelled.

  8. USFL haters…it was a better league then NFL was back in the 80s. They also pushed the salaries up for all pro football players. I would lovento see a legit spring football league.

  9. I’ve worked in tech for 20 years. I said to myself 10 years ago that I am surprised the NFL isn’t using tech in the ball, to measure stuff like speed, trajectory, distance and even touches — so much data can be pulled from a nested chip, and frankly, many field decisions made in the past decade have clearly needed a more digital analysis to really know what happened in the play. Now I am even more surprised that there still isn’t any conversation about the NFL implementing or even testing out a ball chip.

  10. Using technology reduces the chance of human error. If the use of chips gives a more accurate spot than fallible judgement of refs, this is a net improvement for the game.
    The USFL should also try to implement this around goal line plays to determine whether the ball crosses the plane of the end zone.

  11. It’s probably beacon technology which would be the most basic way to do this

  12. I love the idea of technology taking care of business and reducing greatly the misconstrued contributions of the “human factor.” The human factor is exactly the problem.

  13. But the chip won’t tell you when the runner’s knee or elbow was down.

  14. Thank the jebus. I’ve been saying for a long time, they’re trying to use 21st century technology to adjudicate rules written (some) as early as the late 1800s and all it does is cause drama.

    And every time it fails badly enough, they add more word salad on top of whatever already-bloated rule is/was the problem, making it even worse.

    It’s time to rewrite the rules, from scratch, with an eye toward today’s technology. Pass interference? No problem. I can fix it. Most, if not all of us, could fix it. Easily.

    Let’s use the “no contact after 5 yards” for example. We certainly have the ability to enforce that fairly and equitably every time. So we should be. No more “this ref sees it this way and that ref sees it that way.” If it’s there, it should be called and enforced. Now… if 5 yards brings about too many penalties, the competition committee always has the ability to change it to 6 yards. Or 7 yards. Or 10. But the rules need to be rewritten so that it MUST be the same every time, for every team, by every ref.

  15. Sydney Nusinov says:
    April 9, 2022 at 5:33 pm
    But the chip won’t tell you when the runner’s knee or elbow was down.
    Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    No, but at least now the ref’s can focus on that aspect more, and not worry about ball placement.

  16. ghost says:
    April 9, 2022 at 4:41 pm
    You can take the distance from the center of the ball (or wherever the chip is) to any point you choose on the ball by simple math. The real challenge is to determine which point of the ball is the furthest along (so they should probably use 2 chips equidistant and take the difference). With 2 chips you can determine angle etc etc (again by math).

    But another potential issue is the ball gets beat up a bit (and cools down/heats up during the game) and can change the edges somewhat. But no less precise than the chain measurement (and probably if done correctly more)

    ———-

    So how does the chip tell us where the ball was when the player is down?

  17. The problem with spotting the ball is almost never where the ball is, rather it is where the ball is when the runner is down. As far as I know, there is no technology that can tell where a runner was down.

  18. Sydney, it can and will, if they use the right chip with sensory technology. That sensor will surely be working against the field, or the plane you could say. To build sensors for this purpose, it is built using a field, a player, a ball, and all that impacts any particular movement. But I could be wrong and they might be going with a simple distance-based measuring chip.

  19. With the live betting era, the pro leagues will have no choice but to implement more tech. I would never rely on human judgement with a big wager. I’d feel more confident with a digital reading of my loss or my win. This story is the biggest football news in decades. You’ll see how this now changes football. But the snide NFL will scoff at it for a year or two… but it due timer, this is how we measure and conclude live plays.

  20. Seriously? The NFL could easily have a state-of-the-art replay system that gets every call 100%. They just don’t want to. Did you notice how just about every team still had playoff hopes alive with only a couple games left, last season? And did you notice that just about every single playoff game was decided on the last play of the game? Those close games hold the TV audience, and the big TV numbers are critical when they’re negotiating those huge TV deals with the networks. The networks need sponsors that are willing to pay big bucks, and the bucks are a lot bigger when consumers are actually watching them sell those products. That’s why the NFL keeps pretending like they’re stupid and can’t figure out how to do it. They have those ridiculous and totally unnecessary long delays in hopes of turning people off to the whole idea of allowing the players to decide the games. You have to realize most of the big money everyone’s making is because of the TV revenue. Hey, I can sit on my couch from 2,000 miles away and tell within 2 seconds what the correct call is, and I don’t have all the camera angles and slow-motion replay. They’re not trying, but they’re raking in the cash. The only people complaining are the gamblers, but just as many benefit from the call than get screwed. The owners were making tons of money long before they brought all this gambling aboard, so they’re not going to go out of their way to appease the gamblers. And besides, the sports books make money either way, so they’re happy. A few angry gamblers can yell and scream, but nobody is listening. At least nobody relevant is listening.

  21. Sounds like a nice advancement. As state in the article and the comments, there is already a lot of ambiguity built in the current systems of eyeballing the initial chain placement, estimating the ball when a runner’s knee is down, actually placing the ball, etc. So it seems that a rule stating that we’ll go with the electronic measurement will speed up the game and will be at least as accurate as the current system. I say – Go for it.

  22. I kind of like the use of chains to measure first downs. I think it builds up drama at times in the game and seeing the player’s reactions is entertaining. I understand the system is outdated, so I would not be surprised if the NFL moves to adopting this technology and getting rid of the use of chains. It would speed up the game.

  23. They should have the chip in the ball set off fireworks when it contacts the goal line…

  24. As long as the chip is in the same spot on every football and doesn’t move. They can add the dimensions and get a very precise measurement. Nfl should implement this asap

  25. You could easily have multiple sensors in the ball so as to have a complete virtual construct of the ball and its placement.

  26. Why not put the chip in the ball, but still use the chains for the preseason and then compare how the chipped version matches up to the chains version? You don’t change the process yet, but you can do an honest post-game comparison on which was more accurate overall. It’s called live testing.

  27. If I’m reading it right, the chip is just telling them if the ball is spotted 10
    Yards further down the field than it was on the last set of downs. I guarantee you the technology can handle that with ease.

  28. And if the two leagues ever combine the Steelers will still complain the chips weren’t working in Foxboro.

  29. Chains still work fine, and look good on TV. Why try to reinvent the wheel?

  30. I see officials more times than NOT give certain teams an extra yard or two and some teams negative yards. They know exactly what they are doing… I’m all for making the game better

  31. nhpats2011 says:
    April 9, 2022 at 5:49 pm

    So how does the chip tell us where the ball was when the player is down?
    ————————————————————————————————————————
    Two ways. Obviously there is the manual way. The ref spots the ball and the chip location determines first down or not. The electronic solution is to track the chip location with some sort of time stamp that could be coordinated to the replay. So the ref looks at the replay, and then reads the location off the screen at whatever point the ref determined that the ball carrier was down.

  32. I’m not sure they’re going to get the system to spot the ball or if the ref is still going to spot the ball. If the ref is still spotting the ball, then it’s easy to do the simple measurement and move on without bringing the chain-gang in. keep the game moving.

  33. Now USFL holds the patent to using a computer chip to measure distance and other related metrics in a football. This is a bargaining chip for something in the future, just wait and see.

  34. The NFL absolutely could adopt this and it would make sense. But they won’t. Measuring is part of the show. They like the little wait because it builds the drama.

  35. It’s a subleague trying out something new. Good, if it works better than they expect maybe the NFL can adopt it down the line. Anything to make the games more accurate and streamlined.

  36. they should do something with lasers, which can measure it to the length of an atom.

  37. Now instead of the chain gang they can have the chip gang sponsored by frito lay!

  38. Now can they ban players from showboating after every first down by making this signal? It’s not like you just won the Super Bowl.

  39. It’s a lot better than the referee using a credit card to measure for a first down.

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