Football Zebras™

‘5 will get you 1’: the effective method to measure a first down without measuring

It’s 3rd-and-5. The quarterback is under center. The crowd is roaring. The quarterback barks hard and someone on the defensive line jumps. Flags fly and the wing officials come running to the referee to report an infraction. The referee intones, “Offside. Defense. Five yards. First down!” When the line to gain is five yards, how do the officials know that it is truly five yards to a first down? What if it is five yards and one inch?

The head linesman and the chain gang have a pretty basic way to know the difference. Before the game, the head linesman inspects the chains. He measures the links in the chains against the yard lines to make sure the markers are a true 10 yards. Say he puts the first pole down at the 20-yard line, and checks the second pole to make sure to reaches the 30-yard line. Satisfied, he then he walks to the 25-yard line and marks the five-yards with a piece of athletic tape. During the game, if the down box is behind the tape marker, the crew knows that a five yard penalty will not result in a first down. If the down box is in front of the tape, he’ll let the referee know, “Five’ll get you one,” so a five-yard penalty on the defense will result in a first down.

This method prevents arguments over whether or not the umpire shorted a team an inch during his penalty walk-off and prevents the referee from having to bring the chains in to measure for a first down after a simple offside penalty.

The NFL does not have a prescribed mechanic to see if five-yard penalties result in a first down. It is up to the head linesman to control the chains, know the line to gain, and know if five-yard penalties will give the offense a first down. With all the technology — calls for laser markings and computer chips in the football — sometimes chain links and a piece of tape are all officials need.

3 comments for “‘5 will get you 1’: the effective method to measure a first down without measuring

  1. JW
    November 2, 2015 at 12:57 am

    Cute. But the NFL owns these chains, do they not? Why not just get a permanent marking in the middle so no one needs athletic tape?

  2. Crusty Retired Vet
    November 3, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Actually, the chains are stored at the home stadium, although purchased from the same vendor. It is the H’s job to ensure the chains are ten yards long and that the tape mark is smack in the middle. This is how it is done at any level of football. One of the many things that separate a decent H from a superior H, is that the superior H always – every single play – knows which yard line marks the LTG. Also, the superior H should have pre-gamed with the U to ensure that on almost every occasion, the ball, after a COP, is spotted on a line, not between the lines. This, of course, creates no real advantage and ensures minimal measurements. The superior H’s out there know what I am talking about. Anyway, the superior H, whenever there is an “and 5 to go” situation, this same linesman must be aware of where the ball is, in relation to the tape. It is on one side of the tape or the other, and the H should be shouting towards his R “Short 5” or “Long 5” every time a team is in the “5 to go” situation. It is a habit only the superior H develops. Of course, the R will not hear him but the H should be pointing fingers inward while shouting “Short 5” and pointing thumbs or fingers outwards when shouting “Long 5.” This way, not only is this captured on video, but the sideline you are working can’t complain (Oh, but they will if it goes against them) when on a 5 yard penalty, the H is moving the chains, or coming in yelling “3rd and short.” The superior H knows this mechanic and is constantly doing this, every time we are in “and 5″ to go situation. Hell, even on 3rd and six, the H should be shouting “Long 5.” This way, the H is always “in the game” and 100% focused.

  3. JW
    November 3, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Thanks for the reply