What's the Chain Gang in Football?

Members of the chain gang stand on the sidelines with markers during the game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on November 28, 2013
Members of the chain gang stand on the sidelines with markers during the game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field on November 28, 2013. Mark Cunningham/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The chain gang is a group of assistants to the officials whose job is to mark where a team begins a series and how far they need to go to get a first down. They do this by holding vertical marking poles on each of the field’s sidelines. The chain gang is also commonly referred to as the chain crew.

Chain Gang Responsibilities

The chain gang is extremely important to the flow of the game, and also in ensuring the accuracy of field possession.

It is the duty of the chain gang to mark possession on the field, utilizing the set of chains on the sideline. They must quickly realign the chains every time that an offense gets a first down and they also must be able to accurately place the chains so that the distances can be measured correctly. While they signal and enforce the decisions of the officials, the chain gang does not make its own decisions.

The chain gang brings the chains out onto the field of play whenever the referee needs a closer, accurate measurement of if a first down has been achieved.

Chain Gang Football Members

A traditional chain gang consists of three separate members:

Rod man: The first rod man holds the marker at the location where the current set of downs began. This rod is referred to as the ‘rear rod.’ This rod man remains in this location until the offense gets a first down, punts, or turns the ball over.

Box man: The box man holds a separate pole with a down indicator at the top.

The box man is responsible for changing the down displayed after each play. There is a switch on the side of the pole which allows him to shuffle through the downs to display.

A second rod man: A second rod man holds what is referred to as the ‘forward rod’ ten yards downfield toward the defenses goal.

His marker represents the spot where the offense needs to get to get a first down.

Requirements

The two separate rods, which are commonly referred to as “sticks,” are attached together by a chain fixed to the bottom. The chain is exactly ten yards long, thus when fully spread out and positioned the rods are always exactly ten feet apart. The sticks are often orange to enhance visibility.

Members of the chain gang are typically selected by the offices of the home team rather than the league itself. Members of the chain gang do not wear any protective gear and are often involved in collisions with players on the sideline. The poles that the rod men in the chain gang hold are padded to minimize injury.