NFL reportedly tested first-down tracking technology that could replace chain crews

The NFL has reportedly tested optical technology to track first downs in multiple games, including at February's Super Bowl.

If approved and implemented, the technology would replace the long outdated and oft-criticized system of sideline chain crews that invites human error and guesswork into high-stakes first-down measurements. This is according to multiple reports from the NFL scouting combine on Thursday, citing league officials.

Per NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the technology is not ready to be rolled out for the 2024 season. As with any significant rule change, it would require a vote of team owners to be approved.

Why are we still using chain crews?

The ability to digitally track the ball has long been available and used by the NFL for its Next Gen Stats technology. Per the league, a tracking system is installed at every NFL stadium that includes "20-30 ultra-wide band receivers," "2-3 radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags installed into the players’ shoulder pads" and "RFID tags on officials, pylons, sticks, chains, and in the ball."

First-down technology could eliminate the need for scenes such as this. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
First-down technology could eliminate the need for scenes such as this. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The technology is used to study the game and gain analytical insights into player and team performance. It's not used to determine one of the most fundamental aspects of the game: how far the ball was advanced and whether it crossed a first-down threshold or the goal line.

The existence of said technology has begged the question: Why does football still used the flawed, early-20th-century system of officials guessing where to place the ball alongside crews carrying 10-yard lengths of chain up and down the field?

The Next Gen Stats technology doesn't necessarily translate directly to spotting the ball, which involves multiple factors, including when and where a player's knee, elbow or otherwise determined body part is ruled down. But it does suggest that the NFL can do better than its longtime use of guesswork spotting and chain crews.

Details about the the optical tracking and how it works weren't reported Thursday. The NFL's fans, players and coaches are eagerly waiting to hear more.