What is NFL's new optical tracking system? All about league's measure to replace chain gang for 2024 season

Baltimore Ravens v Denver Broncos
Will the NFL's "chain gang" be replaced for the 2024 season?

For years, the NFL has relied on a group of men, popularly called the "chain gang", to determine whether a team has secured a first down. But that may change come the 2024-25 season with the introduction of an electronic measuring system.

First tested in select venues last season, the technology, which was developed by Hawk-Eye, uses optical tracking by high-resolution cameras to determine the position of the ball.

On Tuesday, sources told the Washington Post's Mark Meake and CBS's Jonathan Jones that the league would be trialing it during the NFL preseason, with the aim of full adoption in the regular season if it proves satisfactory.

Once the new technology comes into effect, the traditional chain gang will be relegated to backup. However, the change may be postponed to 2025 if technical inconsistencies prove detrimental to widespread usage.

The United Football League, a spring league founded from the 2023 merger of the United States Football League (USFL) and XFL, already uses such technology. Dubbed TrU Line and developed by Bolt6, it uses six 4K cameras installed around the stadium to determine the ball's placement across a yardage marker.

When discussing its implementation, the UFL said:

“This innovative technology promises to deliver ball-spotting with unprecedentedly low latency and high accuracy, setting a new standard in sports technology and fan engagement.”

How will new electronic way of measuring first downs affect the NFL?

The rule changes for the 2024-25 NFL season, ranging from revised kickoffs to the ban on the hip-drop tackle, have had mixed reactions from fans alike. While some feel that they increase player safety in the wake of devastating injuries, others say that they limit how defenses can play, disincentivizing more deliberate game strategy.

But the move to electronic first-down spotting may speed up the game. Setting up the chains and sticks can take time, and there is also the element of human error that can be decided by millimeters. Provided that any technical inconsistencies are sufficiently addressed, the electronic measuring system may become a more accurate way of assessing yardage gains.

Take, for instance, this 2017 game between the Dallas Cowboys and then-Oakland Raiders, wherein a first down had to be decided via sticking an index card between the ball and the marking stick. The process was lengthy, possibly taking anywhere between five and ten minutes, which could be drastically reduced by switching to optical tracking:

There are also plans to use the system in other refereeing decisions like roughing the passer and pass interference calls.

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