The Downs System in American Football

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

Watching a football game in which the offense keeps running plays but never goes anywhere would be really boring. To prevent that, the fathers of football created the down system. The offense has four downs (essentially four plays) to go 10 yards.

If the offensive team advances the ball at least 10 yards in four tries or fewer, it receives another set of four downs. If the offense fails to advance 10 yards after three tries, it can either punt the ball on the fourth down (a punt is a kick to the opponent without the use of a tee) or, if it needs less than a yard to get a first down, try to get the first down by running or passing.

You may hear television commentators use the phrase “three and out.” What they mean is that a team failed to advance the ball 10 yards and has to punt the ball. You don’t want your team to go three and out very often. But you do want to earn lots of first downs, which you get after your team advances the ball 10 yards or more in the allotted four downs. Getting lots of first downs usually translates to more scoring opportunities.

Football has its own lingo to explain the offense’s progress toward a first down. A first down situation is also known as a “first and 10,” because the offense has 10 yards to go to gain a first down. If your offense ran a play on first down in which you advanced the ball 3 yards, your status would be “second and 7”; you’re ready to play the second down, and you now have 7 yards to go to gain a first down. Unless something really bad happens, the numbers stay under 10, so the math is pretty simple.

As a viewer, you aren’t expected to remember what down it is and how many yards the offense needs to advance to gain a first down. Football makes it easy by providing people and signs to help you keep track. On the sideline opposite the press box is a group of three people, known as the chain gang or chain crew, who hold three 8-foot-high poles. Here’s an explanation of that crew:

  • Two people called rodmen hold metal rods with Xs at the top connected by a thin metal chain that stretches exactly 10 yards when the two rods are thoroughly extended. One rod marks where the possession begins, and the other extends to where the offensive team must go in order to make another first down.

  • The third person, known as the boxman, holds a marker that signifies where the ball is and what down it is. Atop this rod is the number 1, 2, 3, or 4, designating whether it is the first, second, third, or fourth down.

  • In all NFL stadiums, a person also marks where the drive began (that is, where the offensive team assumed possession of the ball). Many high school and college fields don’t have these markers.

Whenever the officials need to make a critical measurement for a first down, the chain crew comes to the hash marks nearest where the ball is positioned, and the officials use the rods to measure whether the offense has obtained a first down. The home team supplies the chain crew and also the ball boys, who are responsible for keeping the balls clean and free of excessive moisture.

Thanks to the miracle of technology, determining where a team has to advance the ball to get a first down is easier than ever — but only if you’re watching television. On the television screen during a game, you see an electronic line across the field that marks where a team must go to get a first down.