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CFL vs NFL
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Comparing Canadian and American Rules:
An overview for fans with some previous knowledge of either system

Field Size

Canadian 
110 yd long,
plus two 20 yd end zones.
Width is 65 yards.
American  
100 yd long,
plus two 10 yd end zones.
Width is 53.5 yards.


Origins

Historians agree that the first recorded instance of a game resembling the modern versions of North American football was played between a Canadian and an American university in the mid-1800s using an ad hoc mixture of mostly rugby but some soccer rules. Canada's McGill University, (from Montreal, Quebec) played against Harvard University (from Massachusetts, USA).

Over the approximately 130 years since then, Canadian and American football rules have evolved from that very rugby-like game to encompass many similar (yet many strikingly different) approaches to the game of football. Canadian football remained a bit closer to rugby with its large field, points structure for kicks, and rounder ball. American football went to a smaller field as a result of limitations of space at Yale University, and reduced kicking tries to the status of dead ball (either I score or I don't) plays. The scoring system of Canadian football is more complex than the American system.

Some of today's CFL teams (the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the Toronto Argonauts) trace their origins directly back to 1868.

Rules & Regulations: The Major Differences

The following is a comparison of professional level football between the Canadian and American varieties, but is also applicable to university and amateur levels in most ways.

Canadian:

American:

12 players on the field during a play.
11 players on the field during a play.
Three downs to make 10 yards.
Four downs to make 10 yards.
6 points for a touchdown, 1 for a kicked convert, 2 for a passed or rushed convert, 3 for a field goal, 2 for a safety touch, 1 for a rouge.

A rouge (also called a single) is awarded to a kicking or punting team (Team A) if an opposing player (Team B):

(i) catches or recovers a punt or a missed field goal in his own end zone but is prevented by Team A from returning the ball back out onto the field of play, or

(ii) elects to drop to one knee while still in the end zone before having returned the ball to the field of play, or

(iii) elects to run with the ball from the end zone out of bounds rather than enter the field of play.

Thus, kicking and punting plays into an opponent's end zone are considered to be of much higher strategic value than in American football. The ball remains live until one of the above events is concluded, as well as if the Team B player successfully returns the ball out of his end zone onto the field of play.

6 points for a touchdown, 1 for a kicked convert, 2 for a run or pass convert, 3 for a field goal, 2 for a safety touch.
On a field goal attempt, the defending team may return a missed field goal to the kicking team's end zone for a Touchdown.

On a convert attempt after a touchdown, the defending team may return a missed kick convert to the kicking team's end zone for 1 point, or if the convert was a rush or pass play may return a fumble or interception for 2 points.

 

A kicked ball is ruled dead (play is stopped) in the circumstances of a missed field goal or convert.
Punt or kick coverage teams must give a 5 yard empty zone around the opposing receiver until he has received the ball. This is called the No Yards rule.

Kick or punt receivers must field all kicks and punts, with no exceptions.

An unhandled ball from a place kick or punt may be legally recovered by the kicker. In such a case, the kicker is exempt from the No Yards rule. Thus, a player from Team A may punt or kick the ball 40 yards, chase the ball upfield, then recover an untouched ball for a Team A first down. Such instances are rare since the player would have to elude plenty of blocking to reach the ball. When it does happen, this play is highly exciting.

The ball is live under almost all circumstances during a legal play within bounds at any time during the game except for incomplete forward passes.

 

A kicked ball is ruled dead (play is stopped) if a punt or kickoff receiver:

(i) allows the ball to roll to a complete stop, or

(ii) allows the opposing team to touch the ball before he does, or

(iii) elects to call a fair catch to avoid being hit (ending play). Canadians find the fair catch rule to be embarassing.

Four 15-minute quarters, with a large rest period at half time and lesser rest periods between quarters.
Four 15-minute quarters with a large rest period at half time and lesser rest periods between quarters.
The official time clock runs continuously unless stopped when a time out is called by a team, or the referee stops play to allow opposing teams to align properly after a play.
The official time clock runs continuously unless stopped when a time out is called by a team, or the referee stops play to allow opposing teams to align properly after a play.
There is a mandatory play stoppage with 3 minutes remaining in each half.
There is a mandatory stoppage of play with 2 minutes remaining in the final quarter.
After the three minute warning, the play clock is run only from the snap of the ball to when the referee declares that play dead. Thus, the closing minutes of a CFL game can seem like an eternity, with miraculous comebacks by trailing teams.
With a constantly running game clock, a team that is behind by a significant margin may not realistically expect to win even though half a quarter may still remain.
An offence has 20 seconds from the referee's signal to begin a play.
An offence has 45 seconds from the referee's signal to begin a play.
Defensive linemen must line up 1 yard opposite the line of scrimmage prior to a play.
Defensive linemen may line up immediately opposite the line of scrimmage.
Prior to the snap of the ball:

(i) all offensive backfielders and receivers, except the quarterback, are allowed unlimited motion provided that they remain more than one yard behind the line of scrimmage.

(ii) offensive linemen must not move.

Prior to the snap of the ball, no member of the offence may move, with the exception of one eligible receiver, who may move only in parallel with the line of scrimmage.
Canadian football has an offensive player called a Slotback, who is a larger-sized eligible receiver somewhat like an American tight end but who does not necessarily line up with the offensive linemen as the American does. Some offensive schemes may use several slotbacks at once.
No equivalent player position exists.
Kickoffs occur from the kicking team's own 35 yard line.
Kickoffs occur from the kicking team's own 30 yard line.
39 full time positions on every team made up of 19 Canadian players, 17 non-Canadians, plus 3 quarterbacks.
45 full time positions on every team.
Goalposts are Tee-shaped and are located over the goal line.
Goalposts are Tee-shaped and are placed on the end zone's farthest boundary line from the field of play, 10 yards behind the goal line.

A Look At The Players

Canadian:

American:

Linebackers and defensive linemen require greater footspeed, faster lateral movement, better catching ability due to larger field and prevalent passing style of Canadian offences.
Linemen and linebackers are less mobile, are larger in size due to smaller field and prevalent running style of American offences.
Quarterbacks use dropback, shotgun, and option styles, and must also be able to scramble and improvise. Receivers and defensive backs are same size as in American football.
Due to much smaller field, quarterbacks do not need to be as mobile. They rely on dropback and shotgun styles, with some use of the option.
Smaller roster means most players must play on special teams, thus requiring more skills and greater stamina due to greater game time per player.
Large roster means special teams have their own set of specialist players.
20 second interval between plays, combined with special teams duties, means players must have greater stamina, endurance.
45 second interval between plays means all players have longer recovery time, so lesser need for stamina, endurance.
Players originally from Canada have lesser technical training in their developmental years than Americans, but turn out to be exemplary performers when coached at the professional level. Canadian players usually progress from CJFL (Junior) or more likely CIAU (University) football to the CFL. Canadian universities do not offer monetary athletic scholarships of the type common in the United States. Academic athletes in Canada must achieve passing grades in typical undergraduate courses. Some Canadian youngsters opt to attend American colleges for the better training and the monetary scholarships offered.

Canada is a nation of almost 30 million people.

American players in the CFL almost always opt to play in Canada because the quality of their talent may be equal to that of an NFL player but their physical size was deemed to be not large or heavy enough for the American football style. Canadian teams purposely recruit speedy and talented American players who have been cut from NFL teams for being undersized. The CFL offers these players an opportunity to continue their playing careers.

With a population of about 260 million, and with an enormous amateur and college football system of leagues and coaching, American teams have their choice of the cream of their best trained and most talented players. There are about 1,200 players under contract in the NFL. Some Canadians play in the NFL if they are of sufficient size.
Standard salaries of CFL players range from about $30,000 per year for rookies to about $250,000 for starting quarterbacks.
Salaries can reach into the millions of dollars per year for top NFL players.

A Note Of Caution

This is just a general, basic overview of the differences between Canadian and American professional football. The framework of rules is generally applicable to university and amateur leagues.

Is one set of rules "better" than the other? Only you, the spectator, can decide for yourself. A true football fan will find elements of both games to appreciate.

In my humble opinion, Canadian football is more exciting for players and spectators than American football.