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A Brief History of Canadian Football and CFL Rules

See how the Canadian Football League's rules differ from the NFL's, and why that makes it more exciting.

For many folks, the traditional season for football comes around in the fall. If you find yourself across the 49th parallel in Canada this time of year, you will see something completely different. The preseason is underway it’s an exciting time. Fans are gearing up across the country as they prepare to celebrate one of the most unique brands of football on the planet: Canadian Football.

The CFL begins its 59th official season of play in what is considered the 63rd season of modern Canadian professional football. The history of Canadian football dates itself back to the late 1800’s, both American and Canadian football derived from the sport of Rugby but took vastly different paths as the two sports defined themselves over the years into what they are in the present day. Here are some of the rule changes any new observer of Canadian Football should keep in mind when watching games:


Season Length

The CFL season is an 18 game schedule where each team gets nine home games and nine away games.


12 Men on the field

In Canada, gridiron football is played with 12 men a side, unlike their American counterpart which fields 11 players per side.


Field Dimensions


A CFL playing surface dimensions are 110 yards by 65 yards (101m by 59m) with 20 yard long end zones as opposed to the 100 yards by 60 yards with 10 yard deep end zones in the USA. The wider playing surface lends itself to the extra man on the field for long explosive passing plays, and great room for explosive running backs to hone their craft. The field goal uprights are at the front of the endzone in Canadian Football rather than the back.


Kicking Rules

As mentioned earlier in the article, gridiron football lends itself from Rugby. However, Canadian football has much more kicking nuances to the game than its southern neighbours. Basically, every single kick in the CFL is playable, there is no such thing as a fair catch in the CFL as the ball must be ran after the returner catches it. However, due to this rule, when a returner initially gains possession they must be given five yards of space from defenders to make this initial reception or it will be called as a “No Yards” penalty.

Missed field goals can be fielded and ran out of the end zone as well, should they stay in the end zone.  As Canadian football lends itself to Rugby historically, a missed field goal can also be kicked out of the end zone if the defense bears down on the ball carrier as seen in this clip:


That however is a very rare situation.

Points can also be scored from a missed field goal in Canadian football. If the ball is kicked with enough velocity to go out through the back of the endzone on a missed field goal or kick/punt, it shall count for 1 point, known as a: “Rouge.”

The kicking is one of the biggest differentiating factors between American and Canadian football.


3 Downs and Play Clock

While the kicking is important, the biggest factor in differentiating is the three downs. You only get three downs to move the ball ten yards down the field. There is also only 20 seconds to begin a play instead of the 40 which is standard for an American offense. With Canada having had the metric system for such a long time you would think they would have switched to meters, but such change has never, and probably will not ever, be made for historical purposes as the league out-dates Canada’s full on implementation of the Metric System (began in the 1970’s). Also instead of a two-minute warning, the CFL has a three-minute warning, which is where all “time count violations” are penalized by a loss of a down, and the clock is stopped often.


Overtime Rules

In CFL’s overtime, both teams are given equal opportunity to score points in the added period. A coin is flipped and that team starts with the ball. Should they score and the other team fail to score, they win and vice-versa in a championship situation. In the Regular season teams will play only two possessions of overtime and if no winner is decided the game shall end in a draw/tie and ending very rarely seen as the shorter field in overtime lends itself better to the offense. Starting with the 2010 season, all teams in overtime are required to go for two point converts on touchdowns in overtime.




There are nine teams in the Canadian Football League: British Columbia Lions, Edmonton Eskimos, Calgary Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Ottawa Redblacks, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts and the Montrèal Alouèttes. All nine of these fan bases have their own unique things about them, but the Roughrider fans from Saskatchewan are known, especially in Canada, for being some of the most rabid sports fans out there. The fans and game day experience mean so much to these communities, and the loyal die-hard fans are some of the best things about the CFL.

All in all, this league provides some of the most exciting football out there with all the frantic defensive stands and all the long bomb passes fans can handle, and then some!

We here at Realsport are proud to announce our addition of this great league to the repertoire of sports covered on this website.

Riccardo Di Stefano

RealSport's Lead CFL writer and also a contributor of NHL content. Riccardo currently pursues many media interests as a freelance Master Control Operator for Bell Media in Canada while also running his own, now affiliated stream on Twitch at Twitch.tv/RicD55.

A Brief History of Canadian Football and CFL Rules

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