Understanding The Differences Between CFL Canadian Football And The NFL

By Ross Everett

In the United States, summertime is when teams get prepared to play football. NFL teams start training camp, and college teams start practice. North of the border in Canada, however, summertime is when their professional football season begins in the form of the Canadian Football League (CFL).

The CFL is almost as old as the NFL, coming into existence in’30. The league’s Grey Cup championship trophy is even older, having been awarded to the best Canadian professional football team since’09. There have been a number of NFL stars who got their start in the CFL including Doug Flutie, Randall Cunningham and Jeff Garcia.

While the CFL plays football at the highest professional level of competition outside of the NFL, there are a few differences in the game:

The most obvious difference is the football itself–the CFL football is longer and fatter than the NFL ball. The CFL still has their goal posts on the goal line, which the NFL moved to the back of the end zone years ago. The field is 10 yards longer and 12 yards wider than the NFL field, and the CFL end zones are 20 yards deep instead of the NFL’s 10 yards.

CFL teams are allowed to have 12 players on the field at a time, one more than is standard in American football. The extra offensive player is a wide receiver, and on defense they’re allowed an extra defensive back. CFL teams allow a team only three downs to move ten yards as opposed to four in the US game–references to a team going “two and out” are common on CFL broadcasts.

There are also differences in the scoring of the game. The first time I saw a CFL score tied 1-1 at the end of the first quarter I thought I was hallucinating. A major rule difference between the CFL and NFL is the fact that teams can score a single point, which those clever Canadians call a single. Basically, a team is awarded a single point for a missed field goal or a punt that lands in the end zone.

The rule differences don’t end there–CFL teams are required to maintain a certain percentage of Canadian born players on their roster. The idea is that this will protect the unique identity of the game, as well as prevent it from becoming little more than a farm system for the NFL. Currently’ of the 40 players on a CFL roster must be Canadian natives.

Many US football fans look at the rules that include more players, a wider field, and fewer downs meant to encourage more passing and expect to see a wide open high scoring style of play similar to Arena Football. That’s not really how it works out–most games end up with final score totals in the 40’s, but the game itself really isn’t much more offensively oriented than its American counterpart. The rules may be different, but as in the NFL you need a solid rushing game and a stout defense to win games and championships.

There’s also more parity in the CFL than even the NFL, which is famous for the competitive equality of their teams. The reason is fairly simple–football at the high school and college level in Canada simply isn’t as competitive as in the US. That means the mandated ratio of native players also serves to facilitate parity within the CFL.

Considering the 21 non- Canadians on the team, its also important to remember that the CFL doesnt get the pick of the litter of American football talent. Certainly those who have the ability are in the NFL, or on an NFL practice or developmental squad. While some players are uniquely suited for the CFL game–former Clemson University QB Nealon Greene, for example, who couldnt make the NFL but has had a lengthy career in Canada–most of the Americans in the CFL are players whose ability just isnt up to NFL levels. Remember Vince McMahon’s failed XFL experiment? That gives a good indication of the type of American player that ends up in Canada.

Despite the differences between the CFL and American football, at the end of the day its still high level, professional football. Once you understand the unique aspects of the CFL, it’ll become second nature much as NFL viewers quickly assimilate rule changes there.

You wont see CFL news on ESPN, since theyre more interested in featuring spelling bees and lumberjack competitions and letting their personalities like Stuart Scott show how clever they are than covering sports. The good news is that the CFL receives extensive coverage in the Canadian press and all you need to do is visit a couple of websites to stay up to date. Each CFL city has their own sports media, and most have pretty good websites. The best one stop shopping can be found at the leagues own and Slam! Sports, which is roughly the Canadian equivalent of ESPNs website and has extensive CFL news, opinions and statistics.

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