An outsiders guide to Canadian Football (for Patrick)

This weekend marks the start of the CFL preseason with a solitary match between the BC Lions and the Edmonton (team name censored). I know Patrick has expressed interest in watching it this season. I assume Austin has given him the rundown since the University of Western Mustangs are one of the top football programs in the country, but just in case he hasn’t here is a rundown of some rule differences for him and any others who might want to go down the rabbit hole with him.

To start, some dimensions are different. The gridiron on a CFL field is 110 yards long instead of an NFL’s 100 yards. That will be obvious from the markings on the field. What is less obvious is that the end zones are both 20 yards deep instead of 10 yards deep, and the field is 65 yards across instead of 53 & 1/3. The result is a play area of 9750^2 yards rather than 6400^2 yards. To take advantage of this extra space teams field 12 players at a time instead of 11. The other way in which the field differs is that the goal posts are on the goal line, not the end line.

The thing that most Americans know about Canadian football is that it has 3 downs instead of 4. You would think this would result in less offense but that is not the case. There are some small differences that cause this. With the extra space and extra receiver there is a higher priority on the passing game. If your offense is clicking then it’s going to be moving down the field with big gains. If it’s not clicking it’s gonna have to punt after a 2 & out, leaving the other team in good field position. Teams almost always go for it on a 3rd and 1 because the space between teams at the line of scrimmage is 1 yard instead of the length of a football. Another line of scrimmage difference is that all the offensive backfielders are allowed to be in motion before the snap. Often you will see all the receivers hitting the line of scrimmage at full speed as the ball is snapped. Sometimes they hit the brakes and turn back for a second run, trying to bait the defense into an offsides penalty. A receiver only needs to have one foot in bounds for a catch.

Kicks are returned in Canadian football. There is no fair catch rule. Instead there is a rule called no yards. The player receiving the ball has a 5 yard radius which kicking players can’t encroach on at the time that the receiver contacts the ball. This allows the player to safely catch the ball and make a first move for returning the ball. The penalty for encroaching the 5 yard radius seems to change every couple of years, and varies depending on whether the ball was in the air or grounded, or if the receiver is in motion or in a set position. I’m not sure what the current specifics are. Any kick that enters the end zone and is not returned is called a Rouge and is scored a single point.

Some rules around the clock and time outs result in it being difficult to run out the clock. Overtime in Canadian football is more similar to American College football, with both teams getting the ball an equal number of times.

As far as the roster goes teams have to have a minimum of 21 Canadians on their 46 man roster. The salary cap is $5.2 million for the players and $2.6 million for the team staff (excluding medical staff). The minimum player salary is $54000. These figures are in Canadian dollars. A CFL season is 2 preseason games and 18 regular season games. Six teams make the playoffs, with the two division winners getting a bye into the second round. The Grey Cup (CFL championship) is generally played on the last Sunday of November with the Vanier Cup (University championship) on the day before. This year is the 106th Grey Cup and 55th Vanier Cup.

Some interesting trivia

  • Retired CFL linebacker Jesse Lumsden would train with the Canadian National Bobsleigh Team in the off season. His success at the world championship and Olympic levels has resulted in further bobsleigh recruitment among Canadian football players.

  • The CFL experimented with expanding into the US in the early 90s. The results ranged from catastrophic to decent. The least successful of the 7 American teams was the Las Vegas Posse, who played their final home game on the road as their regular season attendance was under 9000/game. The most successful was the Baltimore Stallions, who went to back to back Grey Cups, winning one in 1995. Their success proved Baltimore’s ability to sustain a pro football team so much that the Cleavland Browns owner moved his team to Baltimore, resulting in the current day Baltimore Ravens. The Baltimore Stallions, being made obsolete by this move, relocated and became the modern day Montreal Allouettes.

  • Also in the early 90s, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, along with the owner of the LA Kings bought the Toronto Argonauts. Taking advantage of an exception to the salary cap rules they signed the projected #1 NFL draft pick, Raghib Ismail, for $18 million over 4 years. They would win the Grey Cup in his first year. After John Candy’s death they sold the team.

  • After the XFL folded the owner of the championship winning LA Xtreme bought the Calgary Stampeders and brought in 17 players from the LAX, including his son, their eventual starting quarterback. They were 26-46 under his ownership.

  • Bobby Singh is the only player in history to win an XFL championship (LA Xtreme, 2001), Super Bowl (St. Louis Rams, 1999) and Grey Cup (BC Lions, 2006).

  • The University of Toronto Varsity Blues ended an 18 game losing streak with a 4-2 win. They followed it with a 49 game losing streak.

  • A CFL football used to be heavier and fatter than an American football. In 2018 they changed to match NFL standards.


I’m almost proud of my alma mater for such sustained awfulness. For those that don’t know, U of T is a majority commuter school and the student body as a whole has a particular disdain for school spirit. It was wonderful.

Also, I have a pic of me standing next to the Grey Cup on the eve of the championship game at a Cadence Weapon show in Edmonton. It was the most Canadian I’ve ever felt.


It’s worth highlighting that because of these salary rules, the large team sizes, and the big chunk of the salary cap that star players take up, you end up with a lot of players who have regular jobs in the off season. I’ve had friends who grew up in football cities who had CFL players as teachers, for example. This can be part of the huge community investment and the kind of fandom for life that you see with CFL franchises. Even when teams like the Toronto Argonauts (EDIT! I wrote Toronto Stampeders originally with my distracted brain and you all are so nice that I somehow survived that gaffe) the Saskatchewan Roughriders have had multi-year slumps, the stadiums remained full and enthusastic.


OCAD is the same deal and honestly its just part of the charm.

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This reminds me, I meant to mention that the Saskatchewan Roughriders are like the Green Bay Packers; owned by the taxpayers of the provincial government. Their fans are the owners and they are very enthusiastic about their team because of this.


As the resident Roughriders fan here, I also want to point out these important facts:

-Not just the Roughriders are publicly owned: both the Edmonton ******* (which is a censored word on this forum for GOOD REASON and the team name SHOULD be changed) and the Winnipeg Bombers are both publicly owned as well.
-The team has been around since 1910, before the CFL existed. They have been in the CFL since the start.
-They are the third oldest football team in the world (besides the Arizona Cardinals and Toronto Argonauts) that is still playing today.
-Despite all of that (and the fact that the CFL has only a handful of teams), they have only won the Grey Cup only four times, with an abysmal record of 4-15.


I lived in southern Ontario for a year (about 10 years ago) and got a long to a few games in Hamilton. How are the Ti-Cats fairing these days?

They made it to the Grey Cup in back to back years in 2013/14, but got blown up by the Roughriders (in the only grey cup we’ve won in convincing fashion) and then were held off from a close comeback by Calgary. In 2015 they lost a very hard fought East finals against the new Ottawa team, the Redblacks, but injuries tanked their chances before the game even began. Since then they haven’t really recovered, having a negative record in every season since (though in this league that still means they made the playoffs twice).

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The East has been below .500 for 6 of the last 7 seasons. In one of those years even the division winner finished 8-10. So no matter how bad they get they are still not out of the hunt for a playoff spot. They got a new stadium in the past 10 years too. They played 1 season in Guelph while it was being built.

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My favorite CFL fact is that the league once had a team named the Roughriders, and another team named the Rough Riders.

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It’s week 1 of the regular season and I just noticed that Vice is the jersey sponsor for Montreal.