Canadian football (French: Football canadien) is a form of gridiron football played in Canada in which two teams of 12 players each compete for territorial control of a field of play 110 yards (101 m) long and 65 yards (59 m) wide attempting to advance a pointed prolate spheroid ball into the opposing team’s scoring area (end zone).
In Canada, the term “football” may refer to Canadian football and American football collectively, or to either sport specifically, depending on context. The two sports have shared origins and are closely related but have significant differences.
Rugby football in Canada originated in the early 1860s, and over time, the game known as Canadian football developed. Both the Canadian Football League (CFL), the sport’s top professional league, and Football Canada, the governing body for amateur play, trace their roots to 1880 and the founding of the Canadian Rugby Football Union. Active teams such as the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats have similar longevity.
The CFL is the most popular and only major professional Canadian football league. Its championship game, the Grey Cup, is one of Canada’s largest sporting events, attracting a broad television audience. In 2009, about 40% of Canada’s population watched part of the game; in 2014, it was closer to 33%, peaking at 5.1 million viewers in the fourth quarter.
Canadian football is also played at the bantam, high school, junior, collegiate, and semi-professional levels: the Canadian Junior Football League, formed May 8, 1974, and Quebec Junior Football League are leagues for players aged 18–22, many post-secondary institutions compete in U Sports football for the Vanier Cup, and senior leagues such as the Alberta Football League have grown in popularity in recent years. Great achievements in Canadian football are enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame located in Hamilton, Ontario.
Other organizations across Canada perform senior league Canadian football during the summer.
Canadian football is played at several levels in Canada; the top league is the professional nine-team Canadian Football League (CFL). The CFL regular season begins in June, and playoffs for the Grey Cup are completed by mid-November. In cities with outdoor stadiums such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Regina, low temperatures and icy field conditions can seriously affect the outcome of a game.
Amateur football is governed by Football Canada. At the university level, 26 teams play in four conferences under the auspices of U Sports (known from 2001–2016 as Canadian Interuniversity Sport); the U Sports champion is awarded the Vanier Cup. Junior football is played by many after high school before joining the university ranks. There are 20 junior teams in three divisions in the Canadian Junior Football League competing for the Canadian Bowl. The Quebec Junior Football League includes teams from Ontario and Quebec who battle for the Manson Cup.
Semi-professional leagues have grown in popularity in recent years, with the Alberta Football League becoming especially popular. The Northern Football Conference formed in Ontario in 1954 has also surged in popularity for former college players who do not continue to professional football. The Ontario champion plays against the Alberta champion for the “National Championship”. The Canadian Major Football League is the governing body for the semi-professional game.
Women’s football is starting to gain attention in Canada. The first Canadian women’s league to begin operations was the Maritime Women’s Football League in 2004. The largest women’s league is the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.
The Canadian football field is 150 yards (137 m) long and 65 yards (59 m) wide, within which the end zones are 20 yards (18 m) deep, and the goal lines are 110 yards (101 m) apart.
At each goal line is a set of 40-foot-high (12 m) goalposts, which consist of two uprights joined by an 18 1⁄2-foot-long (5.6 m) crossbar which is 10 feet (3 m) above the goal line. The goalposts may be H-shaped (both posts fixed in the ground) although in the higher-calibre competitions the tuning-fork design (supported by a single curved post behind the goal line, so that each post starts 10 feet (3 m) above the ground) is preferred.
The sides of the field are marked by white sidelines, the goal line is marked in white, and white lines are drawn laterally across the field every 5 yards (4.6 m) from the goal line. These lateral lines are called “yard lines” and often marked with the distance in yards from and an arrow pointed toward the nearest goal line. In previous decades, arrows were not used and every yard line was usually marked with the distance to the goal line, including the goal line itself which was marked with a “0”; in most stadiums today, the 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-yard lines are marked with numbers, with the goal line sometimes being marked with a “G”. The centre (55-yard) line usually is marked with a “C”. “Hash marks” are painted in white, parallel to the yardage lines, at 1 yard (0.9 m) intervals, 24 yards (21.9 m) from the sidelines.
On fields that have a surrounding running track, such as Molson Stadium and many universities, the end zones are often cut off in the corners to accommodate the track. Until 1986, the end zones were 25 yards (23 m) deep, giving the field an overall length of 160 yards (150 m), and a correspondingly larger cutoff could be required at the corners. This was particularly common among U.S.-based teams during the CFL’s American expansion, where few American stadiums were able to accommodate the much longer and noticeably wider CFL field. The end zones in Toronto’s BMO Field are only 18 yards instead of 20 yards.
Play of the game
Teams advance across the field through the execution of quick, distinct plays, which involve the possession of a brown, prolate spheroid ball with ends tapered to a point. The ball has two one-inch-wide white stripes.
Start of play
At the beginning of a match, an official tosses a coin and allows the captain of the visiting team call heads or tails. The captain of the team winning the coin toss is given the option of having first choice, or of deferring first choice to the other captain. The captain making first choice may either choose a) to kick off or receive the kick at the beginning of the half, or b) which direction of the field to play in. The remaining choice is given to the opposing captain. Before the resumption of play in the second half, the captain that did not have first choice in the first half is given first choice. Teams usually choose to defer, so it is typical for the team that wins the coin toss to kick to begin the first half and receive to begin the second.
Play begins at the start of each half with one team place-kicking the ball from its own 35-yard line. Both teams then attempt to catch the ball. The player who recovers the ball may run while holding the ball, or lateral throw the ball to a teammate.
Stoppage of play
Play stops when the ball carrier’s knee, elbow, or any other body part aside from the feet and hands, is forced to the ground (a tackle); when a forward pass is not caught on the fly (during a scrimmage); when a touchdown (see below) or a field goal is scored; when the ball leaves the playing area by any means (being carried, thrown, or fumbled out of bounds); or when the ball carrier is in a standing position but can no longer move forwards (called forward progress). If no score has been made, the next play starts from scrimmage.
Before scrimmage, an official places the ball at the spot it was at the stop of clock, but no nearer than 24 yards from the sideline or 1 yard from the goal line. The line parallel to the goal line passing through the ball (line from sideline to sideline for the length of the ball) is referred to as the line of scrimmage. This line is similar to “no-man’s land”; players must stay on their respective sides of this line until the play has begun again. For a scrimmage to be valid the team in possession of the football must have seven players, excluding the quarterback, within one yard of the line of scrimmage. The defending team must stay a yard or more back from the line of scrimmage.
On the field at the beginning of a play are two teams of 12 (unlike 11 in American football). The team in possession of the ball is the offence and the team defending is referred to as the defence. Play begins with a backwards pass through the legs (the snap) by a member of the offensive team, to another member of the offensive team. This is usually the quarterback or punter, but a “direct snap” to a running back is also not uncommon. If the quarterback or punter receives the ball, he may then do any of the following:
- run with the ball, attempting to run farther down field (gaining yardage). The ball-carrier may run in any direction he sees fit (including backwards).
- drop-kick the ball, dropping it onto the ground and kicking it on the bounce. (This play is exceedingly rare in both Canadian and American football.)
- pass the ball laterally or backwards to a teammate. This play is known as a lateral, and may come at any time on the play. A pass which has any amount of forward momentum is a forward pass (see below); forward passes are subject to many restrictions which do not apply to laterals.
- hand-off—hand the ball off to a teammate, typically a halfback or the fullback.
- punt the ball; dropping it in the air and kicking it before it touches the ground. When the ball is punted, only opposing players (the receiving team), the kicker, and anyone behind the kicker when he punted the ball are able to touch the ball, or even go within five yards of the ball until it is touched by an eligible player (the no-yards rule, which is applied to all kicking plays).
- place the ball on the ground for a place kick
- throw a forward pass, where the ball is thrown to a receiver located farther down field (closer to the opponent’s goal) than the thrower is. Forward passes are subject to the following restrictions:
- They must be made from behind the line of scrimmage
- Only one forward pass may be made on a play
- The pass must be made in the direction of an eligible receiver or pass 10 yards after the line of scrimmage
Each play constitutes a down. The offence must advance the ball at least ten yards towards the opponents’ goal line within three downs or forfeit the ball to their opponents. Once ten yards have been gained the offence gains a new set of three downs (rather than the four downs given in American football). Downs do not accumulate. If the offensive team completes 10 yards on their first play, they lose the other two downs and are granted another set of three. If a team fails to gain ten yards in two downs they usually punt the ball on third down or try to kick a field goal (see below), depending on their position on the field. The team may, however use its third down in an attempt to advance the ball and gain a cumulative 10 yards.
Change in possession
The ball changes possession in the following instances:
- If the offence scores a field goal, the scored-against team can either scrimmage from its 35-yard line or have the scoring team kickoff from its 35-yard line.
- If a team scores a touchdown, the scoring team must kickoff from their own 35-yard line.
- If the defence scores on a safety (bringing the ball down in the offence’s own end zone), they have the right to claim possession.
- If one team kicks the ball; the other team has the right to recover the ball and attempt a return. If a kicked ball goes out of bounds, or the kicking team scores a single or field goal as a result of the kick, the other team likewise gets possession.
- If the offence fails to make ten yards in three plays, the defence takes over on downs.
- If the offence attempts a forward pass and it is intercepted by the defence; the defence takes possession immediately (and may try to advance the ball on the play). Note that incomplete forward passes (those which go out of bounds, or which touch the ground without being first cleanly caught by a player) result in the end of the play, and are not returnable by either team.
- If the offence fumbles (a ball carrier drops the football, or has it dislodged by an opponent, or if the intended player fails to catch a lateral pass or a snap from centre, or a kick attempt is blocked by an opponent), the ball may be recovered (and advanced) by either team. If a fumbled ball goes out of bounds, the team whose player last touched it is awarded possession at the spot where it went out of bounds. A fumble by the offence in their own end zone, which goes out of bounds, results in a safety.
- When the first half ends, the team which kicked to start the first half will receive a kickoff to start the second half.
- After the three-minute warning near the end of each half, the offence can lose possession for a time count violation (failure to legally put the ball into play within the 20-second duration of the play clock). However, this can only occur in one very specific scenario:
- The offence committed a time count violation on its last attempted scrimmage play.
- This prior violation took place on third down.
- The referee deemed said violation to be deliberate, and warned the offence that it had to legally place the ball into play within the 20-second clock or lose possession. Such a loss of possession is statistically treated as the defence taking over on downs.
Rules of contact
There are many rules to contact in this type of football. First, the only player on the field who may be legally tackled is the player currently in possession of the football (the ball carrier). Second, a receiver, that is to say, an offensive player sent down the field to receive a pass, may not be interfered with (have his motion impeded, be blocked, etc.) unless he is within one yard of the line of scrimmage (instead of 5 yards (4.6 m) in American football). Any player may block another player’s passage, so long as he does not hold or trip the player he intends to block. The kicker may not be contacted after the kick but before his kicking leg returns to the ground (this rule is not enforced upon a player who has blocked a kick), and the quarterback, having already thrown the ball, may not be hit or tackled.
Infractions and penalties
Infractions of the rules are punished with penalties, typically a loss of yardage of 5, 10 or 15 yards against the penalized team. Minor violations such as offside (a player from either side encroaching into scrimmage zone before the play starts) are penalized five yards, more serious penalties (such as holding) are penalized 10 yards, and severe violations of the rules (such as face-masking) are typically penalized 15 yards. Depending on the penalty, the penalty yardage may be assessed from the original line of scrimmage, from where the violation occurred (for example, for a pass interference infraction), or from where the ball ended after the play. Penalties on the offence may, or may not, result in a loss of down; penalties on the defence may result in a first down being automatically awarded to the offence. For particularly severe conduct, the game official(s) may eject players (ejected players may be substituted for), or in exceptional cases, declare the game over and award victory to one side or the other. Penalties do not affect the yard line which the offence must reach to gain a first down (unless the penalty results in a first down being awarded); if a penalty against the defence results in the first down yardage being attained, then the offence is awarded a first down.
If the defence is penalized on a two-point convert attempt and the offence chooses to attempt the play again, the offence must attempt another two-point convert; it cannot change to a one-point attempt. Conversely, the offence can attempt a two-point convert following a defensive penalty on a one-point attempt.
Penalties may occur before a play starts (such as offside), during the play (such as holding), or in a dead-ball situation (such as unsportsmanlike conduct).
Penalties never result in a score for the offence. For example, a point-of-foul infraction committed by the defence in their end zone is not ruled a touchdown, but instead advances the ball to the one-yard line with an automatic first down. For a distance penalty, if the yardage is greater than half the distance to the goal line, then the ball is advanced half the distance to the goal line, though only up to the one-yard line (unlike American football, in Canadian football no scrimmage may start inside either one-yard line). If the original penalty yardage would have resulted in a first down or moving the ball past the goal line, a first down is awarded.
In most cases, the non-penalized team will have the option of declining the penalty; in which case the results of the previous play stand as if the penalty had not been called. One notable exception to this rule is if the kicking team on a 3rd down punt play is penalized before the kick occurs: the receiving team may not decline the penalty and take over on downs. After the kick is made, change of possession occurs and subsequent penalties are assessed against either the spot where the ball is caught, or the runback.
Canadian football distinguishes four ways of kicking the ball:
- Place kick
- Kicking a ball held on the ground by a teammate, or, on a kickoff (resuming play following a score), optionally placed on a tee.
- Drop kick
- Kicking a ball after bouncing it on the ground. Although rarely used today, it has the same status in scoring as a place kick. This play is part of the game’s rugby heritage, and was largely made obsolete when the ball with pointed ends was adopted. Unlike the American game, Canadian rules allow a drop kick to be attempted at any time by any player, but the move is very rare.
- Kicking the ball after it has been released from the kicker’s hand and before it hits the ground. Punts may not score a field goal, even if one should travel through the uprights. As with drop kicks, players may punt at any time.
- Dribbled ball
- A dribbled ball is one that has been kicked while not in possession of a player, for example, a loose ball following a fumble, a blocked kick, a kickoff, or a kick from scrimmage. The kicker of the dribbled ball and any player onside when the ball was kicked may legally recover the ball.
On any kicking play, all onside players (the kicker, and teammates behind the kicker at the time of the kick) may recover and advance the ball. Players on the kicking team who are not onside may not approach within five yards of the ball until it has been touched by the receiving team, or by an onside teammate.
The methods of scoring are:
- Achieved when the ball is in possession of a player in the opponent’s end zone, or when the ball in the possession of a player crosses or touches the plane of the opponent’s goal-line, worth 6 points (5 points until 1956). A touchdown in Canadian football is often referred to as a “major score” or simply a “major.”
- Conversion (or convert)
- After a touchdown, the team that scored gets one scrimmage play to attempt to add one or two more points. If they make what would normally be a field goal, they score one point (a “point-after”); what would normally be a touchdown scores two points (a “two-point conversion”). In amateur games, this scrimmage is taken at the opponents’ 5-yard line. The CFL formerly ran all conversion attempts from the 5-yard line as well, but starting in 2015 the line of scrimmage for one-point kick attempts became the 25-yard line, while two-point attempts are scrimmaged at the 3-yard line. No matter what happens on the convert attempt, play then continues with a kickoff (see below).
- Field goal
- Scored by a drop kick or place kick (except on a kickoff) when the ball, after being kicked and without again touching the ground, goes over the cross bar and between the goal posts (or between lines extended from the top of the goal posts) of the opponent’s goal, worth three points. If the ball hits the upright above the cross-bar before going through, it is not considered a dead ball, and the points are scored. (Rule 5, Sect 4, Art 4(d)) If the field goal is missed, but the ball is not returnable after crossing the dead-ball-line, then it constitutes a rouge (see below).
- Scored when the ball becomes dead in the possession of a team in its own goal area, or when the ball touches or crosses the dead-line, or side-line-in-goal and touches the ground, a player, or some object beyond these lines as a result of the team scored against making a play. It is worth two points. This is different from a single (see below) in that the team scored against begins with possession of the ball. The most common safety is on a third down punt from the end zone, in which the kicker decides not to punt and keeps the ball in his team’s own goal area. The ball is then turned over to the receiving team (who gained the two points), by way of a kickoff from the 25 yard line or scrimmaging from the 35-yard (32 m) line on their side of the field.
- Single (rouge)
- Scored when the ball becomes dead in the possession of a team in its own goal area, or when the ball touches or crosses the dead-line, or side-line-in-goal, and touches the ground, a player, or some object beyond these lines as a result of the ball having been kicked from the field of play into the goal area by the scoring team. It is worth one point. This is different from a Safety (see above) in that team scored against receives possession of the ball after the score.
- Officially, the single is called a rouge (French for “red”) but is often referred to as a single. The exact derivation of the term is unknown, but it has been thought that in early Canadian football, the scoring of a single was signalled with a red flag. A rouge is also a method of scoring in the Eton field game, which dates from at least 1815.
Resumption of play
Resumption of play following a score is conducted under procedures which vary with the type of score.
- Following a touchdown and convert attempt (successful or not), play resumes with the scoring team kicking off from its own 35-yard line (45-yard line in amateur leagues).
- Following a field goal, the non-scoring team may choose for play to resume either with a kickoff as above, or by scrimmaging the ball from its own 35-yard line.
- Following a safety, the scoring team may choose for play to resume in either of the above ways, or it may choose to kick off from its own 35-yard line.
- Following a single or rouge, play resumes with the non-scoring team scrimmaging from its own 35-yard line, unless the single is awarded on a missed field goal, in which case the non-scoring team scrimmages from either the 35-yard line or the yard line from which the field goal was attempted, whichever is greater.
The game consists of two 30-minute halves, each of which is divided into two 15-minute quarters. The clock counts down from 15:00 in each quarter. Timing rules change when there are three minutes remaining in a half. A short break interval of 2 minutes occurs after the end of each quarter (a longer break of 15 minutes at halftime), and the two teams then change goals.
In the first 27 minutes of a half, the clock stops when:
- points are scored,
- the ball goes out of bounds,
- a forward pass is incomplete,
- the ball is dead and a penalty flag has been thrown,
- the ball is dead and teams are making substitutions (e.g., possession has changed, punting situation, short yardage situation),
- the ball is dead and a player is injured, or
- the ball is dead and a captain or a coach calls a time-out.
The clock starts again when the referee determines the ball is ready for scrimmage, except for team time-outs (where the clock starts at the snap), after a time count foul (at the snap) and kickoffs (where the clock starts not at the kick but when the ball is first touched after the kick).
In the last three minutes of a half, the clock stops whenever the ball becomes dead. On kickoffs, the clock starts when the ball is first touched after the kick. On scrimmages, when it starts depends on what ended the previous play. The clock starts when the ball is ready for scrimmage except that it starts on the snap when on the previous play
- the ball was kicked off,
- the ball was punted,
- the ball changed possession,
- the ball went out of bounds,
- there were points scored,
- there was an incomplete forward pass,
- there was a penalty applied (not declined), or
- there was a team time-out.
During the last three minutes of a half, the penalty for failure to place the ball in play within the 20-second play clock, known as “time count” (this foul is known as “delay of game” in American football), is dramatically different from during the first 27 minutes. Instead of the penalty being 5 yards with the down repeated, the base penalty (except during convert attempts) becomes loss of down on first or second down, and 10 yards on third down with the down repeated. In addition, as noted previously, the referee can give possession to the defence for repeated deliberate time count violations on third down.
The clock does not run during convert attempts in the last three minutes of a half. If the 15 minutes of a quarter expire while the ball is live, the quarter is extended until the ball becomes dead. If a quarter’s time expires while the ball is dead, the quarter is extended for one more scrimmage. A quarter cannot end while a penalty is pending: after the penalty yardage is applied, the quarter is extended one scrimmage. Note that the non-penalized team has the option to decline any penalty it considers disadvantageous, so a losing team cannot indefinitely prolong a game by repeatedly committing infractions.
In the CFL, if the game is tied at the end of regulation play, then each team is given an equal number of offensive possessions to break the tie. A coin toss is held to determine which team will take possession first; the first team scrimmages the ball at the opponent’s 35-yard line and conducts a series of downs until it scores or loses possession. If the team scores a touchdown, starting with the 2010 season, it is required to attempt a two-point conversion. The other team then scrimmages the ball at the opponent’s 35-yard line and has the same opportunity to score. After the teams have completed their possessions, if one team is ahead, then it is declared the winner; otherwise, the two teams each get another chance to score, scrimmaging from the other 35-yard line. After this second round, if there is still no winner, during the regular season the game ends as a tie. In a playoff game, the teams continue to attempt to score from alternating 35-yard lines, until one team is leading after both have had an equal number of possessions.
In U Sports football, for the Uteck Bowl, Mitchell Bowl, and Vanier Cup, the same overtime procedure is followed until there is a winner.
The offensive positions found in Canadian football have, for the most part, evolved throughout the years, and are not officially defined in the rules. However, among offensive players, the rules recognize three different types of players:
- Down linemen
- Down linemen are players who, at the start of every play, line up at the line of scrimmage; once in their stance, they may not move until the play begins. The offence must have at least seven players lined up at the line of scrimmage on every play. The exception to this rule is the player (typically the centre) who snaps the ball to the quarterback. Linemen generally do not run with the ball (unless they recover it on a fumble) or receive a hand-off or lateral pass, but there is no rule against it. Interior linemen (that is, excluding the two players at either end of the scrimmage line) are ineligible receivers; they may not receive a forward pass either. (The two offensive ends on the line of scrimmage may receive forward passes, and may be in motion along the line of scrimmage prior to the snap.)
- Backs line up behind the linemen; they may run with the ball, receive handoffs, laterals, and forward passes. They may also be in motion before the play starts.
Specific offensive positions include:
- Generally the leader of the offence. Calls all plays to teammates, receives the ball off of snap, and initiates the action usually by running the ball himself, passing the ball to a receiver, or handing the ball off to another back.
- Multiple roles including pass protection, receiving, and blocking for the running back. On short yardage situations may also carry the ball.
- Running back/Tailback
- As the name implies, the main runner on the team. Also an eligible receiver and blocker on pass plays.
- Wide receiver
- Lines up on the line of scrimmage, usually at a distance from the centre. Runs a given route to make a successful play catch ball and gain yardage, not that a tight end can count as an eligible receiver so if one is on the wide outs field that the wideout cannot be on the line of scrimmage and may adopt a slotback start.
- Is an eligible receiver but lines up off the line (usually 8yds back) of scrimmage and runs before snap and can not have any part on field over scrimmage or it’s an off-side call
- Down linemen
- Snaps the ball to the quarterback. Most important pass blocker on pass plays. Calls offensive line plays.
- Left/right guard
- Stands to the left and right of the centre helps protect the quarterback, Usually very good run blockers to open holes up the middle for runners.
- Left/right tackle
- Stands on the ends of the offensive line, The biggest men on the line, usually well over 300 pounds (140 kg). Usually very good pass blockers.
- Offensive lineman
- Collective name for the centre, guards and tackles.
The rules do not constrain how the defence may arrange itself (other than the requirement that they must remain one yard behind the line of scrimmage until the play starts).
- Covers the wide receivers on most plays.
- Covers deep. Last line of defence, can offer run support or blitz.
- Defensive halfback
- Covers the slotback and helps contain the run from going to the outside.
- Defensive back
- Collective term for cornerback, safety and defensive halfback.
- Nose tackle
- Lineman across from centre, tries to get past the offensive-line or take double team and open holes for blitzes.
- Defensive tackle
- Inside defensive linemen try to break through the offensive line and open holes for linebackers.
- Defensive end
- Main rushing lineman. Rushes the quarterback and tries to contain rushers behind the line of scrimmage.
- Defensive lineman
- Collective term for defensive tackle (or nose tackle) and defensive end.
- Middle linebacker
- Lines up across from the centre 3 to 4 yds/m back. Quarterback of the defence. Calls plays for lineman and linebackers.
- Weak-side linebacker
- Lines up on the short side of field, and can drop into pass coverage or contain.
- Strong-side linebacker
- Lines up on the opposite side and usually rushes.
Special teams generally refers to kicking plays, which typically involve a change in possession.
- Receives the snap on field goal tries and converts; places the ball in position and holds it to be kicked by the kicker. This position is generally filled by a reserve quarterback; occasionally the starting quarterback or punter will fill in as holder.
- Kicks field goals, converts, kick-offs
- Punts ball, usually on third downs
- Fast, agile runners who specialize in fielding punts, field goals and kickoffs, attempting to advance them for better field position or a score.