Comparison of Canadian and American football

Comparison of Canadian and American football

Canadian and American football are very similar, as both have their origins in rugby. As such, the rules of these sports are very similar, although a comparison illustrates some key differences.


Football was introduced to North America in Canada, by the British Army garrison in Montreal, which played a series of games with McGill University.Cite web|url=|title=Canadian Football Timelines (1860–present)|accessdate=2006-12-23|publisher=Football Canada] In 1874, Harvard hosted McGill to play the new game derived from Rugby football in a home and home series. Many of the similarities and differences between the Canadian and American games indeed came out of this original home and home series where each home team set the rules. For instance, Harvard, because of a lack of campus space did not have a full-sized rugby pitch. Their pitch was only 100 yards long by 50 yards wide with undersized endzones (slightly less than the 53⅓-yard width of the current regulation size for American Football). Because of the reduced field, the Harvard team opted for 11 players per side, four less than the regulation 15 of Rugby Union. To generate more offence, the number of downs was also increased by Harvard to 4 from 3 as set by McGill. Both the Canadian and American games still have some things in common with the two varieties of rugby, especially rugby league, and, because of the similarities, the National Football League (NFL) has established a formal relationship with the Canadian Football League (CFL).

Many, perhaps most, of the rules differences have arisen because of rules changes in American football in the early twentieth century which have not been copied by Canadian football. The major Canadian codes never abolished the onside scrimmage kick (see Kicker advancing the ball below) or restricted backfield motion, while the NCAA (from whose code all American codes derive) did. Canadian football was late in adopting the hand snap and the forward pass, although one would not suspect the latter from play today. Additionally, Canadian football was slower in removing restrictions on blocking, but caught up by the 1970s so that no significant differences remain today. Similarly, differences in scoring (the Canadian game valuing touchdowns less) opened up from the late 19th century but were erased by the 1950s. For these reasons, this article would have been considerably longer during about 1910–50. An area in which American football has been more conservative is the retention of the fair catch ("see below").

In some regions along the Canada-USA border, especially western areas, some high schools from opposite sides of the border will regularly play games against one another (typically one or two per team per season). By agreement between the governing bodies involved, the field of the home team is considered a legal field, although it is a different size from one school's normal field. In all but a few cases, the rules of the home team are followed throughout the game.

Many Canadian Football League players are Americans who grew up playing American football and cannot find a place in the NFL, or who prefer to play in the CFL; import quotas restrict the number of non-Canadian players, see below. CFL games are sometimes broadcast in the United States on regional cable sports networks, though media coverage is generally of a much lower level than that of the NFL.

For individuals who played both American and Canadian football professionally, their career statistic totals are considered to be their combined totals from their careers in both the CFL and NFL. Warren Moon, for example, was the all-time professional football leader in passing yards after an illustrious career in both leagues. He was surpassed in 2006 by Damon Allen, whose career has been exclusively in the CFL.


There are several important specific differences between the Canadian and American versions of the game of football:

Playing area

The official playing field in Canadian football is larger than the American, and similar to American fields prior to 1912. The Canadian field of play is 110 yards (101 m) long and 65 yards (59 m) wide, rather than 100 yards by 53⅓ yards (91 m by 49 m) as in American football. The end zones in Canadian football are anywhere from ten to fifteen yards deeper than American football end zones as the Canadian Football League uses 20 yard (18 m) deep end zones. Occasionally, however, the Canadian field will have its end zone truncated at the corners so that the field fits in the infield of a track. The goalposts for kicking are placed at the goal line in Canadian football and the end line in the American game. The distance between the sideline and hash marks is 24 yards (22 m) in the Canadian game and 53 feet, 4 inches (16 m) in the American amateur game at the high school level, yielding roughly the same distance between the hash marks. The hash marks are closer together at the American college level, where they are 60 feet (18 m) from the sideline, and in the NFL, where they are 70 feet, 9 inches (22 m) from the sideline – the distance between them is the same as that between the goalposts.

Because of the larger field, many American football venues are generally unfit for the Canadian game. While there are several American stadiums which could accommodate the extra 17½ feet (5.3 m) per side in width (Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens being prime examples), most American stadiums would lose between fifteen and eighteen rows of seating in each endzone because the field is 45 feet (13.7 m) longer on each end. In many smaller venues, this would be the entire endzone section, losing seating for at least 3,000 spectators. During the CFL's failed expansion to American cities, Canadian football was either played on converted baseball grounds, or in some cases, on a field designed for American football (most famously, the Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL, playing in the Liberty Bowl, played the Canadian game on an American field because of the inability of the stadium to adapt to the larger field). The Alamodome is the only American venue built that can accommodate Canadian football (the CFL's San Antonio Texans), although it is now no longer used for this purpose.

Team size

Canadian teams have twelve players on the field per side, while American teams use eleven players. Both games have the same number of players required at the line of scrimmage, hence the twelfth player in the Canadian game plays a backfield position.

Because of this, position designations of the various offensive and defensive lines vary. For example, there is no tight end in most formations in Canadian football. The typical offensive arrangement in Canadian football is for there to be two slotbacks instead of the American tight end, while on the defensive end of the ball, two defensive halfbacks and one safety are employed instead of two safeties.

The ball

While the tolerances of Canadian and American footballs are slightly different, the same ball can fall within the tolerances of each. Canadian Football League rules specify that the long circumference of the ball should be not less than 27¾ inches (705 mm) nor greater than 28¼ inches (718 mm), while the short circumference should be no less than 20⅞ inches (530 mm) nor greater than 21⅛ inches (537 mm). The dimensions of the official National Football League and National Collegiate Athletic Association football are specified by its manufacturer as: short circumference: 20¾ to 21¼ inches (527 to 540 mm), long circumference 27¾ to 28½ inches (705 to 724 mm). Professional quarterbacks can notice the difference in size, however. [cite news|url=|title=Getting feel for CFL|last=Bender|first=Jim|date=2008-05-29|publisher=Winnipeg Sun|accessdate=2008-05-29]

Another difference between CFL, NFL, and NCAA balls is the type of stripe applied (or not). Canadian balls have a complete white stripe around the football 1 inch (25 mm) from each end, NCAA balls have stripes over the top half only, and NFL balls have no stripes.

Number of downs

In both games, a team will have a limited number of downs to advance the ball ten yards. In American football, there are four downs, while in Canadian football, there are three.


In both games, the ball is placed at a line of scrimmage, in which a player known as the "centre" ("center" in the United States) performs a "snap" to start a football play. In Canadian football the snap is required to go between the centre's legs; there is no such requirement in American football, but it is invariably done this way anyway, so the center is in position to block following the snap. The defensive team must stay a set distance away from the line of scrimmage on their side of the line. If an offensive play results in the goal line being within this distance, the ball is moved back so that the defence is positioned at the goal line.

In Canadian football, the distance between the line of scrimmage and the defensive team is a full yard. Because of this one-yard distance, teams will tend to gamble on "third and one". If a team has possession within one yard of either goal line, the line of scrimmage is moved to the one-yard line.Rule 4: Scrimmage. cite book
author = Canadian Football League
authorlink = Canadian Football League
title = CFL Official Playing Rules 2005
publisher = Canadian Football League
date = 2005
location = Toronto, Canada
pages = 81
url =

In American football, the set distance between the offensive and defensive teams is eleven inches – the length of the ball, creating the illusion of the teams being "nose-to-nose" against each other.

Fair catches and punt returns

In American football, if a punt returner sees that, in his judgment, he will be unable to advance the ball after catching it, he may signal for a fair catch by waving his right hand in the air, and forgo the attempt to advance. If he makes this signal, the opposing team must allow him to attempt to catch the ball cleanly; if he is interfered with, the team covering the kick will be penalized fifteen yards. In contrast, there is no fair catch rule in Canadian football: instead no player from the kicking team except the kicker or any player who was behind him when he kicked the ball may approach within five yards of the ball until it has been touched by an opponent. If they do, a "no yards" penalty is called against the kicking team. [ Section 4, Article 1]

Furthermore, in American football the receiving team may elect not to play the ball if the prospects for a return are not good and the returner is not certain he can successfully catch the ball on the fly; American players are generally taught not to attempt to touch a bouncing football. If any member of the kicking team touches the ball after the kick is made, without an intervening touch by the member of the receiving team, the receiving team may elect to scrimmage the ball from that spot of "first touching", regardless of anything else (other than a penalty) that happens during the rest of the play. If the kicking team gains possession of the ball during the kick before it is touched by the receiving team, the ball is then dead. Often, the ball hits the ground and is surrounded by players from the kicking team, who allow it to roll as far as possible downfield – without going into the end zone – before grasping or holding the ball against the ground. (If a punt bounces into the receiving team's end zone, it is dead, and a touchback is awarded.) On the other hand, if the ball touches a member of the receiving team (even if he doesn't ever have possession), then the ball can be recovered by either team, and if the kicking team recovers the ball, they retain possession.

In Canadian football, if the receiving team does not play the ball, the kicker and any teammates behind the kicker at the time of the kick can attempt to retrieve and advance the ball. This is further explained in the kicker advancing the ball section.

Motion at the snap

In Canadian football "all offensive backfield players", except the quarterback, may be in motion at the snap – players in motion may move in any direction as long as they are behind the line of scrimmage at the snap. In addition, the two players on the ends of the line of scrimmage (generally wide receivers) may also be in motion along the line. Many teams encourage this unlimited motion, as it can confuse defences.

In American football, only one player is allowed to be in motion, and he cannot be moving toward the line of scrimmage while the ball is snapped. Additionally, if he was on the line of scrimmage before he went in motion, he must be five yards behind the line at the time of the snap.

Time rules

In Canadian football, the offensive team must run a play within 20 seconds of the referee whistling the play in; in American football, teams have 25 seconds – except in the NFL where teams have 40 seconds from the end of the previous play.

American football rules allow each team to have three timeouts in each half, and the National Football League stops play for a "two-minute warning". In the Canadian Football League, each team has only one time-out per half, while at lower levels of Canadian football each team has two. However, at all levels of Canadian football, the clock is stopped after every play during the last three minutes of each half.

Timing rules change drastically after the N-minute warning in both leagues. In American football, the clock continues to run after any tackle in bounds, but stops after an incomplete pass, or a tackle out of bounds (in the NFL, the clock stops on out of bounds plays inside five minutes remaining in the half). If the clock stops, it is restarted at the snap of the ball. In Canadian football, the clock stops after every play, but the starting time differs depending on the result of the previous play: after a tackle in bounds, the clock restarts when the referee whistles the ball in; after an incomplete pass or a tackle out of bounds, the clock restarts when the ball is snapped. NCAA football has no two-minute warning. It does, however, stop the clock after every first down to move and set the down markers, after which the clock restarts. In American football, a period generally ends when time expires (though any play which is in progress when the clock reaches 0:00 is allowed to finish); in Canadian football, the period must end with a final play. Consequently, a play is often started in Canadian football with no time (0:00) showing on the game clock. American football typically only sees a play start with no time on the clock when a defensive penalty occurs during the last play of the period and the penalty is not declined (or, in the NFL, in the very rare circumstance when a team takes a fair catch as time expires and elects a free kick).

These timing differences make for spectacularly different end-games if the team leading the game has the ball. In American football, if the other team is out of time-outs, it is possible to run slightly more than 120 seconds (two minutes) off the clock without gaining a first down. In Canadian football, just over 40 seconds can be run off.

American-trained players have been known to leave the Canadian playing field with some seconds remaining on the clock, and sometimes this gaffe has affected the outcome of the game.Fact|date=February 2008

Kicker advancing the ball

Canadian football retains much more liberal rules regarding recovery of the ball by members of the kicking team. On any kick, the kicker and any member of the kicker's team behind the kicker at the time of the kick may recover and advance the ball. On a kickoff, since every member of the kicking team must be behind the ball when it is kicked, this effectively makes all twelve players "onside" and eligible to recover the kick, once it has gone ten yards downfield. On a punt or missed field goal, usually only the kicker is onside, as no one is behind the kicker. All of the players offside at the time of the kick may neither touch the ball nor be within five yards of the member of the receiving team who fields the kick; violation of this rule is a penalty for "no yards". The penalty for no yards is more severe if the kick is in flight than if it has been grounded.

The American rules are similar for the recovery of kickoffs. Any member of the kicking team may recover the ball once it has touched an opponent or once it has gone ten yards downfield and touched the ground. The ball is dead when recovered, though the kicking team is awarded possession at the spot of recovery.

The American rules differ from the Canadian ones for scrimmage kicks. In American rules to recover a scrimmage kick (punt or missed field goal) and retain possession, the ball must be touched beyond the line of scrimmage by a member of the receiving team (defence). If the ball is touched by the receiving team and then recovered by the kicking team, the kicking team will retain possession and be awarded a first down. If the receiving team has not touched the ball before the kicking team touches it, it is "first touching" as described above in fair catches and punt returns but not a penalty.

Additionally, members of the kicking team must allow the receiving team the opportunity to catch a scrimmage kick in flight. There is no required distance; the NCAA revoked its rule of a 2-yard halo.field goal or if the goalposts are hit while the ball is in flight. If the player receiving the kick fails to return it out of the end zone, or (except on a kickoff) if the ball was kicked through the end zone, then the kicking team scores a single point (rouge), and the returning team scrimmages from its 35-yard line. If a kickoff goes through the end zone without a player touching it or a kicked ball in flight hits a post without scoring a field goal, there is no score, and the receiving team scrimmages from its 25. If the kick is returned out of the end zone, the receiving team next scrimmages from the place that was reached (or if they reach the opponents' goal line, they score a touchdown); in the amateur levels of the game, they are given the ball at their 20-yard line if the kick was not returned that far.

Singles do not exist in American football.

American football also allows a defending team to advance a missed field goal; however, because of the absence of singles and the goalpost position at the back of the end zone, the return is rarely exercised, except on a blocked kick, or as time expires in the half or in the game. (example: In 2007, Antonio Cromartie's 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown to conclude the 1st half.) Most teams instead elect not to attempt a return and assume possession – at the previous line of scrimmage in the NCAA and at the spot of the kick in the NFL. Since the goalpost is out of bounds, any non-scoring kick that strikes the goalpost is dead, and the receiving team takes over possession from the spot of the kick or their own 20-yard line, whichever is further from the receiving team's goal. Likewise, any kickoff or punt which either a) is kicked through the end zone, b) is kicked into the end zone and rolls out of bounds (without being touched by a player), c) is touched in the end zone by a member of the kicking team (with no member of the receiving team touching it), or d) is "downed" in the end zone by a member of the receiving team, results in a touchback – the receiving team is awarded possession on their own 20-yard line. If a player of the receiving team fields a kickoff or punt in the end zone, he has the option to down it in the end zone (resulting in a touchback) or to try and advance the ball.

Following a successful field goal, in Canadian rules, the team scored upon has the option of receiving a kickoff, kicking off from its 35-yard line, or scrimmaging at its own 35-yard line. In American football, there is a kickoff by the scoring team after every score, with the exception of safeties (see below). The option for the scored-upon team to kick off after a touchdown exists in American amateur football, but it is very rarely exercised.

Open-field kick

Canadian football retains the open-field kick as a legal play, allowing a kick to be taken from anywhere on the field. The open-field kick may be used as a desperation last play by the offence: realizing they are unable to go the length of the field, they advance part of the way and attempt a drop kick, trying to score a field goal. Conversely, the defence, facing a last-second field goal attempt in a tie game or game they lead by one point, will often position its punter and place-kicker in the end zone. If the field goal is missed, they can punt the ball back into the field of play and not concede a single.

American football only allows free kicks and scrimmage kicks made from behind the line of scrimmage; any kick beyond the line of scrimmage or after change of possession would result in a penalty. (Some levels of American football allow the rare fair catch kick, which according to the NFL rules is neither a free kick nor scrimmage kick, but "sui generis".)


In both American football and Canadian football, a safety (or safety touch) awards 2 points to the defending team. In American football, the team giving up the safety must take a "free kick" from their own 20-yard line. In Canadian football, the team being awarded the 2 points has the option of scrimmaging from their own 35-yard line, kicking the ball off from their own 35-yard line, or having the opposing team kick off the ball from their own 35-yard line.

Points after touchdown

In both games, after a touchdown is scored, the scoring team may then attempt one play for additional points. In Canadian football, this play is called a "convert", and in American football, it is formally called a "try", although it is commonly referred to as a "conversion", "extra point", or "point after touchdown (PAT)". The additional points may be earned through a kick or a play from scrimmage. If done via kick, the scoring team gains one point, and if done from a scrimmage, the scoring team gains two.

However, the position of the ball for attempts is different in the two games. Point-after-touchdown attempts are taken from the 2-yard-line in American professional football (3-yard-line in amateur), and at the 5-yard-line in Canadian football. However, the Canadian kicker is actually closer to the goalposts, which are on the goal line in Canada and on the end line in the United States.

According to the rules of both the NFL and NCAA, on conversion attempts, the ball will automatically be spotted in the middle of the field at the 2- or 3-yard line (respectively) unless a member of the kicking teams expressly asks a referee for an alternative placement. Per the rules, the ball can be placed at another spot between the hash marks (especially for strategic positioning on a 2-point conversion attempt) or at another spot further back from the 2- or 3-yard-line (not uncommon at lower levels of football, since as the season progresses, conditions may worsen toward the center of the field, especially at the spot from which the PAT is usually kicked; the kicker may thus request a spot where the footing is surer).

During conversions, the ball is considered live in the Canadian Football League, American collegiate football, some high school associations, and NFL Europa. As such, this allows the defensive team to gain two points on an interception or fumble return. Conversely, in the National Football League, other levels of American football, and amateur Canadian football, defensive teams cannot score during a try attempt.

Runner down (amateur)

In Canadian amateur football, the ball is not dead if a player kneels momentarily to, and does, recover a rolling snap, onside/lateral pass, or opponent's kick, while in American amateur football, such a situation produces a dead ball, unless the player is the holder for a place kick. The holder is allowed to catch the snap or recover a rolling snap while on a knee to hold the kick and may also rise to catch a high snap and immediately return to a knee.

At professional levels in both games, unless it is a clearly willful kneel or slide by a ball carrier to go down, a player must be touched while on the ground, otherwise, the player may stand up and continue to advance the ball. Hitting a player who is kneeling, sliding, or clearly intends to run the ball out of bounds (especially quarterbacks) is generally viewed as unsportsmanlike and is often penalized, and in the most blatant of cases (especially if it happens in the dying seconds of a game), the player may be subject to off-field disciplinary action by their respective league governing body, usually in the form of fines or suspensions.

Tight ends and slotbacks

Whereas American football uses a tight end on offence, Canadian football's typical set is two extra slotbacks.

Other differences

As in American high school and college football, Canadian receivers need only have one foot in bounds for a catch to count as a reception. NFL play requires two feet in bounds and, up through the 2007 season, an NFL official could also award a catch if it was judged that the receiver would have come down in bounds had he not been pushed by a defender. This rule was based on a judgement call by the official, and was criticized for being inconsistent. The rule was dropped prior to the 2008 season by the NFL. [ [ ESPN - Owners table reseeding playoffs proposal; pass other rules - NFL ] ]

CFL roster sizes are 46 players (rather than 53 as in the NFL, though only 45 will dress for a game). A team may dress up to 42 players comprising 20 non-imports (essentially, Canadians), 19 imports (almost exclusively Americans), and 3 quarterbacks.

While the traditional American football season runs from September or late August until December with the NFL playoffs occurring in January and February, the CFL regular season begins in June so that the playoffs can be completed by mid-November, an important consideration for a sport played in outdoor venues in locations such as Regina, Saskatchewan; Calgary, Alberta; Edmonton, Alberta; and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Nevertheless, as recently as 1972, it was not uncommon for the CFL season to end in December.

Officials' penalty flags used in the CFL are orange in color. In American football, officials typically use yellow penalty flags. Conversely, coaches' challenge flags for replays are yellow in the CFL as opposed to red in the NFL. Further, in the CFL, the referee wears a black cap with white piping, and the other officials wear white caps with black piping. In American leagues, the referee wears a solid white cap, and the other officials wear black with white piping.

trategic and tactical differences

While the rules of Canadian and American football are very similar, the differences have a great effect on how teams play and are managed. Generally, the 'big play' is more important in the Canadian game, and offensive series are more difficult to manage.

Special teams:Punts are more common in Canadian football because the offence has only three tries to attain a first down compared to four in American. Accordingly, special teams make a larger contribution to the team's success.

Management of offensive drives:Having only three downs gives less room for experimentation and short rush attempts; the same ten yards must be gained with one fewer try in Canadian football. Canadian teams usually prefer passing over rushing to a greater extent than American, since pass attempts generally tend to gain more yards than rushing. In addition, the wider field and much larger end zone further encourage passing in the Canadian game. Offensive drives (continuous possession of the ball) tend to be much shorter. Long drives of half a quarter or more are common in American football but rare in Canadian.

Backfield motion:Perhaps the greatest differences arise since virtually unlimited movement is allowed in the defensive and offensive backfields on a play from scrimmage in the Canadian game vs. very restricted movement in the American. Thus both the offence and defence have many more options; at the same time, each team must anticipate more possibilities from the opposition.

Late comebacks:In both the college and pro games, the clock stops more in the Canadian game. In the Canadian Football League, the rules require more clock stoppages in the last minutes of a half whereas in the National Football League there are fewer. On top of this, a team that is ahead has less opportunity to kill clock time in the Canadian game with only three downs. Dramatic comebacks are more likely in the Canadian game. On the other hand, since a team on which a field goal is scored has the option of scrimmaging rather than receiving a kick, a team must score a touchdown in order to attempt an onside kick.


* [*&p_li= Wilson Sporting Goods]
* [ Arena Football League 101]

ee also

* Canadian football
* Glossary of Canadian football
* American football
* American football rules
* Glossary of American football
* Rugby football
* Comparison of American football and rugby league
* Comparison of American football and rugby union

External links

* [ CFL Official Playing Rules]
* [ NFL Digest of Rules]
* [ Differences between Canadian and American football]
* [ Comparison of CFL and NFL rules]

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