Canadian football

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Canadian football is a sport in which two teams of twelve players each compete for territorial control of a field of play 110 yards (100.6 m) long and 65 yards (59.4 m) wide, with end zones 20 yards (18.3 m) deep. At each goal line is a set of forty-foot (12.2 m) high goalposts, which consist of two uprights joined by a crossbar 18.5 feet (5.6 m) long which is ten feet (3.1 m) above the goal line. The goalposts may be H-shaped (both posts fixed in the ground) although in the higher-caliber competitions the tuning-fork design (supported by a single curved post behind the goal line, so that each post starts ten feet (3.1 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.

Canadian football shares origins with American football, and the two are closely related. There are, however, some rule differences between the two. For a discussion of differences between Canadian and American football see: Comparison of Canadian and American football

Play of the game

Teams advance across the field through the execution of short, distinct plays, which involve the possession of a brown, ovoid ball with ends tapered to a point. The ball has two one-inch-wide stripes.


Play begins 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 throw the ball to a teammate, so long as the throw is not forward.

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 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. If no score has been made, the next play starts from scrimmage.


Before scrimmage, an official places the ball at the spot it became dead, but no nearer than 24 yards from the sideline or 1 yard from the goalline. The line parallel to the end zone passing through the ball is referred to as the line of scrimmage. This line is a sort of "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, however, must stay a yard or more back from the line of scrimmage.

Live play

On the field at the beginning of a play are two teams of 12. 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 by a member of the offensive team, to the quarterback or punter. 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, although in the Canadian game it is sometimes used as a last-second "desperation play" if the team is behind by less than three points.)
  • 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 runningback or the fullback.
  • punt the ball; dropping it in the air and kicking it before it touches the ground.
  • 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.

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. It must be noted that they do not accumulate, so that if one completes 10 yards on their first play, they lose the other two downs, instead of being granted three on top of their remaining two. 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.

Change in possession

The ball changes possession in the following instances:

  • If the offence scores; the defence has the right to claim possession (either by starting from scrimmage at their own 35 yard line, or by receiving a kickoff). The defence may also elect to kick the ball to their opponents; teams with a strong placekicker and a stout defence may choose to do this to gain better field position for their own offence. This also applies when the defence scores on a turnover which is returned for a touchdown--technically, they become the offence for the conclusion of the play, and the scored-upon team has the right to claim possession.
  • If the defence scores on a safety, 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 and 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 may receive a kickoff to start the second half.

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 (as opposed to 5 yards 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, 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 of 5, 10, or 15 yards. 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 are typically penalized 15 yards. Depending on the penalty, the penalty yardage may be assessed from the original line of scrimmage, the spot the violation occurred, or the place 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 in order to reach 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.

Penalties may occur before a play starts (such as offsides), 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 (a penalty by the defence committed in their end zone is not ruled a touchdown); on rare occasions, penalties against the offence in their own end zone may result in a safety being scored by the defence. If the penalty yardage, once assessed would move the ball into an end zone (or further than half the distance between the end zone and the spot the penalty is assessed from), a penalty of half-the-distance is assessed instead. Note that in Canadian football (unlike American football), no scrimmage may start inside either one-yard line.

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).



The offensive positions found in Canadian football (and American 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. However, the centre and the two linemen on either side are ineligible receivers; they may not receive a forward pass either. (Other players who line up at the line of scrimmage may receive forward passes).
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, 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
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 down the field in order to catch a forward pass from the quarterback.
Same as the wide receiver, but starts five yards back off the line of scrimmage and stays closer to the offensive line.

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 about 300 pounds (140 kg). Usually very good pass blockers.
Offensive lineman
Collective name for centre, guards, and tackles.


The rules do not constrain how the defense 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 contain
Middle linebacker
Lines up across from the centre 3 to 4 yards 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

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.
Kicks field goals, converts, kick-offs
Punts ball, usually on third downs
Fast, agile runners who specialize in fielding punts and kickoffs, attempting to advance them for better field position or a score.

Other kicks

Canadian football distinguishes three 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), 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 obsoleted when the ball with pointed ends was adapted.
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.

On punts and field goal attempts (but not kickoffs), members of the kicking team, other than the kicker and any teammates who are onside (behind the kicker at the time of the kick), may not approach within five yards of the ball until it has been touched by the receiving team.


The methods of scoring are:

Achieved when the ball is in possession of a player in the opponent's goal area, or when the ball in the possession of a player crosses or touches the plane of the opponent's goal-line, worth 6 points
Conversion (or Convert) 
After a touchdown, the team that scored attempts one scrimmage play from any point between the hash marks on or outside the opponents' 5-yard line. If they make what would normally be a field goal, they score one point; what would normally be a touchdown scores two points (a "two-point conversion"). It is also possible for the defence to score a safety (i.e. by recovering a turnover and running the ball all the way to their opponents' end zone). 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 goal posts produced) of the opponent's goal (worth three points).
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.
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 from a kick.
At one time the single was called a rouge (French for "red"); this term is still recognized in the official rulebook, but is otherwise obsolete. In early Canadian football rules the point was deducted from a team failing to advance the ball from the end zone. If a team had no points, this put them "in the red", with a negative score.

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, play resumes with the non-scoring team scrimmaging from its own 35-yard line.

Game timing

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 occurs after the end of each quarter (a longer break 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 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) 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.

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 penalties.

League play

Canadian football is played at several levels in Canada. The professional league in which the sport is played is the eight-team Canadian Football League (CFL), and its champion is awarded the Grey Cup, the oldest trophy in professional football. Amateur football is governed by Football Canada. At the university level, 27 teams play in four conferences under the auspices of Canadian Interuniversity Sport; the CIS champion is awarded the Vanier Cup. Junior football is played by many after high school before joining the university ranks. There are 18 junior teams in 3 divisions competing for the Canadian Bowl.

Semi-professional leagues have grown in popularity in recent years, with the Alberta Football League becoming especially popular. The Canadian Major Football League is the governing body for the semi-professional game.


The first documented football match in Canada was a game played at University College, University of Toronto on November 9, 1861. A football club was formed at the university soon afterwards, although its rules of play at this stage are unclear.

In 1864, at Trinity College, Toronto, F. Barlow Cumberland and Frederick A. Bethune devised rules based on rugby football. However, modern Canadian football is widely regarded as having originated with a game of rugby played in Montreal, in 1865, when British Army officers played local civilians. The game gradually gained a following, and the Montreal Football Club was formed in 1868, the first recorded non-university football club in Canada.

Rugby soon became popular at McGill University. It is from this varsity play that the game now known as American football entered the United States, after McGill challenged Harvard University to a game, in 1874.

The Canadian Football League was known under various names throughout its history including the Canadian Rugby Football Union, and the Canadian Rugby Union. The CRFU, original forerunner to the current Canadian Football League, was established in 1882.

As the rules of American football are very similar to Canadian football, the CFL has maintained a close relationship with its American counterpart, the National Football League (NFL).

The CFL regular season begins in June, and play-offs are completed by mid-November. In cities with outdoor stadiums such as Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Hamilton, and Regina, low temperatures and icy field conditions can seriously affect the outcome of a game.

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