Canadian football (French: football canadien) is a sport 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 oval-shaped 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; outside of Canada, the term Canadian football is used exclusively to describe this sport, even in the United States (the term gridiron football is also used worldwide as well). The two sports have shared origins and are closely related but have some key 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.
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.
The first documented football match was a practice game played on November 9, 1861, at University College, University of Toronto (approximately 400 yards or 370 metres west of Queen's Park). One of the participants in the game involving University of Toronto students was Sir William Mulock, later Chancellor of the school. A football club was formed at the university soon afterward, although its rules of play at this stage are unclear.
The first written account of a game played was on October 15, 1862, on the Montreal Cricket Grounds. It was between the First Battalion Grenadier Guards and the Second Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards resulting in a win by the Grenadier Guards 3 goals, 2 rouges to nothing. In 1864, at Trinity College, Toronto, F. Barlow Cumberland, Frederick A. Bethune, and Christopher Gwynn, one of the founders of Milton, Massachusetts, devised rules based on rugby football. The game gradually gained a following, with the Hamilton Football Club formed on November 3, 1869, Montreal formed a team April 8, 1872, Toronto was formed on October 4, 1873, and the Ottawa FBC on September 20, 1876. (Of those clubs, only the Toronto club is still in continuous operation today.)
This rugby-football soon became popular at Montreal's McGill University. McGill challenged Harvard University to a game, in 1874 using a hybrid game of English rugby devised by the University of McGill.
The first attempt to establish a proper governing body and adopted the current set of Rugby rules was the Foot Ball Association of Canada, organized on March 24, 1873 followed by the Canadian Rugby Football Union (CRFU) founded June 12, 1880, which included teams from Ontario and Quebec. Later both the Ontario and Quebec Rugby Football Union (ORFU and QRFU) were formed (January 1883), and then the Interprovincial (1907) and Western Interprovincial Football Union (1936) (IRFU and WIFU). The CRFU reorganized into an umbrella organization forming the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) in 1891. The original forerunners to the current Canadian Football League, was established in 1956 when the IRFU and WIFU formed an umbrella organization, The Canadian Football Council (CFC). In 1958 the CFC left the CRFU to become the CFL.
The Burnside rules closely resembling American football (which are similar rules developed by Walter Camp for that sport) that were incorporated in 1903 by the ORFU, was an effort to distinguish it from a more rugby-oriented game. The Burnside Rules had teams reduced to 12 men per side, introduced the Snap-Back system, required the offensive team to gain 10 yards on three downs, eliminated the Throw-In from the sidelines, allowed only six men on the line, stated that all goals by kicking were to be worth two points and the opposition was to line up 10 yards from the defenders on all kicks. The rules were an attempt to standardize the rules throughout the country. The CIRFU, QRFU and CRU refused to adopt the new rules at first. Forward passes were not allowed in the Canadian game until 1929, and touchdowns, which had been five points, were increased to six points in 1956, in both cases several decades after the Americans had adopted the same changes. The primary differences between the Canadian and American games stem from rule changes that the American side of the border adopted but the Canadian side did not (originally, both sides had three downs, goal posts on the goal lines and unlimited forward motion, but the American side modified these rules and the Canadians did not). The Canadian field width was one rule that was not based on American rules, as the Canadian game was played in wider fields and stadiums that were not as narrow as the American stadiums.
The Grey Cup was established in 1909 after being donated by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, The Governor General of Canada as the championship of teams under the CRU for the Rugby Football Championship of Canada. Initially an amateur competition, it eventually became dominated by professional teams in the 1940s and early 1950s. The Ontario Rugby Football Union, the last amateur organization to compete for the trophy, withdrew from competition in 1954. The move ushered in the modern era of Canadian professional football, culminating in the formation of the present-day Canadian Football League in 1958.
Canadian football has mostly been confined to Canada, with the United States being the only other country to have hosted high-level Canadian football games. The CFL's controversial "South Division" as it would come to be officially known attempted to put CFL teams in the United States playing under Canadian rules between 1992 and 1995. The move was aborted after three years; the Baltimore Stallions were the most successful of the numerous Americans teams to play in the CFL, winning the 83rd Grey Cup. Continuing financial losses, a lack of proper Canadian football venues, a pervasive belief that the American teams were simply pawns to provide the struggling Canadian teams with expansion fee revenue, and the return of the NFL to Baltimore prompted the end of Canadian football on the American side of the border.
The CFL hosted the Touchdown Atlantic regular season game at Nova Scotia in 2005 and New Brunswick in 2010, 2011 and 2013. In 2013, Newfoundland and Labrador became the last province to establish football at the minor league level, with teams playing on the Avalon Peninsula and in Labrador City. The province however has yet to host a college or CFL game. Prince Edward Island, the smallest of the provinces, has also never hosted a CFL game.
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 late November. In cities with outdoor stadiums such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Calgary, 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, 27 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 18 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 has gained attention in recent years 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 110 yards (101 m) long and 65 yards (59 m) wide, within which the goal areas are 20 yards (18 m) deep, and the goal lines are 110 yards (101 m) apart. Weighted pylons are placed on the inside corner of the intersections of the goal lines and end lines. Including the endzones, the total area of the field is 87,750 square feet (8,152 m2).
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 or yellow, 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 (in both multiples of 5 and 10) was usually marked with the distance to the goal line, including the goal line itself which was marked with either a "0" or "00"; in most stadiums today, only the yard markers in multiples of 10 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" (or, more rarely, with a "55"). "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. The first field to feature the shorter 20-yard endzones was Vancouver's BC Place (home of the BC Lions), which opened in 1983. 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.
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.
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 (and not 11 as 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 now quite 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.
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.
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 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:
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:
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 a "time count violation" (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.
In the CFL, a game must be delayed if lightning strikes within 10 km (6 mi) of the stadium or for other severe weather conditions, or if dangerous weather is anticipated. In the regular season, if play has not resumed after 1 hour and at least half of the third quarter has been completed, the score stands as final; this happened for the first time on August 9, 2019, when a Saskatchewan–Montreal game was stopped late in the third quarter.
If the stoppage is earlier in the game, or if it is a playoff or Grey Cup game, play may be stopped for up to 3 hours and then resume. After 3 hours of stoppage, play is terminated at least for the day. A playoff or Grey Cup game must then be resumed the following day at the point where it left off.
In the regular season, if a game is stopped for 3 hours and one team is leading by at least a certain amount, then that team is awarded a win. The size of lead required is 21, 17, or 13 depending on whether the stoppage is in the first, second, or third quarter respectively. If neither team is leading by that much and they are not scheduled to play again in the season, the game is declared a tie.
If a regular-season game is stopped for 3 hours and neither team is leading by the required amount to be awarded a win, but the two teams are scheduled to play again later in the season, then the stopped game is decided by a "two-possession shootout" procedure held before the later game is started. The procedure is generally similar to overtime in the CFL, with two major exceptions: each team must play exactly two possessions regardless of what happens; and while the score from the stopped game is not added to the shootout score, it is used instead to determine the yard line where each team starts its possessions, so the team that was leading still has an advantage.
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:
Specific offensive positions include:
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).
Special teams generally refers to kicking plays, which typically involve a change in possession.