The Top 10 Differences Between the NFL and the CFL
Professional football fans in North America have a choice between two flavours. One is the National Football League (NFL) in the United States and the other is the Canadian Football League (CFL), which plays Canadian football. This article will explain the main differences between how the game is played in each league.
10 Differences Between the NFL and CFL
- The NFL offers higher salaries.
- The CFL field is longer and wider.
- The CFL allows for teams to have 12 players on the field as opposed to 11 in the NFL.
- The CFL offers three downs per possession as opposed to the four downs allowed in the NFL.
- There are different rules regarding the play clock and timeouts.
- The CFL offers an additional method of scoring known as a single point.
- There are different rules regarding the overtime format.
- There is a difference in the in-season schedule and length.
- There is a difference in the location of the field goal post.
- The CFL does not have a fair catch rule.
What Is the CFL?
The Canadian Football League is the top professional football league in Canada. It was founded in 1958 from a merger between the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union. The league has a 21-week regular season that begins in June. The championship game, the Grey Cup, occurs in November.
The playing field in the CFL is slightly larger, and 12 men are allowed on each side. This has created a stronger emphasis on speed for offensive linemen in the CFL. Due to the larger field and the CFL only allowing three downs, the league sees a more pass-orientated game. A short running game is not effective in this league.
1. Player Salaries
In football, it's all about the money, and the NFL has lots of it.
- As of the 2017 season, the average yearly salary for an NFL player was around $2.7 million USD.
- In comparison, the average salary for a CFL player in 2018 was approximately $96,857 CAN. Players in the CFL often need to hold second jobs in the offseason to supplement their income from playing football.
- The highest paid player in the NFL as of 2019 is Russell Wilson; his contract offers an average annual salary of $35 million.
- The highest paid player in the CFL is Jamaal Westerman. His contract offers an average annual salary of $109,000. This is quite a big discrepancy!
Sometimes, players will quit the CFL and try out for the NFL because of the money and fame that they offer their players.
2. Field Size
The dimensions of the fields vary between the two leagues.
- An NFL field is 100 by 53 1/3 yards with a midfield line at 50 yards. A CFL field is 110 by 65 yards with the midfield line at 55 yards.
- The end zones are different lengths as well. The CFL has an end zone that is 20 yards deep. The NFL end zones are only 10 yards deep. This means that the total length of the entire field in the NFL is 120 yards while the CFL field is 150 yards.
Since the field is bigger and there are fewer downs in the CFL, teams usually have a more passing-oriented offense than in the NFL. Offense in the NFL usually has a greater balance between passes and runs.
3. Number of Players on the Field
- The total number of players on the field in the NFL is 22. There are 11 players on the field for each opposing team.
- In the CFL, the total is 24. There are 12 players on each opposing side.
- Both leagues require seven offensive players to be on the line of scrimmage. Because of this, the 12th player on the field in the CFL is typically a backfield position. This has led to the tight end position being commonly removed from the CFL in favor of having two slotbacks. (Here is an article to help you learn about football positions if necessary.)
- On the defensive side, the CFL has two halfbacks and safety while the NFL has two safety positions called free safety and strong safety.
4. Number of Downs
The NFL offers four downs for a team to advance the ball 10 yards. The CFL only offers three downs. Supporters of the CFL say that this, along with other rule differences, creates a more exciting game to watch.
Three downs were actually the norm for football in the early days of the sport. Football was created in the 19th century and was very similar to the sport that inspired it, rugby. Downs were implemented to prevent the stalling of the possession of the ball. Three downs were the initial standard, but Americans added a fourth down in 1912. There were talks in Canada about adding the fourth down, but the start of World War I halted all professional games for two years. When games began to be played again, discussions on changing the rules did not continue.
The rules in the CFL actually creates a scenario where three downs can help balance a game more evenly between offense and defense. The CFL requires that the defensive team is one yard away from the line of scrimmage; in the NFL, the defense can get right on the line. This allows running plays to be more effective in the CFL since they have more space to react to the defense. This, combined with a larger field, can create an advantage for the offense. Having only three downs offers some leverage to the defense.
5. Time Rules and Timeouts
- In American football, each team has three timeouts per half. There is also a two-minute warning given at the end of each half.
- In Canadian football, each team gets two timeouts per game. They can only use one timeout during the three-minute warning in the second half.
- Both the two and three-minute warnings automatically stop the clock after each play without charging a time out to either team.
Another difference is the play clock.
- In the CFL, after the play is over, the referee whistles for the next play to start and the offense has 20 seconds to snap the football.
- Players in the NFL have 40 seconds to run an offensive play after the whistle.
The scoring is essentially the same in both leagues. A safety is two points, a field goal is three points, a touchdown is six points, a kicked extra point is one point, and a conversion run is two points.
A notable exception is the single point, or rouge, which is only in the CFL. A single point is awarded to the kicking team when:
- The kicking team misses a field goal or punts the football and the receiving team does not return the ball out of their end zone. The kicking team then receives one point.
- The kicking team misses a field goal or punts the football and the ball goes through the end zone and out of bounds without being touched.
7. Overtime Format
If the game is tied at the end of the fourth quarter, the teams will play an overtime quarter to decide who will win. Regular season and overtime season formats differ between the two leagues.
Regular Season Overtime Format:
- In the NFL, a coin is tossed and the winning team has a choice to receive or kick off the football to the opposition. The overtime format is sudden death—the first team who scores a safety, field goal, or touchdown wins the game. After 15 minutes of play, if no team has scored any points, the game ends in a tie.
- In the CFL, a coin toss determines who will have the first possession of the football. The winning team decides to either take the first possession or the second possession in overtime. There is no kickoff in this overtime format. Instead, the ball is placed on the opposition's 35-yard line and the offensive team will try to advance the football until they score or lose possession. If the defense scores a point, the game is over. Once the first team has had their possession of the football, the second team will get the football at the opposition's 35-yard line. The second team can either match the first team's score or beat their score. If the second team beats the score, they automatically win the game. If the game is still tied after the second team's possession, each team will have one more possession of the football to score. If after two possessions by both teams the score remains tied, the game ends in a tie.
Playoff Season Overtime Format:
- In the NFL, if the team who has the first offensive possession in overtime scores a touchdown, the game is over. However, if the first offensive team kicks a field goal, then the opposing team will get an offensive possession to either match the field goal or to win a game with a touchdown of their own. If the second team kicks a field go to tie the game, then whoever scores next wins the game. If neither team scores during their possession, then the game goes to sudden death and the first team to score any points will win. If the defensive team scores any points in overtime, the game is over and the team that was on defense wins the game.
- In the CFL playoffs, it is the same format as above. A winner is declared when one team has more points after an equal number of possessions.
8. Regular Season and Schedule
The NFL season and scheduling works like this:
- The NFL regular season begins in September and ends in late December or early January. Each team plays 16 regular-season games. Playoffs begin in January and the championship game—the Super Bowl—is played on the first Sunday in February.
- NFL games are primarily scheduled for Sundays and there is one Monday night game every week during the regular season. There are Thursday and Saturday games as well. During American Thanksgiving in late November, several games are played.
In the CFL:
- The CFL regular season begins in June and ends in early November. Each team will play 18 regular-season games. Playoffs occur during November and the championship game—the Grey Cup—is played on the last Sunday in November.
- CFL games are scheduled throughout the week, but the majority of the games are played on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. There may also be some games on Thursdays and Mondays. Labour Day in September is a big day for Canadian fans to watch football, and many games are scheduled for this day.
9. Field Goal Post Location
Another difference between the two leagues is the location of the field goal posts.
- In the NFL, the field goal posts are located at the back of the end zone.
- The CFL has its field goal posts at the front of the end zone.
The difference in location is due to the size differences of the field. The distance for a kicker would be similar between the two leagues, but the field goal needs to be at the front of the end zone in the CFL since the length of the field is larger.
10. Fair Catches and Punt Returns
In the NFL, after the kicking team punts the football, the punt returner can do one of the following:
- Catch and run with the ball until he is tackled, pushed out of bounds, or scores a touchdown.
- Wave his hand in the air to signal a fair catch, meaning the opposition can't tackle or make contact with the punter. They must let the punt returner catch the football after the punt, but the returner may not advance the football.
- Let the ball bounce into the field of play where the kicking team can touch the football, but possession still remains with the punt-return team, or the punt returner can let the football bounce out of bounds and possession is taken where the football goes out of bounds.
In the CFL, however:
- There is no fair catch rule and the punting team must give a cushion of about five yards to allow the punt returner to either catch the football in mid-air, catch the football after it bounces, or pick up the football and run after the ball has stopped bouncing. If the kicking team does not allow the five-yard cushion, the punt return team will be assigned a 10-yard penalty.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are CFL footballs bigger than NFL footballs?
Prior to 2017, the footballs used in the CFL were slightly larger at their maximum size than the ones used in the NFL at their minimum size. A regulation CFL football was 11 to 11 1/4 inches in length, 20 7/8 to 21 1/8 inches in short circumference, and 27 3/4 to 28 1/4 inches in long circumference.
In 2018, the CFL announced that the league would change the dimensions of their footballs to make them identical to those used in the NFL. This would bring the minimum for short circumference to 21 inches and the minimum for long circumference to 28 inches.
Has an NFL team ever played a CFL team?
Between 1941 and 1961, 10 games occurred between CFL teams and teams from the NFL and AFL (These two leagues would merge in 1966 to form the NFL as we know it today.) These games typically took place in August or early September. These were preseason warmups for the NFL teams. For the CFL teams, these were exhibition games occurring in the middle of their season. A CFL team would only win on two occasions; both times were actually the first and last interleague games. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Columbus Bullies in 1941 and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeated the Buffalo Bills in 1961.
What is a rouge?
A rouge, also known as a single or a single point, is a method of scoring that involves kicking the ball into the end zone. This method is exclusive to Canadian football. A single point is awarded when the ball is kicked into the end zone by any legal means and the receiving team does not return the ball out of the end zone. Rouge is not awarded through a successful or failed conversion or a successful field goal.
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