Canadian football rules vs. American: what’s the diff?

In this blog, I’ll explain the major differences between CFL and NFL football rules, pointing out the astounding similarities with situations in everyday life. (You can read my two previous efforts: American Football Rules in Humor and Different Types of Football Fans.)

The CFL, Canada’s foremost league, oftentimes is compared with its American counterpart, the NFL, the premier football league in the world. At first glance, they look kind of the same. The two leagues are a lot alike with very similar but not quite identical rules.

It’s kind of like comparing chicken with turkey. They’re almost indistinguishable, yet one is more flavourful than the other, juicier, and more exciting. I’ll let you decide which one. As they say, to each his own!  


In the NFL, the field measures 100 yards (that’s 1200 chicken wings laid out end to end) and 53 1/3 yards wide, while the CFL gridiron is 110 yards by 65 yards.

According to experts, the bigger field in Canadian football favours the passing game over running the ball, with more space for receivers to maneuver.

It’s game day and you made the brilliant decision to drive to the stadium. Obviously there isn’t a single parking spot to be had anywhere. You panic, not wanting to miss the opening kickoff. Time to make a decision. Do you drive away from the stadium so you can easily find a spot but have to walk back for 20 minutes (CFL), or take the more difficult option, parallel parking right beside the stadium by muscling into a space that’s clearly two small by ramming the two neighbouring cars apart (NFL).


In the NFL, the offensive team has four tries to make a first down, after which they can attempt a touchdown or kick a field goal for 3 points.

In the CFL, the team on offense has only three tries, which places a lot of pressure on the quarterback and results in more offensively exciting play. Often, the team in possession of the ball would love to have an extra down to score.

That’s like when your boss asks you on Friday night to have a report on his desk first thing Monday morning, but you know very well you’ve got a jam-packed weekend ahead of you… it’s your kid’s birthday on Saturday, and on Sunday  you were planning on spending time with your crew, drinking beer and  eating chicken wings while watching the game on TV. You’ll see, Monday’s coming fast and hell yeah you would have like your boss to have given you an extra day to finish his report. Oh, it’ll get done alright, no promises about it being well done, but done.


The line of scrimmage is the where the defensive and offensive teams line up face to face before putting the ball in play. In American football, the distance between the two lines is 11 inches, the length of the football itself. The opposing players are virtually helmet to helmet. In Canadian football the distance between the two lines of players is a full yard, so there’s a lot more room for offensive maneuvering. So American football teams use enormous linemen that tend to be less quick on their feet, but more difficult to penetrate.  In Canadian football, the linemen tend to be smaller and more agile to make the most of the greater distance between the offensive and defensive lines.

Would you rather tell your girlfriend that you won’t be home tonight before you leave for the bar or wait and tell her by phone once you’re there. Sometimes greater distance becomes an advantage when confronting a formidable adversary. 


The total number of players on a CFL team is 24. 12 on offense and 12 on defense. In the NFL a team is made up of 22 players, 11 offense and 11 defense. It’s simple… bigger field, more players.  

It’s like when your wife announces you’re having triplets. Say goodbye to the hot little red sports car in the driveway and hello to the beige minivan.


The end zones are bigger in the CFL (20 yards deep) than in the NFL (only 10 yards). So it’s a lot easier to throw a touchdown pass in the Canadian league. The goal posts are also placed differently. In the NFL they’re in the rear portion of the end zone, while in the CFL they’re in front. Given this fact alone CFL quarterbacks are more inclined to direct passes towards the outsides of the end zone, because that way there’s less risk of the ball hitting one of the posts.  

The scene: You have to cut the grass, you have a huge yard and the kids are over at your in-laws’. Piece of cake. (CFL). You also have to cut the grass, you have a smaller yard, but you have 4 kids and a 4-month-old puppy running every which way and, what’s more, you have to navigate around 1000 toys lying all over the place. Let’s say it’ll be a bit more… challenging.  (NFL)


Another difference is the time allowed between plays. In the CFL, once the play is over, the referee blows the whistle and the offense has only 20 seconds to put the ball in play. NFL players, however, have a full 40 seconds to set up for the next attempt.

It’s Friday night, your girlfriend and you had a huge week, you’re wiped, and all you want to do is crash in front of the tube until you fall asleep.  However, you cross paths with a couple of friends at the supermarket and you let slip that you don’t have any kids that night.  MISTAKE! To make matters worse, they decide to invite you out to dinner. It’s not so easy to come up with a plausible excuse on the fly, especially face to face, you have much less reaction time to come up with an excuse strategy to get out of dinner. (CFL) On the phone, however, it’s a lot easier. You have time to think. “Sorry, sick kid, maybe next time!” (NFL)


In Canadian football, the player who catches a pass needs to have one foot in bounds for it to be complete. In the NFL, the receiver needs both feet touching in bounds.

It’s like you’re on a diet and you eat only one chicken burger for supper. That sucks because you’re still hungry. (CFL) But after all, it’s game night! You can make an exception. You need to eat until you’re stuffed to make it count. Two burgers, now you’re talking! (NFL)

There you have it. I hope my mini guide will help you better understand the rule differences between Canadian and American football!  

Date 11/17/2023