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The CFL – a beginners guide for UK american football fans

The first week of the CFL 2017 season is in the books, and it was a good week – lots of action, some very close games and plenty of highlight reel and discussion topic material to take away.

What struck me though as I watched the game and occasionally glanced at my twitter updates was how pleasing it was to see people from the UK engaging with the Canadian game. The only ‘problem’ was quite a few seemed confused by what was happening. It’s not that surprising really – we have had the NFL version of the game screened one way or another in the UK since the early 1980’s and the CFL game is only just starting to appear on a lot of people’s radar as BT sport/ESPN are screening it here now. (You can get a viewing list for that from this very site right here.

So it seems like a good idea to go over some of the basics in the hope that when UK fans settle down for week two, they have more idea of what is going on! The first thing I would say, is don’t despair at what seems confusing now. Remember when you first started watching American football in any format? I don’t know about anyone else but I was confused by the stopping and starting, the seemingly arbitary rules, the flow of the game etc. It didn’t take too long to pick up though – and neither will this. In fact if you have been watching NFL, NCAA, BAFA or any other forms of the game the chances are the CFL will at least look familiar to begin with.

First, a little context, – “American football” is called that because it was invented on the American continent, not developing solely in the United States. North America’s oldest continuously running team is the CFL’s own Toronto Argonauts who have a history stretching from 1873 to the present. That certainly gives us some context when you think that the AFL recently had its 50th anniversary. Another way to look at it in a UK context is that Notts County are recognised as the oldest association football team in the world currently playing at a professional level with records dating to 1862 – not all that much earlier than the Argos.

The first known written account of a football game in North America comes from Montreal when a team of English troops played civilians from Mcgill University in 1868. The Princeton-Rutgers football game of 1869 is often cited as the beginnings of American football but that match was actually played to the English “Football Association” rules of the day.

Rather, the McGill-Harvard rugby-football matches played as a two-game series, played at Cambridge, Mass., on May 14 and 15, 1874, were arguably the first formal games of North American-style football. McGill’s version of the game, which featured an oval ball, permitted kicking the ball as in soccer, but the participants could also pick the ball up and run with it whenever they pleased.

The Canadian and American games would go on to evolve separately and the CFL has retained its own unique and I believe highly enjoyable rules for the game. As this is a beginner’s guide some of what follows may seem obvious to some, but perhaps it is worth covering as much ground as possible so that next time you watch it makes as much sense as possible.

The Field

The game is played on a 110-yard field with 20-yard end zones. The field is 65 yards wide compared to the NFL’s 53 yards.  The goal posts are at the front and not the back of the end zone. This looks startlingly bigger than an NFL pitch when first you see it – and does lead to wider passing play areas, more room for kick returners – and the deeper end zones help red zone play. Here’s the thing – it shouldn’t look all that unfamiliar to a UK audience. A rugby league field has roughly similar dimensions being about 122- 133 yards long and 74 yards wide.

The players

There are 12 players to a side. That one extra person per side to the NFL may not seem like much, but when you first start watching the CFL it can seem like a lot of bodies are moving in a big space. The extra man on offense will be lined up somewhere in the backfield.

Pre snap motion

This, and scoring a single point (which we’ll come to later), can be the most confusing to the newcomer to the game. Whereas only one player on an American team is allowed pre-snap motion,in the CFL anyone who isn’t a quarterback or a lineman can move prior to the snap, so six eligible receivers can be in motion prior to the snap and have unlimited movement behind the line of scrimmage. This can look chaotic if you are not used to it but is part of what makes the CFL such a dynamic league.

No man’s land

In the American version you will see defensive players lined up at the line of scrimmage. In the Canadian game defensive players have to line up one yard away from the line of scrimmage. This can be difficult for players to acclimatise to too. Recent number one draft pick Faith Ekakitie of the Blue Bombers talked about it being a big adjustment coming from the American college game for just this reason.

Time and Downs

There are only three downs to make 10 yards, not four. As there are only three downs to make a first down instead of four like in America you might suppose you have got to make a first down in two downs, or punt on third down. However because the defense is a yard off the ball, if you are third-and-one or less, teams are more likely to go for it. The wider field and fewer downs lend themselves to teams with a wide open passing game.

There is only a 20 second clock between plays. This means the game moves faster but in the final three minutes of each half the clock stops after every play. This means that with three-down football being played, you can have several changes of possession in the final three minutes.

The kicking game

To me the kicking game in the CFL is pretty entertaining.  There are no fair catches and the coverage team has to leave a five-yard gap around the returner so he can catch the ball. The return game therefore  coupled with the wide field potentially has more chances for explosive plays.

Then there is the ‘single’ – something that often confuses the new fan. Field goals are as familiar as ever – kick it and get 3 points. The additional joy here however is that you can miss it and still score a point!

In the CFL a single or rouge,  scoring one point, is awarded when the ball is kicked into the end zone by any legal means, other than a successful field goal and the receiving team does not return, or kick, the ball out of its end zone. A single point is also scored if the kick travels through the end zone or, other than on a kick-off, if it goes out of bounds in the end zone without being touched. After conceding a single, the receiving team is awarded possession of the ball at their own 35 yard line.

If the receiving team does manage to clear its lines and the ball stays out of the end zone then the single point will not be scored. When you first start watching the most surprising thing can be when a receiving player kicks the ball away to avoid the single point – we are just not used to seeing that in the American version of the game.

Terminology

Like any format of a game the Canadian version has its own terminology that can take some getting used to. you will pick plenty up as you go along and a lot of the terminology will already be familiar from the American version. They key terms to get hold of to start with are probably Pivot, Rouge and Waggle!

You may hear the quarterback referred to as a the pivot. I’ll be honest and admit I don’t know why – because they are the pivotal player? Because the O pivots around them? Either makes sense, but the point is pivot means quarterback.

A rouge is simply the name give to a single point. As explained above, In the CFL, a single or ‘rouge’ scoring one point, is awarded when the ball is kicked into the end zone by any legal means, other than a successful field goal, and the receiving team does not return, or kick, the ball out of its end zone.

A waggle is the motion of a receiver towards the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. cfl.ca suggests Don Matthews introduced this term, stating his wide receivers waggled and his slotbacks wiggled when talking about his approach as the then new head coach of the BC Lions in 1983. The waggle became the descriptor for the running start prior to the snap. Not to be confused with ‘The Waggle’ a popular CFL podcast!

I hope all of that will help next time you settle down to watch a CFL game. I believe that CFL football is a fast paced and exciting game and hope that you can enjoy it as much as I do. With that in mind you may want to pick a team – it can be easier and more fun to get into a sport when you are backing a team. I won’t try and influence your decision at all – but you can see something about all the teams to help you choose here.

Finally, when it comes to game time, if you have forgotten half of this or do not want to read so much again and you want a quick run through on the differences between the NFL style game you are accustomed to and its Canadian counterpart; I highly recommend a short video which you can find here:

OK that is it – stick with it and I think you’ll come to love the fast paced and exciting game that the CFL has to offer.

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