Living in the Detroit area, I sometimes cross the border in the summer, before the American football season begins, to attend Hamilton Tiger-Cats or Toronto Argonauts games. Its good football played in a fun atmosphere, and they sell beer at the games. What's not to like?
The problem, of course, is that Canadian football has some goofy rules. They have a 55-yard line, for Cripe's sake. Their end zone is twenty-yards deep; the field is wider than it should be, and they only get three downs to gain ten yards. Even worse, they allow multiple men in motion -forward motion- at the snap. Why have they bastardized our glorious gridiron game? Why do they not play football as God intended, the American way? Someone had to look into how this terrible situation came aboot and that someone was me.
All red-blooded Americans know that were it not for Canada, America might never have played football. The 1869 Rutgers-Princeton game celebrated as the first American football game was more of a soccer match than any other sport. We discarded that silliness and America now plays football because students at Montreal's McGill University introduced rugby to Harvard in 1874. That led Harvard and Yale to play rugby, and when America's Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) formed in 1876, Harvard and Yale convinced the other schools to play rugby, not soccer. The IFA then tweaked rugby's rules year after year until they had created a new game, gridiron football.
Canada followed a similar but different path. Canadian rugby also evolved away from English rugby with their rules often differing from one province to the next. Many in Canadian rugby avoided taking on American rules, both due to the American game's ruggedness and because the American rules were, well, American.
The Ontario Rugby Football Union adopted the Burnside Rules in 1903, which largely matched the American football rules of the time, with unique Canadian features. Unfortunately for gridiron fans, they dropped the Burnside Rules after a few years, and old-school Canadian rugby returned with some Burnside rules remaining.
Only in 1920 did Canada allow interference, what we call blocking, and then only within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Like rugby, the Canadian game required the center to snap the ball with his feet until 1921. (American football legalized snapping with the hands in 1892.) The forward pass first flew in Canadian air when the folks in Western Canada embraced it in the late 1920s. All of Canada accepted it in 1931. After that, Canadian rugby increasingly shifted toward American football, but Football Canada, the governing body for amateur football in Canada, was still called the Canadian Rugby Union as late as 1966.
While it is clear Canadian football has taken on many American elements, most current differences between American and Canadian football stem from changes made by American football, not Canadian football. Let's examine a few.
Number of Players Per Side
Like rugby, American football had fifteen players per side from 1876 through 1879. Walter Camp argued that eleven per side would open up the game and he won the argument in 1880, so Americans have used eleven players ever since. Canada shifted to twelve players per side when they adopted the Burnside Rules in 1903, but soon returned to fourteen players per side. They eliminated two positions in 1922 to achieve the twelve-player game they enjoy today. So, Canada and the U.S. started with fifteen players and dropped a few players at different times.
Number of Downs
Seeking to foster a more open game, the Burnside Rules gave Canadian offenses three downs to gain ten yards in 1903 when the American rules still required offenses to gain five yards in three downs. (The Canadians thought that requiring offenses to gain more yards per down would force them to innovate. They would design plays that did not run the ball up the gut.) Following Walter Camp's attendance at a Hamilton Tigers game in November 1905, he advocated for Canada's three downs to gain ten yards rule. American football adopted it in 1906, before revising the rule to allow four downs to gain ten yards in 1912.
The IFA's 1876 rules set the grounds at 70 yards wide and 140 yards long, before resizing to 53 1/3 yards wide and 110 yards in length. America's 110-yard field had a 55-yard line and lacked defined end zones. (The "in goal" areas functioned much like today's end zones, but had indeterminate depth, lacking end lines.)
Changes in the passing rules in 1912 led the NCAA to add end lines ten yards behind the goal lines. To ensure the newly-defined field fit in certain stadiums, such as the Polo Grounds, the rule makers eliminated the 55-yard line from the American field.
Interestingly, the Canadian Rugby Union was formed in 1892 and set their field at 110 by 65 yards. Following the English rugby rule adopted in 1891, they added the dead ball line 25 yards behind the goal line. The end zones / goal areas were reduced to 20 yards in 1986. The point is that the damn Canadians did not add a 55-yard line to the American field; the Americans removed one.
Goal Post Location
As in rugby, both American and Canadian football positioned the goal posts on the goal line from the beginning. For several reasons, American football moved the goal posts to the end line in 1927. When the NFL adopted its own rule book in 1933 -separate from the NCAA- they returned the goal posts to the goal line. There they remained until 1974 when soccer-style kickers made too many field goals, leading the NFL to return the goal posts to the end line.
Canada's goal posts have hung over the goal line from the beginning.
Men in Motion
How about those men in motion at the snap? American football initially allowed multiple men in motion at the snap, but that became problematic in the mid-1880s when America legalized blocking, which led to the development of momentum and mass plays. Such plays had numerous players align behind the line of scrimmage, go in motion before the snap, and collectively slam into a spot along the defense, creating piles of bodies and numerous injuries. American football countered these plays with rule changes allowing only three men in motion in 1894, one man in motion in 1896, and along with eliminating forward motion in 1906. America required seven players on the line of scrimmage starting in 1903.
Canada did not allow interference or blocking until 1920 and their game emphasized the wide laterals and sweeps of rugby. Since Canada never developed momentum and mass plays, they never limited their men in motion, which is why they still do that thing they do.
In early American football, defensive players could slap the center and interfere with the ball's snap. The battles between the offensive and defensive lines continued until the rules of 1906 introduced the neutral zone, which extends the length of the ball in American football.
Canadian rules require defensive players to align at least one yard from the point of the ball farthest from the goal line, so two feet and one inch from the front of the ball. (I have not figured out when this rule took effect. Perhaps a reader can comment.)
The rugby background of American and Canadian football meant both games allowed the onside kick from scrimmage. (American readers: Pay attention!) The onside kick from scrimmage, or onside punt, allowed players who were "onside" (positioned behind the punter at the time of the kick) to run downfield, recover, and advance the punted ball. American football eliminated the play in 1923, but it remains part of the Canadian game.
Single or Rouge
The single or rouge dates back to kicking games played in nineteenth-century England. Neither rugby nor American football adopted it, but Canadian rugby accepted the single early on. The first point scored in Canada's first national championship game in 1884 resulted from a rouge.
Canadian and American football diverged from English rugby at different times and in different ways. The American game diverged from rugby earlier and more quickly than the Canadian game, but both games borrowed from each other over the years. Many rule differences reflect changes made on the American side, while Canadian football retained rules with more rugby flavor.
Although American imports (players and coaches) substantially influenced Canadian football over the last sixty and more years, Canadian football remains a fun and distinct alternative to the American game. It is well worth the attention and admiration of audiences to Canada's south.
If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to my newsletter or check out my books.