CFL 101: An NFL fan's guide to falling in love with a new league this summer

Why wait until August for football when Canada kicks off tonight? Here are the answers to all of your questions about the CFL, from Redblacks to rouges.
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The 2017 CFL season begins Thursday, with the playoffs set to open on Nov. 12 and the Grey Cup the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Er ... American Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. A subtle difference, just like those found between the CFL and NFL.

What makes Canadian football what it is? Why should you give it a shot this summer as appointment sports viewing? What in the world is a Redblack?

Let’s talk:

Do they have CFL fantasy leagues?

That’s your first question? You don’t want to tackle the rules or the rosters or ... never mind. You’re right. This is important. If you don’t have any rooting interest in the teams themselves, then you might need a reason to check it out other than the ol’ Seinfeld strategy:

“Why am I watching?”

“Because it’s on TV.”

(It’s also live, competitive football during the summer, which helps bridge the gap until the NFL preseason and college football kick off in August.)

So, yes, you can play CFL fantasy. There are classic leagues out there, if you wish to go find them. DraftKings also offers weekly, DFS-style competitions, and TSN has a similar, salary-based game that runs the entire season.

That said, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the league a little bit before diving headfirst into any for-profit contests because ...

Who are these guys? I’ve never heard of these players.

Two-part answer here: a) A lot of the names are going to be unfamiliar because the CFL requires teams carry a minimum of 21 “Nationals” on their 44-man roster. A player can attain that designation if he is a Canadian citizen when he signs his first contract, lived in Canada for five or more years prior to turning 18, or was classified as a “non-import” prior to to May 31, 2014. (The last one is confusing, I know, but it has to do with the league’s collective bargaining agreement.)

And b) You probably know more players than you may realize at first glance, because the CFL plucks a healthy chunk of talent from the college ranks. In fact, that’s true of the top two picks from this year’s CFL draft, Faith Ekakitie (Iowa) and Cameron Judge (UCLA). The 10 highest-priced players in that TSN fantasy game I mentioned all played college ball in the states, including QB Mike Reilly (Central Washington), QB Darian Durant (North Carolina) and RB John White (Utah).

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Which team is Vince Young on? I heard he was playing in the CFL now.

He was, briefly, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Unfortunately, they cut him last week after he hurt his hamstring during training camp.

This does lead me into one last important roster note, involving how non-Canadian players (“Internationals”) wind up in the CFL. Each team is permitted to include 35 names on a “negotiation list” via a first-come, first-serve basis. Should one of those players then want to pursue a career in Canada, the team holding his rights would have the initial crack at signing him. Teams do not have to make public which players are on their lists, so the ties often are not revealed until either a player’s rights are traded or he signs a contract.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats did recently make it known that Johnny Manziel sits on their negotiation list.

O.K., so how do we watch these games? Are they even on TV here?

They are! Well, some of them. The season opener on Thursday night, between Saskatchewan and Montreal, is on ESPNews.

ESPN owns the CFL broadcast rights within the United States, and this season is scheduled to air 13 games on either ESPN2 or ESPNews, plus another 29 on ...

ESPN8? “The Ocho”?!?

Three. ESPN3. Don’t be a jerk.

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Why is the field so big?

Ah, a good place to start. The CFL field is both longer (110 yards goal line to goal line, compared to 100) and wider (65 feet vs. 53 1/3) than its American counterpart. You’ll also no doubt notice that the Canadian end zones are approximately the size of a Tim Horton’s—they run 20 yards deep, with the goal posts positioned up front, as they used to be in the NFL.

The goal-post positioning can be an issue, because it leads tothings like this:

I laughed. Am I a bad person?

Sort of.

Fine, sorry. So, the field is bigger ... got it. Is everything else the same?

Not quite. First off, it’s 12-on-12, instead of 11-on-11. This is a good thing if you like passing, because usually that extra player is a wide receiver. Reilly led the league in passing last year with 5,554 yards, which works out to 326.7 per game—a little more than a yard better than the NFL’s top gunner, Drew Brees, had in 2016.

There’s also constant motion before the snap. In American football, an offense only can have one player in motion at a time, and he cannot be moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap. The CFL is anarchy, by comparison. So long as there are seven players on the line, the remaining non-QBs can more or less do whatever they want, including taking a running start.

Let’s move on. I don’t want to get bogged down going rule by rule.

How is the score 1–0?

Oh, right. We should talk about that one. It is not an error on the broadcast.

Teams in Canadian football can score one point via what’s known as a “rouge”—if a punt or missed field goal travels into the end zone, the defending team must get it back across the goal line or a point is awarded. No touchbacks, except on kickoffs.

This can get wild, because a player who fields a kick does not necessarily have to run the ball back.

Good times.

A team just punted on third down.

That is because there is no fourth down in Canadian football. With the spread-out field, extra receiver and motion rules, it should in theory be easier to pick up 10 yards than it is with American football’s constraints. CFL offenses, then, have just three downs to move the sticks. This fact, combined with the possibility of scoring a rouge, can lead to some very interesting decisions when a team faces third down (or even second-and-long).

The three-down setup can lead to possession ping-ponging around quite a bit if the offenses aren’t clicking. CFL teams also have just 20 seconds to snap the ball once the official whistles it into play; the NFL allows 40 seconds once a play is blown dead with the game clock moving, 25 seconds if the game clock has stopped. This typically leads to more plays per CFL game.

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Which team should I root for?

Man, do I have to do everything for you?

The good news is that no matter which team you pick, it stands a decent chance at qualifying for the playoffs—there are nine CFL franchises, six of which advance to the postseason. The standings follow a similar model to the NHL (which makes sense, as this is Canada), with points awarded for a win (two) and a tie (three). The top three teams from each division make the playoffs, unless a fourth-place team finishes with more points than the opposite division’s third-place team. This is known as the “crossover” rule.

And ... O.K., you’re checking your fantasy team. I lost you. That was a lot.

Back to your rooting interests.

Ottawa is the defending Grey Cup champion, despite finishing the 18-game regular season just 8-9-1—that record was good enough to win the East Division. You can go the easy route and pull for the repeat.

The Redblacks (that is their team name, chosen because—and this is real—teams in Ottawa traditionally wear red and black) knocked off the West Division champion Calgary Stampeders in that title game. The Stampeders have won double-digit games every year since 2008 and have at least 14 wins each of the past four seasons. They are your mini-dynasty.

The Toronto Argonauts have more Grey Cup wins (16) than any other franchise, if you’re a fan of historical success. (This is also your team if you, for whatever reason, hate the city of Montreal). But they were bad last season, finishing just 5–13. Their new head coach is ex-Bears (and ex-Montreal Alouettes) head man Marc Trestman.

Your other options are the B.C. Lions (picked by’s Jamie Nye to win it all this season), Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Edmonton Eskimos, Montreal Alouettes, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Fantasy investments aside, a recommended starting point: If you pledge allegiance to any specific college team, check the CFL rosters to see if any of your NCAA favorites now reside north of the border.

Will do. Can you shut up now? Game’s on.

I can. Enjoy.