Welcome to Canada Week
For the next 7 days, The MMQB will cover North America's other great football league. To kick things off, Bears coach Marc Trestman, winner of two Grey Cups in Montreal, explains the rules and nuances that make the CFL unique
Note from editor-in-chief Peter King: Today opens Canada Week at The MMQB. It’s the opening week of the Canadian Football League season—the league traditionally plays from the end of June until the end of November, with the league championship, the Grey Cup, always happening around our Thanksgiving. We’re trying something novel here at our site: We’re covering three CFL games, with Toronto at Winnipeg on Thursday night (our Jenny Vrentas will be on site) and we’ll have some other features on the site to tell you about the game up north. I’ll have a full explanation at the end of the column, in an abridged Five Things I Think I Think.
Now for this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback guest columnist, Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman, on his five seasons as a Canadian Football League head coach.
CHICAGO — I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts on the Canadian Football League this morning—and I am grateful to The MMQB for devoting some time covering the opening week of the CFL season. From 2008 to 2012, I had the privilege of coaching the Montreal Alouettes, one of the flagship franchises in the CFL, before becoming the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2013. I never looked at the job as a stepping stone to a head coaching position in the NFL, but was simply grateful to owner Bob Wetenhal and general manager Jim Popp for the opportunity to become a head coach and to serve the players and entire organization as well as their great fan base.
I can also tell you I absolutely loved every minute of my time in Montreal, one of North America’s great cities. I also loved and respected the players and coaches, as well as the brand of football played in the CFL.
There are now nine teams in the CFL, and because of that there is a great deal of familiarity between the organizations. The league itself is tradition-filled and more than 100 years old. Each team plays each other up to three times during the 18-game season. Here are some more CFL nuances:
- 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), with a 20-second time clock between plays. That leads to action-packed football.
- There are only three downs to make 10 yards, not four.
- They play 12 players to a side, and the defensive line must line up a yard off the ball.
- Six eligible receivers can be in motion prior to the snap.
- On kicking teams, there are no fair catches, which makes for a very exciting punting game with the wide field.
By the way, when I arrived in Montreal for training camp in May 2008, not only did I have to learn a new game, but I had forgotten that Montreal was bilingual (French first, English second) and as culturally diverse as any city in North America. We always had a handful of bilingual players on our teams.
In the CFL, all the games are on national television: TSN, the Canadian sports channel. The Grey Cup—the CFL’s championship game, played in late November every year—is the equivalent of a national holiday in Canada, the same way we treat the Super Bowl in the United States. Unlike the NFL, the CFL is made up of stadiums with capacity around 30,000. People ask me about the players who play the game in Canada and I always tell them they are the same as the NFL players. Many CFL players had the chance to play in the NFL briefly, or were late cuts in NFL camps over the years.
Another important difference between the CFL and NFL: the makeup of the teams. In the CFL, you have a 42-man game-day roster, and 20 of the 42 players must have Canadian heritage. The two quarterbacks don’t count against the ratio and you have to start seven Canadians among your 24 starters. But, there is no difference in the competitive makeup of each player. The men in the Montreal locker room were essentially no different than the men in our Chicago locker room. The players truly love the game, train extremely hard in the off-season, are highly competitive and “football intelligent,’’ and the game is as important to them as the NFL players I have coached. The only difference is the CFL player salary is significantly less than the NFL player. The CFL has a collective bargaining agreement, but the salary cap is $125 million lower than the NFL’s this year.
When the games are played, no one’s thinking much about the salary cap, however. The population in Canada is about 30 million. In 2009, we played the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup. The TV ratings were incredible—43 percent of the entire nation tuned in to watch that game, the biggest TV audience to watch any show in Canada all year. There have been 102 Grey Cup games, and they’re always such a matter of civic and national pride. The week of the Grey Cup in late November becomes a week-long national holiday. I loved coaching in those games.
CFL football is a fast and exciting game. I never really changed my football philosophy very much to fit the CFL—because I was convinced you could play the same way we do in the NFL. But without Anthony Calvillo, the all-time leading passer in Canadian football history, the support of GM Jim Popp and the entire organization with so many good football players, I am sure it would have not been possible.
People have asked me what I learned in my five seasons in the CFL, and how it prepared me for the NFL. The simple answer is there’s no way I’d have been as prepared to be an NFL head coach without my five years in Canada. I’d had 11 stops as an assistant coach in college or pro football before I was hired by Montreal. I found that being a head coach in Canada was a great training ground for being a head coach in the NFL.
On page 2, I’ll explain a few lessons I learned, and how I got better as a coach in Montreal.