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Quarterback Challenges in Canadian Football

This is an excerpt from Coaching Canadian Football by Football Canada.

Playing quarterback in Canadian football definitely has its challenges. With only 3 downs to make 10 yards, the quarterback really has to be a playmaker.


Another major challenge is the weather. When faced with wind and cold and poor playing surfaces, the quarterback must focus on time management and must also know his limitations. With only 20 seconds to get the ball into play, there is not a lot of room for error. Once a play is completed, the quarterback must quickly communicate with the coach for the next play to be run. This takes discipline, since a quarterback usually wants to watch the completion of a play and often will congratulate a teammate for making a great catch or busting a long run. It is a luxury for fields to have a 20-second clock in both end zones. If there isn't a 20-second clock, the quarterback should communicate with the referees as to which one of them will have his hand up once there's five seconds left on the play clock.


Field size is also a major factor for a quarterback, as throwing a wide-side-out pattern is a tremendous challenge. Another challenge facing quarterbacks in the Canadian game is the lack of quarterback coaches. This is by no means a criticism of Canadian football programs; it is just a reality. Many programs have a difficult time fielding enough coaches to coach the other positions, let alone having a quarterbacks-only coach. I do feel it is advantageous for a quarterback to have a coach who has played the position before.


The quarterback position is one of the most unique and demanding positions in all of sport. Unfortunately, not a lot of Canadian quarterbacks play professional football. Many great athletes playing at a high level of football do not continue playing the quarterback position because they know the difficulty of playing at the pro level. Instead they switch to a receiver or defensive back position in the hopes of fulfilling their dreams of playing pro football. Not many athletes have the talent and ability of a Mathieu Bertrand, a CFL fullback who started as a quarterback with the Laval Rouge et Or.


In a personal conversation, Shawn Olson, the former head coach of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, and I discussed the fact that a key challenge of playing quarterback in Canada is getting your head around how these four things affect the play at the position:

  1. 3 downs or 2 downs to get 10 yards,
  2. the size of the field, especially the width,
  3. the extra defender normally in the defensive secondary, and
  4. the effect that motion from multiple receivers has on defenses and, in turn, reads.

These rule differences, in isolation or combination, drastically affect the way you have to approach the game as a quarterback. For example, the width of the field makes arm strength or moving the quarterback essential if a team is to access the 12 yards outside the numbers to the wide side of the field. The two playable downs really force a quarterback to get the ball down the field at some point for chunks of yardage if the offense is consistently going to put up points. The extra receiver and defensive back even up the field for a quarterback, and defenses don't necessarily declare a strong side of their secondary, presenting a much more balanced approach to the skill set of the back-end players, equivalent to a nickel or dime defense in the American game. The amount and use of motion in the Canadian game puts extra pressure on postsnap reads for a quarterback in Canada, forcing him to recognize coverage and get his feet set a little later.


In a personal conversation, Travis Lulay, the quarterback for the BC Lions, who played his high school football in Oregon and his college ball at Montana State University, described a number of challenges to playing quarterback in Canadian football. First, managing a game with three downs takes a completely different mindset. There are fewer opportunities to waste a down, so you have to think twice about throwing the backside go route too often or you will be punting all day. That being said, you still have to take some chances to make a play, because maintaining long drives is tougher to do. So you have to be selective about when to take chances, and you have to make them count when you do.


The motion rules give you tons of flexibility on the offensive side of the ball. You can soften up defensive backs with speed downhill, and you can run rub routes and gain presnap leverage more effectively. The defense has to move around more presnap to adjust to motion, which means the quarterback has to rely more on information gathered after the snap in this league.


The field size definitely plays a part in learning the 12-man game. Most guys think that a bigger field will mean bigger passing windows. What people fail to realize is that the hashes are wider in this league, meaning the boundary side of the field is similar in dimension to that of 11-man ball, and the side of the field that has bigger windows also requires more distance to access those open spots. Passes to the wide side of the field must be thrown on time and accurately because the ball is in the air long enough that the defender can see it and react.


The other thing we discussed, one that many people don't think about, is that—because the ratio of pass plays to run plays is generally higher in Canada—the defensive linemen are much more pass rush-oriented. They pin their ears back and rush passing lanes more often than in 11-man football. So the quarterback takes a few more hits in Canada. You have to be tough and stand in there to throw!

Learn more about Coaching Canadian Football.