Canada in the NFL throughout time

Steve O Speak

Of the four major pro sporting leagues in the USA – five, if you count MLS – the NFL is anomalous in not having a single Canadian team among its participants. There is no team flying the maple leaf in the league right now; in fact there never has been one. With the exception of an ill-fated experiment with the Buffalo Bills playing a game a season north of the border, the NFL’s relationship with Canada has been pretty distant, limited to a large TV market and a number of Canadian players who have made the trek south.


While the league has a substantial fanbase, and comfortably outstrips the CFL as a market for legal sports betting in Canada, it’s also not guaranteed that there will be a change in the relationship any time soon. It’s not out of the question but, as we’ll see as you read on, there remain certain obstacles to a geographical expansion. But first, let’s explore the impact of Canada in the pro game in the States, including some of the best Canadian players to play the sport.


Canadians who have journeyed south to play ball


While the position of kicker isn’t one of the most glamorous in the NFL, there have been plenty of placekickers who have become folk heroes with their clubs, and Buffalo’s Steve Christie is perhaps the greatest example of this. In terms of consistency and range, he’s certainly one of the standouts, famed also for being able to hit high-pressure field goals in any weather. His role in the astonishing comeback win over the Houston Oilers in 1992’s playoffs, when the Bills overhauled a 35-3 third-quarter deficit, is still talked about 30 years on.


Present NFL stars with a Canadian passport include some worthy names. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif – at present a free-agent – is one of the best offensive guards to play the game in recent years, and also a qualified doctor. Jevon Holland, drafted last spring by the Miami Dolphins, showed big potential in the safety position, dialling up 2.5 sacks and picking off two passes in his rookie season. There are, at present, 29 active NFL players who are Canadian, in addition to dozens through the years.


What about the CFL?


An NFL team in Canada might draw away some attention from the national football league in the country – the CFL. While there are some differences between the rules of football in its Canadian and American versions, some players have appeared in both leagues. Warren Moon, a fleet-footed QB who would go on to play for 17 years in the NFL, started his pro career with five seasons at the Edmonton Eskimos, while the undersized Doug Flutie sandwiched two stints in the NFL around his eight-year, three-team spell in Canada, which saw him enter Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame – a first at the time for a non-Canadian.


More recently, Cameron Wake developed a reputation as a sack machine playing for the BC Lions in the CFL, but his ability to do it in the bigger league was doubted by many. After a move to the Miami Dolphins and 100 sacks across 11 seasons, those doubts were silenced.

Could there be a Canadian team in the NFL?


The NBA has the Raptors, baseball has the Blue Jays, and soccer has three teams, hockey a further six. So what makes the NFL so resistant to a Canadian franchise?


It’s certainly been mooted; those three MLS teams haven’t been a barrier to Canada launching its own soccer league, so a team could coexist with the CFL franchises. The finances would certainly be complicated; a Canadian consortium would need to demonstrate it can pay to move an existing NFL team and pay its players in US dollars while collecting revenues in the Canadian version of the currency. And it would need to be a franchise move as opposed to an NFL expansion – with the league at 32 teams, NFL executives have sworn there is no desire to expand beyond that.


Which franchises could be persuaded north? Although Buffalo are the obvious choice – located just 79 miles from Toronto, they could make the move without a great deal of pain. However, they’re performing well both on the field and the balance sheet in their current home, and teams like that aren’t really candidates for a move. The Jacksonville Jaguars could be a contender; there are three teams in Florida, and they’re very much the third. You could look at any one of the Chargers, Raiders and Rams and pitch them for a move north, as they’ve all been peripatetic over the last few decades.


But in truth, the present state of play is that we wouldn’t expect Canada to become an NFL market on the playing side of things any time soon. There are no legal obstacles to it happening, and as the Baltimore Colts showed in 1984 by becoming the Indianapolis Colts literally overnight, it could happen when you least expect it. And for now, there really is no reason to expect it.

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