May 22, 2023

Inside The Game | No Yards Rule

The list of coaching gigs on Paul Boudreau’s resumé is long and extensive, featuring stops all over the NCAA, the National Football League and now heading into his seventh season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as the special teams coordinator.

A coach’s son – his father Paul, Sr. worked for eight NFL teams, four NCAA programs and the Edmonton Eskimos from 1983-86 – Boudreau grew up in and around the sport. He’s seen the best of all three versions – U.S. college, NFL and the CFL – and there’s one aspect of the three-down Canadian game he thinks is both innovative and unique: the no yards rule on kick returns.

“I love it,” began Boudreau in a recent chat with “When I was with the Rams, the special teams coordinator and I used to talk about how the NFL should incorporate it.

“Here’s one example of why: In the NFL, we had (punter) Johnny Hekker and he could hang a ball up there for five seconds and it essentially eliminated the punt returners because of the fair catch. There are some really dynamic returners down there that don’t ever get the chance to return because the punter can take them out of play. It brings so much more to the game.”

We’re starting a new semi-regular feature here on called ‘Inside the Game’ which aims to give fans – both old and new to the game – a bit of a peek behind the curtain or provide answers to some commonly asked questions. And we begin the series with the no-yards rule – one of the most unique aspects of the Canadian game in comparison to the American version.

In the U.S. punt returners can, and often will, signal for a ‘fair catch’ or an ‘unhindered catch of an airborne scrimmage kick that has crossed the line of scrimmage, or of an airborne free kick, by a player of the receiving team who has given a valid fair catch signal.’

That option doesn’t exist in the Canadian game, meaning returners must catch the ball – providing it isn’t kicked out of bounds – and head up field. To prevent the return men from getting absolutely destroyed by those on the punt team charging downfield after the kick, the no-yards rule – or a five-yard halo – was established. The penalty enforced for invading that halo or no-yards zone is 15 yards, regardless of whether the returner fields the kick by catching it in the air or on the bounce.

Here’s the explanation, from the CFL rule book:

Article 10 – No Yards

When on a kick from scrimmage (punt, field goal or kicked convert when ball crosses the line of scrimmage), or on an open-field kick, a player who is offside in relation to the kicker must allow 5 yards to an opponent attempting to gain possession of the kicked ball. The 5-yard zone is determined by a circle with a 5-yard radius with the centre point being the ball at the instant it is first touched.

  1. If an offside kicking team player is within 5 yards of an opponent attempting to gain possession of the kicked ball, regardless if the ball is caught in the air or touches the ground first, or,
  2. If an offside kicking team player interferes with an opponent attempting to gain possession of the kicked ball, with or without contact.

Teaching that rule to the American players who are in camp – both the return candidates and those who will be working on the special-teams units covering kicks – is one of Boudreau’s chief tasks, even before the new faces arrive.

“During camp, the Americans that come up have no idea there’s no fair catch, which is what they’re used to,” said Bouidreau. “And now with the rule being changed with every penalty being 15 yards, it makes the field position aspect even more important. We do drills in camp, especially for the new guys, to help them understand how to read the returner. If that returner is screaming up (to field a punt), you better throw the brakes or run by to avoid getting 15 yards tacked on.

“You have to read the returner. If they’re backing up there’s a pretty good chance you can keep going. If they’re standing dead still, you have to throttle down. The Americans are used to going 100 miles an hour and not having to worry about anything because they know there’s a fair catch coming.

“Learning how to control your speed and the distance between the line of scrimmage and the returner could help you stay fast at the point of attack.”

Boudreau used this example to reinforce how foreign that is to American players coming north for the first time.

“We were looking at a player from Penn State this offseason,” he said. “He had 189 clips (on his highlight tape) of him playing special teams in his senior year. When they took away the fair catches and touchbacks on kickoffs there were only 53 snaps left to evaluate.”

This Saturday’s first preseason game in Edmonton against the Elks will likely feature a few players new to the game and the unique CFL rules. Defensive back Matt Cole, who has had stints with seven NFL teams, could be on both the kick-cover units and possibly returning kicks.

“The No Yards… the way I look at it, it gives me more time and availability. I’ve got five yards to make a guy miss, so that’s a lot of room to do that,” he said after practice Monday. “It’s really new to me and I wasn’t used to it with no fair catch.

“It makes the kicking game that much more special and engaging for the fans. If the ball is up in the air, somebody has to return it unless it’s un-returnable. A returner’s job is to return. If the ball is in the field of play, do something with it.”

The unique Canadian rules like no-yards also make it vital to have experience on special teams. And it’s also why Boudreau and head coach Mike O’Shea place so much importance on having so many veterans on special teams.

“We have so many unique rules and we go over them in one of the first meetings of camp,” said Boudreau. “I usually do three days of 10 or so clips per day of just explaining the little differences. They don’t know what a rouge is (single point on a punt or kick into the end zone, or on a missed field goal not returned out of the end zone) or they have no idea of what a kick out is (kicking the ball out of the end zone to prevent having to surrender a point). You explain all those things and sometimes you hear laughter because they’ve never seen it before.

“You’ve got to have a good mix of guys like Jesse (Briggs) and Mikey (Miller) – guys who can teach the new American guys because maybe the way they say it to them is different from how I say it and they may understand it better.

“But getting all the new guys on the right page fast is huge. Preseason,” he added with a grin, “is always interesting.”