Despite being in Australia, I’ve managed to catch a fair amount of NFL action this year (the new free-to-air sports-only Channel One is brilliant). Gridiron has always fascinated me - what other sport has people wearing full body armour and helmets? The coverage, presentation, amazing camera work (they seem to have one HD camera for each player, for every game), and deeply knowledgeable commentators make it a real spectacle. The way it is hyped is amazing, making every game (or at least the Sunday Night/Monday Night games) seem like an epic battle of the utmost importance. It’s a unique insight into American culture.

Watching this year has made me realise just how much the military is a day-to-day part of American life. Every game seems to have an airforce fly-by, or military marching band, or tribute to the fallen, or gigantic American flag being unveiled & folded with military precision. The zenith was during Veterans Day, when they went as far as flying some of the commentators and coaches to Afghanistan to bond with the troops, who then rhapsodised on air about how much they missed those times with ‘the boys’. As if they too were ‘in the fight’. Truly strange stuff.

A group of friends used to run a virtual Madden NFL season, getting together each week to try out our tactics and seek PC domination. It was great fun until one of our more obsessive players, and the one with the most time on his hands, worked out how to ‘break’ the game via an undefendable play that would have been impossible in the real game. Or so we thought.

One of the most interesting things watching the actual NFL this year has been the emergence of the “Wildcat” formation. This is where the regular quarterback is replaced instead by someone who can run, pass, fake, kick, do magic tricks, and cartwheel. The unpredictable nature of this player means the defence is often completely confused, which is the general idea. Do they set-up for a pass? For a run? A punt? It’s fun to watch as the D scrambles to make sense of what is about to happen. Miami seems to have been the first to popularise it in the NFL, though apparently it’s long been a staple of College football. But it’s now spread to many teams, and in many variations.

In the last game of the regular season, the New York Jets created the most bizarre formation I’d seen where the regular quarterback lined up several times as a Wide Receiver. I had no idea what he was doing out there, nor did the commentators. It was so strange, and you could see the defence just didn’t know how to deal with it. A Miami game earlier in the season had a fake punt, that turned into a run, and then a pass, for a touchdown. All in the same play.

I’ve been amazed that at times this season it seems like the NFL has been influenced by the Madden computer game. Madden encourages you to try different formations, do some insane stuff that the other player won’t be prepared for. Just like my friend, the NFL coaching staff have come up with something unpredictable that changes the game. They haven’t broken the NFL like you could the computer version, but they’ve sure made it more entertaining. Who knows, thanks to Madden, we may see the old under-the-jumper statue-of-liberty 70 yard hoick in the NFL after all.