Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Madden 2006: One Game Played Review

Few moments signal the beginning of the pro football season like the brouhaha surrounding the annual release of EA Sports’ Madden NFL. From spring to August, the buildup over the game—whether in “exclusive” screenshots on gaming sites, prime-time commercials or NFL Network informercials—creates a fevered anticipation of newest incarnation of the beloved franchise.

I approached this year’s game with some trepidation. Reviews, usually stellar for this best-selling title, have been lukewarm, one even suggesting that this be the first year that hardcore Madden fans don’t add the latest version to their library. Uh-oh.

With my online-purchased game on backorder, I threw caution to the wind and used a rapidly expiring Blockbuster coupon to rent Madden 2006. Below I provide my impressions after playing one game.

Upon startup, you are given the option of selecting your favorite team, which changes the background highlights and featured cutout player accordingly. Naturally, I picked Washington. I couldn’t help but laugh when two of the “highlights” were alternate portions of Clinton Portis’ dramatic, game-winning reception against Green Bay…that was called back by an illegal motion penalty. Another video clip was a cutaway of Mark Brunell leading the offense to the line of scrimmage. Those are the highlights? A play that didn’t happen and a quarterback who is rapidly sinking to third string?

Selecting Play Now, I was pleased that the Redskins were automatically chosen as the home team; Sábado Gigante were the default visitors. I might be wrong, but the Redskins were an underwhelming 77 rating; the Giants were a dismal 71.

The reports are true: the graphical improvements over 2005 are minimal. You still have the same four bozos in the stands with “Hi Mom!” painted on their stomachs, still doing the Hip Hop Hooray wave, still complaining after inconsequential, game-ending plays. Sigh.

Player animations have minor tweaks, like the ability to look back for passes and new hard-hitting tackles. (I had two helmets go flying…in the first half. That happens, what, once every other game in the NFL?) I appreciate that rookies, who previously were represented in menus by silhouettes or empty space, now have generic, race-specific player images. Rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers, for instance, seems to be the love child of Ray Parker, Jr. and Grace Jones. I’m sure his family’s proud.

What happened to the cheerleaders? Do they only show up in regular season games? Sure, they were grotesquely face-mapped clones of Grand Theft Auto hookers that danced offbeat. But they’re a part of the game that shouldn’t be denied. I don’t think I’m alone on this one.

John Madden didn’t have much to say during my game after the contest was no longer competitive. For once, when a team is losing by 35 in the 4th quarter, I’d like to hear him say “Those guys have no heart and less talent. Clearly they’re mailing it in. Their fans must be hanging themselves as we speak.” Would that be so hard?

The audio mix is supposedly in THX. According to my Panasonic 7.1 THX certified receiver which receives a signal via digital optical cable, it’s in run-o’-the-mill stereo. The referees, on the other hand, have their on-field mics turned up to 11.

Madden 06 features a new twist on the traditional passing procedure, adding the Quarterback Passing Cone, or QPC, which represents your player’s scope, direction and distance you can throw your pass. While the spirit of the new scheme is to be praised, its execution left me choosing more running plays. Whoever at Electronic Arts thought that changing a proven formula made good business sense apparently has never heard of New Coke.

My first pass—my second play from scrimmage—was a 55-yard touchdown rainbow to Santana Moss off a play action fake. But as the great poet Billy Dee Williams warned, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya.” The learning curve for passing is high, and for the rest of the game I struggled to maneuver Ramsey’s 15% pie cone from left to right without getting creamed. You can look off one, maybe two receivers before you’d better throw somethin’.

One immediately annoying point is the remapping of the change player button pre-snap defense. If you’ve played through four or five seasons of Madden 2005, you develop an instinctive feel for adjusting player assignments quickly. In 06, the X button cycles player control left, O cycles to the right. Kickoff coverage then has a different arrangement for changing players. It sounds nitpicky, but when the first time you can’t drop your left lineman into zone coverage because you’re controlling the right side, you’ll see what I mean.

Oddly enough, my game ended in a similar fashion to my early 2005 gaming experience. Portis was virtually unstoppable behind the counter trey, breaking off runs for 80, 70 and 44 yards en route to setting a new NFL record of 298 rushing yards. Add to that six touchdowns on 23 attempts and you’ve got yourself a Tecmo Bowl kind of day.

The Skins’ defense, even though it could “read” Eli Manning’s throws, had some awful lapses in coverage. (One occurred when I foolishly tested the “Ask Madden” feature. We immediately gave up a 54 yard touchdown to Amani Toomer. Thanks, John.)

The post game passing and rushing logs are great once you decipher them (so that’s why the game includes an instruction book. Hmm!) I learned from the logs that every one of my successful runs came from the I-formation. Eat your heart out, Joe Bugel.

Final score: 70-28, Redskins. Perhaps bumping the difficulty up to All-Pro would be in order, eh?

I like Madden 2006. The new playbooks, updated rosters, and extra animations make this a definite play. But unless you simply must have this game before September, wait and pick it up for less than $49.99. The initial experience says that it’s an expansion pack, not a great advance in gaming football. Don’t believe the hype.

If anyone would like a brand new, unopened copy for the PS2 for $45, let me know.

8 of 10

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Gibbs: Bigger Man Than I

I consider myself a pretty nice guy, exhibiting a measured, calculated love for the Washington Redskins. I try to be fair in my criticisms of trades, draft picks, and gametime decisions, understanding that it's a lot harder to perform than critique. I know that professionalism and sportsmanship are qualities that any leader should exemplify; surely a leader should take the high road.

There are some things, however, that a Redskins coach should not do. First, never sacrifice promising players and the future for a one-shot run at the playoffs. Jack Pardee did that back in 1980, in opposition to general manager Bobby Beathard, and owner Jack Kent Cooke gave Pardee the axe when the team started out 3-10. Second, never fail to respect and communicate with your players in training camp . Marty Schottenheimer admitted he didn't keep the lines open, and his team gave up on him in 2001. And the less that is said of Steve Spurrier's catastrohpically myopic approach to professional football, the better.

Those are bad moves. But there is one thing a Redskins head coach should never, ever do.


Apologize to Dallas Cowchip fans.

During Fan Appreciation Day, His Joeness stood before his team's fans, laughed and said the following:
"I know we don't have any Dallas people here. They're the ugliest people in the world."
Now we all know that Dallas fans aren't the ugliest people of the world. That's obviously an exaggeration, like saying that "Battlefield Earth" was the worst movie ever made, or that Phil Hartman was the greatest SNL member ever. It's probably true, but reasonable minds may disagree.

But Joe Gibbs is a devout man of faith, kind and considerate to all. Much to my disappointment, he really didn't mean to smack-talk about the Big D faithful, which would've taken me, if only for a moment, back to the 1970s and 80s, Beat Dallas Weeks, and seriously bad blood between two stellar franchises. Remember when Washington fans chanted "we want Dallas!" and the Dallas and Washington mascot guys (did they ever get a paycheck?) would shove and point fingers at each other in the stands? What 'bout those days?

The moment was lost when, on Saturday, Gibbs addressed the media with the following:

``I tried to make a joke,'' Gibbs said. ``I was joking. It didn't come out probably like a joke or like it should've. I hope all my buddies in Dallas -- because I've got a lot of buddies down there -- took it the right way. I hope they thought it was a joke.

``But if they didn't think it was a joke, or if anybody took it the wrong way other than a joke, when you make a mistake like that, you've got to apologize. So I apologize to anybody that might have taken it the other way.''

Compare that to what the late George Allen said of the Cowchips:"This is the year Dallas falls from grace, and the Redskins are going to be the ones doing the pushing." Before a game against Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, Allen warned "He will scramble at his own risk."

That's old-school, from the heart, smack-talk. The kind that might rally players, but would instead galvanize the Redskins faithful while infuriating Cowchip fans. Honestly, given the state of the rivalry, we need some old-fashioned finger-wagging and bravado. Ain't that football?

In sum: Redskins coaches can concede a loss, praise a worthy opponent, even ogle their cheerleaders. But you must never, ever apologize to their fans.

I plan to place a "But Dallas fans are ugly!" banner at FedEx, first chance I get. Sorry, Joe.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Steve Young Interview Excerpts

OK, here's some of the text from the interview. Unfortunately, the .pdf of the transcript is password protected and the transcribers, ASAP Sports ( haven't posted it on their site. So you're going to have to trust me on this one. Below is my question(s) to Hall o' Famer Steve:

Q. You got your law degree in 1994 from the J. Reuben Clark Law School?

STEVE YOUNG: Yes, I did.

Q. That's kind of a rare asset for a pro player. How do you think that prepared you or helped you in your understanding the complexities of the NFL game?

STEVE YOUNG: Well, more than anything, it drove me a little crazy backing up Joe and not playing much, and I was going nuts. So law school was a help more than anything in the off-season to get -- I think that a lot of quarterbacking is processing information, processing it quickly and efficiently. There are a ton of guys who are playing in this league who have not made it because they could not process information over and over again. You've seen it, call a play and on the third play there's this bonehead move that happened and you can't explain. Too much was going on too fast, and they couldn't process it fast enough.

I think that training yourself is only going to help in the NFL. Memorizing – law school is a lot of memorization and I learned from watching Joe, a lot of football memorization. It really paid off. When you know everything that's going on with you, you can really get good pretty fast.

So there you have it. I do wish the transcibers had included the gnarled mess of Spanish diction we all heard between my questions. Alas. I'll sign off, but here are Steve's comments on entering the Hall of Fame with Dan Marino, the importance of winning championships, and his view of the spectacle that is Terrell Owens:

Q. Having achieved so much in your career on the Pro Bowl, Super Bowls, where does being in the Hall of Fame rank?

STEVE YOUNG: Well, it's different because it's obviously not on the field. I mean when you're accomplishing things on the field, I've always said, the position of quarterback in the NFL is the best job that I could ever imagine. It takes every bit of you, so to be successful, it's a tough thing. So those accomplishments that are on the field are really great.

Now this one, this one encompasses everything that was on the field. So I've got to say, not playing anymore, this is as good as it gets, and this is the end. I think that it allows you to kind of -- it allows you to put it to rest. I appreciate that because, you know, you keep thinking to yourself, maybe I didn't play long enough, maybe I should have played longer, maybe should I have played better, maybe I could have done this or that and now you go to the Hall of Fame, and now, it's done. You don't have to worry, you don't have to think, you did what you did, you put it on the line, you went out there and now it's over.

Q. When you look at your career and Dan Marino's career, how important is it for you to go into the Hall of Fame with a Super Bowl triumph, and considering he is the most prolific passer in history, how important is that Super Bowl victory for you right now?

STEVE YOUNG: I think Super Bowls, for good or bad, are career-makers. They leave you, hopefully, with fans forever and championships. No matter how many yards you throw or how efficient you are or how many MVPs you get, people tend to respond to championships. It's just the way it is.

So the fact that I got one is very important. I don't think in the big picture it matters whether you do or you don't (win a Super Bowl), because the truth is, championships are won by a team. And quarterbacks certainly have a lot to do with it, but I don't think that -- I would not knock somebody for not winning a championship. There are tons of guys in the league today that are great, great players that are not going to see Super Bowls because they don't have the organization behind them or they don't have the talent around them. You have to realize that football is a team game and that's just part of how you judge people.

Q. Given what you just said about contracts and holdouts, what's your take on Terrell Owens situation with the Eagles?

STEVE YOUNG: Terrell is great at theatrics. In that respect, you look at the contract that he signed last year, you knew that this year was a leverage year for the Eagles to find out whether things were going to work out. I think Terrell at the end of the year realized maybe too late that was the case. If I were Terrell, because of the nature of him, I would probably call and say, ‘Hey, look, I'm upset, but, I want to lead the league in receiving this year, and when I do, final regular season game, I'm going to have a ceremony at half-time.’ I think people would respond to that. I think people would respond to that kind of a bold statement. I'm going to go prove that I'm the best receiver in the game, again, and then I'm going to -- I think that's probably the best way to handle it. If he shows up for work and things happen, no matter what his words say, I know him, he'll play hard, he'll fight hard and he'll have a great season.

Monday, August 01, 2005

My Moment With Greatness: Hall of Famer Steve Young

Big news! I just finished my first Q& A with an NFL player. And no, he wasn't a Redskin. You may have heard of him: Steve Young, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2005.

For the uninitiated, Young played in the NFL from 1984-99, and was twice named NFL MVP in 1992 and '94; he's the only player in league history to post a passer rating of more than 100.0 in six seasons. He was named to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and as a member of the San Francisco 49ers is the NFL's all-time leader in touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.16). Most people can't do that on Madden '05. Fun fact: he is the first left-handed quarterback to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He currently offers his gameday insights on ESPN with Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, and the Human Hype Machine, Michael Irvin.

Young will receive the NFL's highest award on August 7th along with perhaps the greatest of quarterbacks (and Isotoner glove pitchmen), Dan Marino. Since I can't be in Canton, Ohio, for the induction ceremony (my wife mentioned something about a wedding anniversary), I joined in a media conference call with his honor.

And just to prove I ain't lyin', I'm posting this before the official NFL transcript of the call is made public. Skeptics.

I was impressed. He's easy to talk to, and was professional enough to endure some hilariously phrased inquries from the linguistically-challenged foreign press. The conversation covered topics from his adjustment to retirement ("you wake up one day and realize you're not good at anything else") to his views on the modern player's penchance for holding out and some thoughts on Terrell Owens. He even threw in a funny Dick Butkus story. You can never go wrong with a Butkus story. When I get the transcript I'll post some highlights.

What I'm so excited about is that I actually managed to slip a question in amongst the international field of reporters. I even added a dramatic pause to make sure I wasn't talking over Mel Kiper, John Clayton, or whoever else was trying to rush in a query. Here's what happened:

Me: Steve, you received your law degree from the J. Reuben Clark Law School in 1994...[pause]
Telemundo Reporter: [unintelligible mangling of english]
Steve: ...yes, I did.
Me: That is such a rare aspect for a professional football player to have. How do you think it helped prepare you in understanding the complexity of the game?

Now Steve did answer my question; I believe he remarked something intelligent about training your mind to analyze information quickly and make decisions. But to be honest, I missed most of it because I was pumping my fist, awash in the realization that Steve Young, the man who studied under Joe Montana, threw touchdowns to Jerry Rice AND appeared on "Wheel of Fortune" was talking to me.

Finally I get to pull a Joe Theissmann and respond, for the rest of my natural life, to any Young-related statement with the prefix: "You know, I spoke with Steve Young on Monday, and..."