I'm comfortable admitting that EA Sports' Madden video game series has some power over my pre-kickoff football opinions. To be perfectly honest, my enthusiasm for purchasing Madden is directly proportionate to my assumed improvement of the Redskins' statistical ranking. (So, as you might imagine, last summer I nearly passed on Madden 10, which had the Jim Zorn-led Redskins at a cellar-dwelling 70.) The game drops in early August, and at the time the NFL has yet to play even preseason contests. That virgin game on Madden, then, is the first indicator of how great your team just might be in September.
This year, I was particularly stoked about the potential for my team to be judged favorably by the faceless programmers at Electronic Arts. No recent version of Madden has featured such an overhauled Washington Redskins. Surely they'd be highly ranked--even if no one in their right mind can predict how they'll finish. (More on that in a moment.) So with some gusto I ripped open the packaging, slid the disc in my PS3 and eventually began my first game. I say eventually because I had to reset my system no less than three times while inputting redemption codes, downloading rosters, and getting hardware updates. Remember the days of popping in a cartridge and playing?
Anyway, first thing I noticed was that Washington was a mediocre 76. Even with the latest roster update (which oddly keeps Willie Parker around), the Skins are a good four points below anyone in the NFC East. At least they're rated significantly higher than the Chiefs and Rams, two teams they had trouble with under Jim Zorn.
For a fair game, I invited Miami (rated 78) to virtual FedEx Field on the All-Pro level. For the record, I'm good at Madden on the higher settings. My Redskins franchises have yet to lose more than three games in any season, and I regularly post undefeated championships. Once I'm comfortable with the playbook, make some depth chart substitutions, and feel out whatever play calling changes EA throws in, I'm dangerous even with my perennially marginal home team.
I mention this because my first half of Madden 11 football was...horrific. It was so bad that it slipped a measure of fear into what the Redskins' 2010 season might be like. I was in disbelief because everything that you knew could happen this year did happen.
The new 3-4 defense immediately gave up multiple plays of 50+ yards: a 60-yard touchdown to Brandon Marshall (in which CPU-controlled Laron Landry whiffed on a big hit) and on the next series, a 51-yard run by Ronnie Brown when Albert Haynesworth was blocked right out of his assigned gap. By the way, Albert's endurance lasted exactly two plays before his icon went red and he needed to be substituted. On offense, I took DJ McNabb (rated 89) on a blitz-avoiding scramble and saw Santana Moss streaking ahead of his defender. I gently pressed L1 to lob him a simple leading pass for the easy score. McNabb threw an awkward, wounded duck that was easily intercepted. When I went to my ultra-effective goal-line run offense (usable anywhere on the field!), Clinton Portis finally broke through to the second level of defense, with one man to beat for a satisfyingly long touchdown. He twisted in the tackle and promptly fumbled the ball three yards sideways. In the next series, McNabb limped off the field after completing his first pass, a 61-yard touchdown to the ancient Joey Galloway.
At halftime: Miami 24, Washington 7. The Redskins' defense was swiss cheese, the offense couldn't sustain a drive, and Rex Grossman (rated 65) was all I had left to mount a three-score comeback. Egad. The scenario was so nightmarishly plausible, so disarmingly realistic, that I stopped the game and had dinner. Really.
I don't believe I'm alone in hoping that 2010 looks nothing like that in the real world.
So how will the Redskins fare in 2010? I've seen predictions from 4-12 to 10-6 with a wildcard birth. Choosing is an absurd practice. Remember last season when the ESPN experts picked the eventual champion Saints to finish 18th in the league? The Washington Post recently asked how the Redskins will finish and responders optimistically predicted a nine-win season. I can't resist being absurd too, so I'm predicting 8-8, with a 7-9 season a distinct possibility. Maybe I'm just shaken by that first half of Madden. Here's how I see it breaking down:
Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys - Win
Big D is unprepared for the new, very un-Zorn game plan by Shanahan and is stunned on national television.
Redskins vs. Houston Texans- Loss
The Texans' Mario Williams manages multiple sacks and Trent Williams learns how fast the NFL really is.
Redskins at St. Louis Rams - Win
The perfect rebound opponent. Rams QB Sam Bradford shines, but his defense allows McNabb and the Skins offense to have a field day.
Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles - Loss
Andy Reid and the Eagles hooligan fans manage to rattle McNabb on his first visit back to Philadelphia. Did I mention that their fans are hooligans?
Redskins vs. Green Bay Packers - Loss
The defense begins to show signs of proper execution of the 3-4, but Aaron "Favre Who?" Rodgers proves to be too much for them to handle. Seems like a long time ago that he was the 24th pick in the draft.
Redskins vs. Indianapolis Colts - Loss
Just about everyone will lose to the Colts this year. Nonetheless, the "Shanahan sucks!" thread on ExtremeSkins.com reaches 10 pages.
Redskins at Chicago Bears - Win
This is the beginning of the happier days of the 2011 season. The 2-4 Skins upset Chicago with its first mistake-free game.
Redskins at Detroit Lions - Win
Last season's loss in Detroit was a figment of their imagination, and the whipping the receive from Washington helps erase the memory.
Redskins vs. Philadelphia Eagles - Win
Kevin Kolb and the Eagles, reeling from their loss the previous week to the Colts, are no match for the confident Redskins and their bandwagon-riding fans. At 5-4, hope for the playoffs seeps into the fanbase.
Redskins at Tennessee Titans - Loss
Despite Santana Moss' best day of the season, the Titans' Chris Johnson has the last laugh with a late touchdown. Every season there's one game that you wish you could have a Rewind button for two or three plays. This is that game.
Redskins vs. Minnesota Vikings - Loss
Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson remind Washington what the cream of the NFC looks like in a cover-your-eyes loss.
Redskins at New York Giants - Loss
Here's where the playoff dream is officially dashed. Washington keeps it competitive, however, in a strong showing.
Redskins vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Win
If Zorn, Campbell, Smoot, and the rest of the 2009 castoffs can beat them, surely the 2010 team can.
Redskins at Dallas Cowboys - Loss The Cowchips are making their annual playoff run, and take out their revenge for the week one loss. The offense continues to lack consistency. Jerry Jones' face reportedly cracks a smile.
Redskins at Jacksonville Jaguars - Win
With a .500 season in view, the Redskins thump the Jaguars. Fortunately, no one in Jacksonville sees the beating because of the blackout.
Redskins vs. New York Giants - ?
Here's where I think the Redskins face a gut-check. The playoffs aren't an option and they have nothing to play for but pride. Is this the same franchise that went 4-12 last year and collected a paycheck? Or does this team reflect Mike Shanahan and defend their home turf against the playoff-bound Giants? The answer will be the final statement about whether a New Era has truly come to Washington.