Applying lessons learned from Madden 20 to real life

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Over the past few months, I’ve filled many hours of my newfound downtime at home playing video games. I’m not one for lengthy storylines or super intricate puzzles. I really enjoy the simplicity of sports games, which was one of the only ways to fill the world’s sports void for a good while in the spring.

As far as football, there is but one real option on the market in EA Sports’ Madden franchise. While video games have become more and more realistic in recent years, there still are some arcade facets to Madden that are disconnected from reality (Injuries? Off! Computer AI skill? Rookie!). However, the offenses, defenses, and overall strategies within the game do have basis in reality. For instance, the franchise added RPOs recently as the tactic proliferated in real-world use and became programmable in the virtual world. Six or seven defensive back sub-packages are common and often utilized by real world coaches and armchair quarterbacks.

Those virtual, professional strategies have reinforced some current thoughts on football and challenged others. After over 100 games, here are some of my main takeaways and how they can apply to college coaching.

Dual-threats at QB and LB

As a Houston Texans… fan… I use the hometown team due to familiarity. They are not the highest rated team in the game, nor are they transcendent on either side of the ball compared to the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, or San Francisco 49ers. Even the Dallas Cowboys have a higher rating than the team Bill O’Brien has put together. Still, I succeed.

I constantly use spread offense tactics that don’t lean either way except for being pass-first. There isn’t much incentive to run HUNH. I use various personnel packages out of the shotgun, and mix in dinks-and-dunks with deep shots. Outside of Laremy Tunsil, the Texans have an offensive line with average rankings. Creating lanes isn’t their specialty.

What the Texans do have is Deshaun Watson. DW4 is classified as being in the tier of players just below the truly elite, but to me he’s the most valuable player on the roster (which in Madden, still includes DeAndre Hopkins).

In my pass-first offense, Watson is able to make all the throws I need. He has the arm strength to find Will Fuller V past a safety, the accuracy to hit Hopkins on a comeback from the far hash, and the touch to get the ball to a back or tight end in the flat and provide YAC opportunity.

Other QBs in the game have similar passing acumen, and that’s the primary way I matriculate the ball down the field on offense. When the offensive line struggles against elite pass rushers (Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell, DeMarcus Lawrence), it helps to have someone like Watson who can elude the rush as opposed to Drew Brees or Phillip Rivers. What good is passing ability if there’s no space to pass?

It behooves offensive coordinators to find quarterbacks who can make the throws and get out of trouble when necessary. The QB run threat can even be a part of the offense, but making it a staple may not be the smartest utilization. Watson, Russell Wilson, and even Lamar Jackson are elusive in the open field, but the game isn’t keen on rewarding a constant run-around. Quarterbacks in the game are more likely to fumble on a regular tackle than any other player, at least in my experience.

Quarterbacks primarily need to be able to check the passing acumen box before anything else, but cannot be statues unless they have transcendent football minds like Brees or Peyton Manning. Regarding Texas, while Sam Ehlinger is a more-than-capable runner, especially for quarterbacks, those hits can pile up and detract from his passing ability over the course of a game and season. With Mike Yurcich’s offense, Ehlinger can’t afford too many hits that hurt his passing ability. Running the quarterback is best utilized as a situational or an escape route. Making it a staple carries inherent risk the rest of the offense takes on.

So what about linebackers, and why are they included in the quarterback section? As mentioned, Jackson, Watson, Wilson, and even Patrick Mahomes have running ability and, in the game, can simply pick up 8-10 yards at a time before sliding. That quickly moves the ball down the field.

As a deterrent, I constantly use a spy, usually Zach Cunningham or Bernardrick McKinney. They capably handle the virtual duties. Linebackers need to be able to mirror the athleticism shown by quarterbacks evading or departing the pocket so as to prevent opposing offenses from getting to the line to gain in two plays over and over and over. They need help on the back end, but they are pivotal in defending the first level of the defense on passing plays. This is all in addition to having to play conventional run plays.

Recent recruiting and on-field play by Texas shows how difficult these players are to find. The two best for the Longhorns in recent years included Malik Jefferson, the No. 10 prospect in the composite, and Gary Johnson, a JUCO transfer who was in Alabama’s clutches before an academic discrepancy led him to Texas. They aren’t easy to find, but they are a necessity for stymieing offenses led by the Kyler Murrays, Spencer Sanders, and Taysom Hills of the world.

The Limited Utility of Some Special Teams

Texas fans are well aware of the negative effects ignoring special teams can have on a football program. This isn’t to suggest any football coach should simply ignore the third phase of the game, but to rather realize that playing it safe on kickoff return in most circumstances is playing it smart.

Teams need good kickers, punters, deep snappers, and coordination. Failing on a certain drive shouldn’t lead to failing on the exchange of possession. Texas has won games under Tom Herman because it won the change of possession battle. Thank you, Michael Dickson.

But a trend has taken shape in the game. In 2019, 22 FBS players averaged over 25 yards per kickoff return. Only nine of them played in a Power 5 conference.

Kickers, like every other player on the field, have gotten stronger and more adept at kicking as the game enters season 151. There are specialty camps, instructors, and ranking services for that aspect of the game.

Additionally, something Madden can’t account for is recent rule developments in college football. Fair catches called for on the one yard-line result in getting the ball on the 25.

Until college football adopts a XFL-style kickoff or abandons its fair catch rule, teams are likely better served simply taking a knee and starting from the 25. Sometimes, they don’t have a choice as the ball sails over their head to through the back of the end zone. Unless a team has a for sure 25+ yard returner, keep possession and drive 75.

1-on-1… or 10-on-10.

Texas believes its wide receiver group is talented enough to where it can win possession against single coverage more often than not. If quarterbacks see it, they tend to throw to it. This is why Herman’s quarterbacks in recent years have told the media they believe 1-on-1 is uncovered.

For a variety of reasons, that’s something possible in college and not necessarily in the NFL save for the truly elite talents. For Houston… at least in Madden 20… it’s true of Hopkins. He is one of a handful of players who received 99 overall ratings. There are no 100 overall ratings.

Hopkins has the ability to win 1-on-1 even against the most talented corners. For Texas, the collection of four and five star receivers accumulated in recent recruiting cycles should put them at a talent advantage over other Big 12 teams. Of course, carrying this plan out has not always been easy.

On the opposite side of the football, a shutdown corner who can effectively neutralize a team’s best threat by himself is extremely, extremely valuable. It’s why Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah went third overall, and why LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. has a reasonable argument toward being the best player in college football.

Shutting down a team’s top offensive receiving threat completely thwarts an offense’s plans. Can’t get the ball to the best playmaker? Then it becomes a battle of whose 10 is better.

Offenses can scheme guys open, of course, but a consistent deterrent keeping the ball away from the Tylan Wallaces or Terrace Marshalls Texas will face helps their cause. It’s up to D’Shawn Jamison, Jalen Green, or others to become that.

There aren’t many answers for elite tight ends

Seriously. Take a look at the two most recent Super Bowl teams. George Kittle and Travis Kelce were pivotal pieces on each team’s march toward the Super Bowl.

Some tight ends are blockers, some are receivers. The ones who can truly be more-than-adept at both present an issue for defensive coordinators. What do I do with that 11th defender? A safety could be bowled over more often than not, a nickel-corner definitely so. A linebacker can’t typically keep up with the movement skills of players like Kelce and Kittle.

This played out for the most recent national champions. Though he went undrafted, Thaddeus Moss made important plays for the LSU Tigers. It also played out for Texas recently. Herman has coached at Texas for three seasons. His best season had a reliable option at tight end in Andrew Beck. Was he elite? No, but he helped Texas win 10 games in 2018 and the Longhorns haven’t had the same success without someone like him on the roster.

It doesn’t seem likely Texas has an elite tight end for 2020, but they should have options that help them rather than hinder their efforts… like in 2017.

Madden is a great way to test theoretical football strategies. No one will get hurt. No one will get fired. Real money and results aren’t at stake. This isn’t to say I could do any football coach’s job. I couldn’t. I can’t tell a lineman, defensive back, or a receiver where to place their hands, what steps to take, what keys to read. There is a barrier of entry I can’t overcome not only in the instructional world, but in the motivational world.

However, it’s a great way to give some semblance of life to the X’s and O’s on the chalkboard, and the strategies I’ve listed have helped me be more successful than not on the virtual gridiron. Combine these successes with the motivation and instruction, and there’s a strong chance it correlates to reality. After all, video games are made to be as realistic as possible.