PC REVIEW: NFL HEAD COACH

EA finally lets you become the most hated figure in professional sports: the coach. by Patrick Evans

July 5, 2006 - The end of basketball and hockey seasons means two things for sports fans in the U.S. For one, the only good stories on SportsCenter will be about baseball, but this summer lull also marks the eminent return of football season. Capturing (or preoccupying depending on who you ask) the minds of rabid men nationwide, the NFL spawns some of fanatical fan support this side of the Atlantic Ocean. No where else is football hysteria more evident than in the fantasy football leagues, where stat nerds of all ages battle each other for the title of ultimate football fan.

NFL Head Coach screenshot

It is this crowd that EA Sports is aiming at with their latest title, NFL Head Coach. Taking the gamer from the playing field and placing them in the front office, EA Sports strips control of the actual game from our hands and places us in the ultimate leadership role. In what can only be expected as the first of many Head Coach titles, EA succeeds in providing the experience of leading a team from the sidelines while weathering a few expected bumps in establishing a new franchise.

Action in Head Coach centers on the single-player Career Mode where you act as General Manager and Head Coach in search of NFL coaching glory. Presumably a coordinator on the Championship Pittsburg Steelers, the next step is to move up on the ladder and lead your own team to a championship. In searching for your new job, you have to first decide whether you were an offensive or defensive coordinator beforehand, and then interview with possible employers. Ensuring a fair balance in the beginning of your career, statistics in various categories such as motivation, work ethic, and knowledge of the different player positions are determined by your responses during the discussion. Interviewing for the position also determines what jobs are offered to begin your career, often providing opportunities to either rehab a broken football program such as the San Francisco 49ers or to head an established division winner such as the Chicago Bears.

Action in the front office is as deep and as tedious as one would expect a coach's to be. After all, in real life a head coach/general manager is responsible for dealing with players' agents, the players themselves, practice schedules, and the coaching staff. To the common football fan it will defiantly seem like entirely too much paperwork. Before the rookie draft in April you have to hire position coaches and coordinators that fit your offensive and defensive philosophies. On top of that, you are also responsible for any players with expired contracts and filling various gaps in your roster. The list of responsibilities is extensive and tedious, but it's rewarding for those willing to put in the work to win games.

NFL Head Coach screenshot

Winning during the season is all about game preparation and ensuring your players are in the best position to succeed. Preparing for games includes two different aspects; keeping your players' statistics high through practice and keeping your overall team prepared by practicing the specific plays you intend to use in a game. Every player has a set of ratings that is variable depending on how well he is prepared throughout the week. If you spend all your time working on the first string players, for instance, the backups may not be prepared when a starter gets injured. In team practice sessions the plays that you repeatedly run become "money plays." When running money plays in an actual game the ratings of the players on field will temporarily increase to reflect their extensive preparation in these specific situations. By setting the game within this framework, EA Head Coach succeeds in putting players in the driver seat of their chosen franchises pretty successfully, allowing the coach to focus on defense, offense, passing, stopping the run, or anything else they choose.

But all is not well in this front office sim. Many of the slip-ups that one would expect in a franchise's first are present and hamper the experience. Keeping with the on-field action, there are certainly specific strategic situations that a coach cannot simply take care of. If you are getting torched by a wide receiver, like Steve Smith torched Chicago in the NFC Divisional round last year, then it is very difficult to swing coverage to him consistently. You can certainly call plays that double-team him with a safety (if you have them in your defensive playbook), but adjustments before a play are impossible, as I would assume they are impossible in a real game. The problem is that the corners and safeties cannot make human-instinct decisions on the field that you would assume a premium safety would. Your only bet is to call your coverage his way an entire drive or game and pray that the quarterback doesn't scorch you with another player (which may not be a problem if their squad is light on talent).

Another problem in-game is the way plays in the playbook are organized. Lifetime players of Madden will have a difficult time adjusting to plays organized by situation and not formation, especially on defense. A Cover-2 playbook by default has plays range various formations such as the 4-3, the 3-4, Nickel, and Dime, all listed in the base defense category. Players can certainly go in and rearrange the playbook throughout their preparation hours, but radically redesigning the play calling from what players are accustomed to can create a ton of headaches.

NFL Head Coach screenshot

While the on-field errors can be overlooked with time and game experience, there are many off-field issues that are drags on the overall package. While operating throughout the various periods of the year, a coach's life revolves around his weekly schedule, which can comprise of many different activities including play design, resigning players, acquiring free-agents, scouting rookies, and various staff meetings. Much of the freedom felt on the practice and playing field is stripped once you hit the office and attempt to sign a free agent during office hours. The problem stems from trying to take command of your time in the office throughout your days. If you have a staff meeting in the morning and office hours in the afternoon, you have to wait until the next day to acquire free agents or talk to other GM's for trades. When you do want to sign or trade players, you have to swap that activity for another "swappable" office activity. I cannot explain the logic in restricting a coach from signing a free-agent during hours where he would otherwise be swiveling around in his office chair and staring at his trophy case.

Sometimes, office hours will be replaced by other un-swappable events, such as an agent callback. Scheduled for two hours of your day, an agent callback is usually a three line conversation on whether or not the player accepts the contract presented to him. That's it-a 30 second conversation that takes two hours of your time. And if he does reject, there is no chance to make a counter-offer right on the spot. You better hope you can dump a practice session or a trading session for a signing session to get that player before another team does. This inane restriction of the coach's office time defiantly kills the experience of running a team. It feels as if you are put on a rail and told when and what to do, hoping that you actually have players to sign at that time or any use of the nearly useless office hours shoved into every weekday.

NFL Head Coach screenshot

After all these knocks, NFL Head Coach still puts together a convincing effort in placing gamers in the front office instead of on the field. When Head Coach hits, it slams it out of the ballpark. Excellent structure and balance in the practice periods before game day ensure that you take your time and prepare extensively, while tasks at the front office put you in control of every aspect of the franchise. It would be interesting to see what aspects of Head Coach would be carried over to Madden and its Franchise mode. I was completely won over by the ESPN integration throughout the game, especially in the NFL Draft with Mel Kiper. The war room mentality translates exceptionally as you wait for your pick, deciding whether or not to trade up with that higher picking team for the quarterback of the future. Mel Kiper's commentary was especially welcome as it sounded fluid and insightful throughout the entire draft. Head Coach certainly has some rough edges and logic issues, but the overall package is certainly sufficient for the most hardcore football junkies.

Product Info:

NFL Head Coach reinvents football gaming by introducing the first 3D strategy sports game that challenges gamers to build and manage every aspect of a football team from the ground up. A simple conversation system and an engaging 3D graphical interface allow users to immerse themselves into the lives of an NFL Head Coach. As head coach, you develop a team strategy, execute it on and off the field, and try to build a winning organization year after year. Your status as a coaching legend will rise and fall based on all of your actions as you strive to become the greatest head coach of all time. Behind the desk, on the practice field, or while wearing the headset on game days, take the reins of your favorite NFL team and lead it to victory.

By Patrick Evans
CCC Staff Writer

Rating out of 5
NFL Head Coach (PC)
3.6
Graphics
The Madden engine is running here, but the office environments are quite bland.
3.2
Control
The menus in-game are sufficient, but the restrictions on office time is iffy.
4.4
Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Exceptional music, coordinator chat during game time, and ESPN commentary drop gamers in the NFL environment
4.2
Play Value
For football fanatics, Head Coach is the best thing out there.
3.8
Overall Rating - Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.
 
NFL Head Coach box art
System: PS2, X, PC
Dev: Tiburon
Pub: EA
Release: June 2006
Players: 1 - 2
Review by Patrick

Review Rating Legend
1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid
2.0 - 2.4 = Poor
2.5 - 2.9 = Average
3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
3.5 - 3.9 = Good
4.0 - 4.4 = Great
4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
5.0 = The Best