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After the Bears' embarrassing Prime Time loss to the Commanders a few weeks ago, I hopped onto my blog to complain about the team's offensive design philosophy and play-calling, and called for the Bears to either fire their offensive coordinator, or trade Justin Fields in exchange for a better pocket-passing quarterback. I also outlined my opinions for the types of plays that I thought the Bears should be running with Justin Fields.

Now, I admit, I'm not a football coach. I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough about football to actually be a coach -- at least not at anything above the high school or pee wee level. I'm no football genius over here. I would be fully willing to admit that the Bears could probably try what I recommended, and they'd still suck, and it would just prove that I have no clue what I'm talking about.

But starting with the Patriots game the following week, the Bears have been doing almost exactly what I recommended that they do. And it didn't make the offense incrementally better; it made the offense considerably better. The Bears came out in that Patriots game, and almost right from the start, they were running designed bootleg and rollout passes, read options, designed quarterback runs, and play action. They've also been incorporating a heavy dose of screen passes to their speedy wide receivers to help make up for their mediocre route-running. Ever since implementing these changes, the offense has looked genuinely good. The Bears have almost doubled their points per game, from 16.7 points per game in the first 6 weeks, to over 31 points per game in the three games since.

Justin Fields rollout vs Patriots
Photo credit: NBC Sports
The Bears have recently started executing an offensive gameplan closer to what I expected from the team.

If the Bears' coaches had been calling these sorts of plays, and getting this level of execution from the start of the season, they might actually still be in the playoff hunt. This average of over 30 points per game would have been enough to beat every opponent in those first 6 weeks. If the offense were playing like this early in the season, the Bears would definitely have beaten the Commanders, probably would have beaten the Giants, and might have been able to eke out wins against the Packers or Vikings. Instead of being 3-6, being mostly out of playoff contention, and trading away 2 of their 4 best defensive talents in exchange for draft capital, the Bears could potentially be 5-4 and looking to acquire veteran talent to make their own playoff push.

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Chicago Bears alt logo

With every new coaching staff or general manager for the Chicago Bears, I think they can't possibly be more disappointing and embarrassing than the last. But somehow, this organization always finds a way. Ever since firing Lovie Smith (and aside from one stand-out season in 2018), the Bears have been a slow-motion train wreck and can't seem to do anything right.

Drafting Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick in 2021 seemed like a slam dunk. But the Bears have squandered the pick with coaching staffs who seem completely unwilling to play to Justin Fields' strengths, and the offense has floundered.

I get that it's Fields' second year, and the Bears just hired a new coach and are in a rebuilding year. I've tried to temper my expectations and be patient. But it's hard to remain patient when there is a complete lack of any signs of development or forward progress. This is one of the worst offenses in the league, and it seems to be getting worse.

Justin Fields frustrated
Photo credit: Micheal Reaves, Getty Images
I'd be frustrated too if I were Justin Fields and have to put up Eberflus' and Getsy's awful play-calling.

It would be easy to blame Fields, and say that he's just a bad player and a bust. And yes, he does have some mechanical and accuracy issues to clean up, and he also needs to make decisions faster. It's just his second year; those things will hopefully come in time. But I don't think it's that simple. Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy are refusing to take advantage of Justin Fields' physical talents. He runs a 4.44-second 40-yard dash. He is one of the fastest players on the team, and one of the fastest players on the field. Yet the Bears are not calling any designed QB runs, or read options, or even much in the way of rollout passes or designed bootlegs to get him out of the pocket where he excels as a dual-threat passer. They did a little bit of rolling out here and there in the loss to the Commanders, and were generally successful. So why aren't they doing more of it, especially in critical situations?

In the loss to the Commanders, Fields ran 12 times for 88 yards, and almost scored 2 TDs on the ground. Yet I don't think a single one of those runs was a designed QB run or read option. When he gets outside the pocket, it's also rarely because the play was a designed rollout. Usually, it's because he's flushed out by the pass rush and lack of an open receiver. Yet these plays are often his most successful, as both a passer and a runner. Some of his best highlights of the year have started with him getting outside the pocket.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Last year, I said that UNLV was the best 0-6 football team I had ever seen. Well this year, in 2022, the team has finally turned that competitive spirit into actual wins, and UNLV's football team has earned its first 3-1 start of the current century. Considering that the Mountain West isn't quite as strong of a conference as it has been in years past, this UNLV team might even have a chance at contending for the conference title if they keep playing like they are currently. Boise State and San Diego State aren't the dominant teams that they used to be, and UNLV just closed out a convincing 2-score victory at the home of the defending conference champs, Utah State.

I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but UNLV actually looks good!

Most of the success lies on the arm and legs of sophomore quarterback Doug Brumfield. Brumfield showed flashes of promise last year, but was plagued with injuries. He has absolutely taken over the offense this season as the unquestioned starter. He has been throwing pinpoint-accurate passes down the field, and is making mostly smart decisions with the football. So far, he has only thrown a single interception, which happened to be in UNLV's only loss so far this season. When there's no one open downfield, Brumfield has been good about checking down to underneath receivers or taking off and running (he has 4 running touchdowns to go along with his 8 passing TDs). He isn't forcing balls into coverage and sabotaging scoring opportunities with avoidable turnovers.

Doug Brumfield
Photo credit: Lucas Peltier, UNLV Athletics.
Sophomore quarterback Doug Brumfield has been playing mistake-free football.

Though Brumfield has been a big part of UNLV's success, it isn't all him. In general, the offense has been moving pretty well. Discounting the loss to Cal, this offense has been putting up an average of 48 points per game. Part of that production has been on the ground with redshirt junior running back Aidan Robbins carrying the bulk of the load in the rushing attack. He has big shoes to fill after years of Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams cutting through and barreling over opposing defenses.

Robbins has been adequate so far as a substitute for Charles Williams. His stats on the season look really good, with over 400 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns in 4 games. But half of those yards came from a standout performance against North Texas, in which Robbins rushed for over 220 yards and 3 touchdowns. Robbins has been sharing carries with change-of-pace back Courtney Reese, who has had some explosive plays, but not scores yet.

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Axis Football 23 - title

One of my pet peeves with sports games is that they like to make the game sound newer and more advanced than it actually is by putting next year in the title. The Madden that releases in 2022, and which is based on the 2022 NFL season, isn't called Madden 2022; no, it's called Madden 23! Same goes with other big-budget sports games, with the sole exception possibly being video games based off the Olympics (do those even get made anymore?).

One of the things that I liked about the slate of indie football games (Maximum Football and Axis Football) is that they used the current year in the title. There was no confusion or misunderstanding when saying "the 2021 version of Axis Football" -- it's called Axis Football 2021, and it was released in the fall of 2021. But if I say "the 2021 version of Madden", you might wonder if I mean Madden 22, which released in 2021; or Madden 21, which has "2021" in the title, but which actually released in 2020 and is based off the 2020 NFL season.

Well now Axis Football has adopted the same numbering scheme as its big-budget cousin, and they have skipped Axis Football 2022 in favor of releasing Axis Football 2023 in the 2022 calendar year. Sigh... I'm not sure what Axis Games' reasoning for this is. Maybe they felt pressured to adopt the same numbering convention as the big-budget sports games. Perhaps the more sensical numbering scheme was actually confusing people: "Why is there a Madden 22, but no Axis 22 yet?" Whatever the reason, there is no Axis Football 2022, and we instead are going straight to Axis Football 2023.

The leap I've been waiting for!

But my disappointment with Axis Football 2023 basically starts and ends with its title. This is probably the biggest single-year jump in gameplay quality that I have seen from this series since I started playing Axis Football way back in 2018. Axis Football 2023 looks and feels much more polished than in previous years thanks to the developers finally addressing the lackluster catching and pass defense animations that made throwing the ball in previous years feel like such a crap shoot.

Receivers and DBs play the ball more realistically.

The new animations make pass catching and pass defense so much more readable. I can actually understand why a particular pass is caught, incomplete, or intercepted because the ball doesn't just hit the receiver's body and either stick to it or fall to the ground. I see receivers leaping to catch overthrown passes. I see them reach down to try to catch underthrown passes. I see defenders putting an arm out to swat the pass.

It's much clearer why passes are complete or not.

On top of that, the receivers actually have momentum when they perform their catching animations, and that momentum will affect how quickly they can turn upfield -- if they can turn upfield at all. The momentum on catching animations serves to limit the amount of run-after-catch yards that lead to inflated passing stats and scores in previous versions of Axis Football. Now, if a receiver has to come back towards the line of scrimmage to catch a pass, he won't be able to instantly pivot back upfield for extra yards as soon as he catches the ball. He'll continue to take a couple steps towards the line of scrimmage before being able to plant or turn and head upfield, which gives pursing defenders a chance to converge and tackle him before he gets going.

Similarly, receivers running horizontally across the field will also have to follow-through on their catch animation and preserve their momentum, which prevents them from immediately turning upfield. Receivers running towards or along the sidelines will also often have their momentum carry them out of bounds, which makes throws to the sideline (such as quick outs or hitting a running back in the flats) feel much less exploitative than in previous years because the receiver will likely be forced out of bounds instead of being able to instantly turn upfield for 10 or 15 yards.

Receivers retain their momentum after catching the ball, limiting yards-after-catch.

Put simply, the passing game actually looks and feels more like real football, and it elevates Axis Football tremendously!

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Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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