I've been really dismayed by the focus that EA has placed on its Ultimate Team feature in the past couple years of Madden releases. I've made my distaste known in my reviews of both 16 and 15. With the NCAA football series dead due to the revocation of the license, Madden is all we have. I feel like the best thing for me to do at this point is to just give up, since it seems that EA has no interest in appealing to the small demographic of simulation die-hards to which I belong. Instead, they want to keep their model of annual releases that force people to have to give up their established decks of Ultimate Team cards so that they can spend more money on micro-DLC to buy the credits necessary to rebuild their collection.
But as cynical as my reviews can be, I don't want to give up on football gaming. I love football, and I love gaming, and I want to continue to be able to enjoy the union of the two. And right now, Madden is the only way that I can do that.
So I'm going to take some time to write up a wishlist of the kind of features that I want - no expect - a modern football game to include. Some of them are new features that football games have never attempted. Others are ones that previous games just never got right. And still others might be things that were present in earlier games, worked just fine, but have been inexplicably removed to make room for less worthwhile features.
Table of Contents
I'm going to start with improvements that I would like to see in Franchise Mode.
Contextual game prep and scouting
One of the most important elements of a successful sports game's career mode is the feeling that you get to make meaningful strategic decisions in how your team operates and plays the sport. This includes play on the field or court, and management and strategy in the back office. This should include making personnel decisions, planning or adapting your strategy for the upcoming game, and possibly changing your strategy as a result of failure in the previous game.
Madden has a poor track record with these sort of off-field activities between games. The current Madden Franchise mode likes to give us all these superficial options about tweaking ticket and concession prices that you might set once and then forget about for the rest of the career, but it completely drops the ball in terms of the week-to-week strategy and management of a team as it relates to playing football. The current "Game Prep" feature consists of a handful of arbitrary drills and automatic experience gains for players that have absolutely no relevance to your team's strategy, playbook, or your upcoming opponent. So to that end, I would like to see Madden introduce some genuine game planning.
Scouting an opponent
The very first thing that Madden should do when you enter a new week of preparation is to give you a "Scouting Report" of your upcoming opponent. This report should include that opponent's play styles, common situational play calls, possible personnel mismatches or exploits, and overviews of their behavior in key plays. Do they have a mobile, double-threat quarterback? Do they have an aggressive, blitz-happy defense? Do their DBs press opponents' receivers or leave a cushion in a "bend, don't break" style defense? Do they favor running the ball or passing? Do they prefer to pound it out on third and short, or rely on quick slant and curl passes to get the first? Do they like to go for it on fourth and short in the middle of the field, or do they play it safe and punt? Do they prefer kicking the new, 30-yard extra point, or do they play the probabilities game and go for two? Do they have any particularly speedy receivers or a dangerous kick return man that I should be aware of? And so on.
NFL 2k5's VIP Profile kept detailed records of tendencies and preferences based on real-world data.
Many of these pieces of information can be uncovered or inferred by digging around the game's menus. Sure, I could look at my opponent's depth chart to see if their QB is mobile or if they have any particularly dangerous star players. In previous versions of the game, I could even look up the play-calling strategy for any given CPU team; although, I think this feature isn't available anymore since the play-calling strategy for 16 is cloud-based and not locally accessible. I could dig through game and season stats and box scores to see who their preferred receivers and sack leaders are. But I shouldn't have to.
The game should be able to tabulate all this information and present it to the player in a steamlined and intuitive way. NFL 2k5 partially accomplished this via its VIP profiling system that tracked some pretty detailed user tendencies and preferences, and applied real-world coache's preferences to their in-game teams. These profiles were easily accessible prior to a game (and I think even during a game). Modern Madden games should be able to provide at least this level of information as well.
But it isn't just a matter of presenting this information. NFL 2k5's weakness was that even though you had the info, there wasn't really much that you could do with it. The game allowed you to create practice schedules for your team each week, but it was all just abstract spreadsheet manipulation rather than anything that you actually got to play. That's right, I just criticized NFL 2k5! To correct 2k5's problems, Madden should allow the user to be able to custom-tailor their playbooks based on their upcoming opponent.
For example, if playing against the Steelers, Seahawks, Panthers, or 49ers, I should be able to increase the frequency with which QB Contain and Spy plays show up in my playbook and strategy suggestions in order to counter the mobility of Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick. And if those plays don't exist in my defensive playbook, then I should be able to add them! Such plays should always be accessible via the "Coach's Suggestion" play-call option.
Game prep should allow you to alter your playbook based on the tendencies of your upcoming opponent,
such as adding more QB spy and contain plays to your defensive playbooks against mobile QBs.
And it shouldn't just end there. Once I've adjusted my playbook and play-calling priorities, I should be able to practice these new plays against a scout team (more on this below) to make sure that I'm familiar with how the plays work. The Skill Trainer in Madden 16 is actually quite excellent, and I don't see any reason why it couldn't be incorporated into such a practice mode in order to help teach me the appropriate reads to defeat the plays that my opponent is likely to call.
In fact, I'm pretty sure that when the Gameplanning feature first debuted (in Madden 11, I think?), the player did have this level of control over the play-calling priorities, you just didn't have the option to change it without exiting the Franchise and going back to the main menu options screen. This is the kind of thing that my "Game Prep" hours should go towards! I should be spending my "Game Prep" actually preparing for my next opponent. Not running generic training camp drills for my individual players.
It's worth noting that a feature like this appeared in a previous version of Madden on the PS2. It might have been Madden 2006. Somewhere around that year, the game's Franchise included a feature in which your opponent's top three favorite offensive and defensive plays were given to you before a game, and you got to practice ten reps against each in order to hopefully better recognize it when it gets called in games. It was very limited and kind of a crap shoot, but it was something.
An intriguing (and under-utilized) feature of the play-calling screen is a small widget in the corner that shows the previous play (including both the offensive and defensive play calls), the outcome, and the average success rate of that play based on global user stats. This is actually a really useful piece of information to have, and it's available on every play! The game's "Highlights" menu in the pause screen also includes a list of every play that's been run, including replays for some of those plays. The downside is that none of this gets saved or recorded for your review later.
Every play of a game is logged, so why not save this log for review in the next week's "Game Prep"?
These elements could be expanded such that this information could be saved and recorded to a log. During the game prep for the following week, you could then review your plays from the previous game. Madden could even combine the results of repeated play calls to show you the average, best,and worst outcomes, and the respective play call(s) by the opponent. This would be an effective simulation of watching "game film". You can look at your plays that went well, examine why they were successful; and you could look at your plays that went poorly and examine why they failed. And then you could determine if those plays are worth keeping in your playbook.
If saving every play isn't feasible (for technical reasons or whatever), then EA could alternatively provide an option for the user to "tag" a specific play for film review. This could include reviewing an interception to find out what mistake you made while reading the defense, or a failed blitz that left a huge hole for the opposing running back. It could even include a positive play like a bomb to a wide open receiver down the field. You can review what play you called, what play the opponent called, how your receiver was so open, and be better able to recognize a similar opportunity in the future.
How was this linebacker in the perfect position for this interception, and why didn't I read it?
Optionally, the game could also give you the option to replay those plays (against the same opponent play call, played by your scout team) in practice mode. This would give you an opportunity to find out if there was something that you could have done, or some other read that you could have made, in order to salvage the play. You can find out which receiver was the better target, which hole you should have blitzed through, or why there was such a huge gap in your defensive zone.
Madden 16 shows a recap of the previous play.
For example, you could review a play that resulted in an interception. You can see your play call, which receiver you threw to, and the defensive play call. You can then take that play into practice mode so that you can see what the defense did to stop you, so that you can recognize that coverage later. You can experiment with hot routes, throwing to the receiver at a different point in his route, or throwing to a different receiver altogether. You'll then have a better idea of how to beat a similar coverage in the future.
There's no reason why this feature couldn't also work on defense. Say you called a cover two, and the opponent torched you with a deep touchdown pass to a receiver running a post pattern between your safeties. You'd have a chance to replay that situation to see how your coverage scheme was insufficient, and next time, you can try running a different coverage against a similar personnel matchup, or you could try using a hot route to put a linebacker in the deep middle to shut that play down.
This feature would be especially meaningful if combined with the scouting feature described above and the Skill Trainer that already exists. The Skill Trainer could break down the design of the play, and what the correct read was supposed to be. Not only could you see how your play calls failed or succeeded, but you could compare them against the play-call tendencies of your upcoming opponent in order to see if there's a potential weakness that you can exploit, or if you are particularly vulnerable. The A.I. would also need access to this sort of information, and it would need to be programmed to identify what play(s) worked well against you, and possibly attempt to mimic those play calls in the upcoming game. That way, if you correct the problem, you'll be able to shut down your opponent, and feel vindicated in you preparation!
MOCK UP: Madden 17's Game Prep could highlight where a play went wrong and why.
In addition to better simulating the types of activities that real NFL coaches and players perform in between games, such design could be an excellent teaching tool for beginner and intermediate players. They'll get feedback about what they did right and what they did wrong, as well as suggestions about how to make better play calls and better reads. And then they'd have the opportunity to practice what they just learned so they can feel confident enough to employ it in the next game. It would also be a boon to online Franchises, since it would give each individual user the tools with which to analyse their own strengths and weaknesses, compare them to their upcoming opponent (also a human player), and make any necessary changes to their scheme or plan.
Drills that improve specific skills
Previous versions of Madden actually had drills and workouts that improved only specific sets of skills. For example, bench pressing could improve strength and blocking, running 40-yard dashed could improve speed, etc. While I don't necessarily want these combine-type drills to return, I would prefer to see drills that are oriented towards specific player skills.
I think a good compromise would be for specific drills to offer general experience, but also to provide some bonus towards the specific skill(s) being practiced. This could be handled in a couple different ways.
Drills could lower the cost of leveling up the relevant skill(s). For example, running the tackling drill would provide general experience that could be applied to any attribute that you want. But it would also lower the amount of experience required for the next level of the tackling skill, thus making it easier for you to improve that skill.
More drills should be added to game prep, and they should provide bonuses for specific relevant skills.
Another alternative would be for such drills to provide temporary boosts to the relevant skills. Using the tackling drill as an example again, it would provide general experience that can be used for any attribute, but it would also provide +1 to the player's tackling skill for some duration. This duration could be as short as 1 week, or it could last for several weeks. Getting a higher ranking in the drill could perhaps increase that boost, or lengthen the amount of weeks that the bonus applies.
More drills would have to be added to the game in order for this to work. We'd need drills for running backs to practice identifying gaps to run through (to improve vision or awareness), Omaha drill for offensive players to improve their break tackle or truck skill, catching drills to improve receiver catching, block-shedding drills to improve defensive linemen abilities, and even special teams drills like coffin-corner punting and field goals.
The last feature that I want to propose for Franchise's "Game Prep" should be a simple one: a weather forecast. Somewhere on the Franchise home screen, where it displays your upcoming match-up, there should be a little widget that shows the weather forecast for the upcoming game. This way, you'll have a good idea what kind of weather to expect in your upcoming game, and can plan accordingly. Clicking the widget could maybe bring up a map of the U.S. that shows the weather forecast in all cities that have teams.
A mock-up of a weather forecast.
Gonna be really windy or rainy? Maybe you want to adjust your playbook and priorities towards running the ball instead of passing. Gonna be super hot and humid? Maybe you want to get some extra practice reps to some backups in order to spell starters that may get fatigued? Of course, this all assumes that weather would actually have significant effects on player performance.
The weather forecast could even be a 7-day forecast, and weather effects could be optionally applied to your practice and drill sessions. Maybe the user can even have the option of flying to the destination city earlier in the week to practice in the local weather conditions. This would give you a chance to chose whether or not to practice in the elements in order to make sure your players and play calls will work in those conditions. It also wouldn't be bad if teams or individual players had some kind of weather tolerance attribute, so that the Dolphins (for example) might suffer major breakdowns while playing in snow, but are more tolerant of heat and humidity; whereas, the Packers are virtually unaffected by cold conditions, but may struggle more in a hot, humid environment. A quick and easy way to deal with this might be to have weather conditions affect the confidence ratings of players and the team.
Of course, weather is volatile and difficult to predict, so the actual game conditions could always vary somewhat from the predicted forecast. So there could still be a bit of randomization whenever a given game is loaded.
Making the preseason meaningful and fun
As I stated in my Madden 16 review, the preseason actually ends up being my favorite part of the Franchise mode. It gives me an opportunity to try out my new draft picks and free agents, and it's one of the few times in the Franchise in which I feel like I get to make genuinely meaningful decisions - the kinds of decisions that real coaches and managers have to make. So even though NFL fans and analysts keeps talking about considering shortening or eliminating preseason, I actually want EA to make an effort to make the preseason more fun and interesting from a mechanical standpoint.
I don't think Madden's preseason substitution logic is ever going to work correctly as long as the depth chart continues to work as it currently does. Instead of a player's status and position being determined by their current position on the depth chart, players should actually be assigned a "starter" tag. They are removed from the depth chart when backups are subbed in. Think of it as "subbing out your starters", rather than "subbing in your backups". This would prevent starting running backs from showing up as slot receivers or kick returners, and would prevent starting linebackers from showing up in punt coverage, etc.
Being able to put a "starter" tag on a player should prevent preseason situations like this.
Alternatively, the game could store two separate depth charts. One would be the regular season depth chart, and the other would be your temporary preseason depth chart.
Improved substitution logic, options, and progression
A closely-related improvement is that the A.I. should sub deeper into depth chart during preseason. Currently, the CPU team subs out their starters at the beginning of the second quarter, and then that's it. Those players play the rest of the game, unless someone gets hurt or fatigue forces a temporary auto substitution. The CPU coach will never substitute in his undrafted rookie wide receiver in the second half, and so that character doesn't even have an opportunity to make a big play and possibly gain enough experience to further develop himself. Another option is to sub make substitutions after a certain number of possessions instead of after a quarter. Starters could play one or two possessions (more in the later preseason games), then the second string can play six or eight possessions, then deeper reserves can be subbed in. If decent substitution logic is just too hard to code, then just give the user control over the CPU's depth chart during preseason games!
Because of this, Madden's franchise lacks any mechanics for creating exciting break-out players year to year. First round draft picks might have decent enough ratings to get good playing time and improve their skills, but that's about it. So I would like for teams to experiment more with their rosters in the preseason, and for there to be the potential for break-out players to emerge.
Cut days would have more meaning if young players progressed faster.
Experience for younger players should be easier to come by, and playing them in the preseason should maybe even provide bonus experience. There should be more drive goals, weekly goals, and preseason goals for rookies, free agents, and other young players to accomplish, and big plays should award even more experience to those players. I'm not saying that 55 overall players should be able to suddenly turn into 90 overall players over the course of 4 games, but a 70 overall third-string rookie should have an opportunity to progress enough to compete with the 80 overall starters ahead of him.
Having the possibility of quickly turning an undrafted rookie into a superstar might give users the incentive to play the preseason and actually get excited about the possibilities that it allows. And it would make those dreaded cut days all the more meaningful.
Maintaining a "scout team" and practice squad
But even if you do decide to cut that rookie off of your 53-man roster, he shouldn't necessarily just disappear into the free agent pool. NFL teams are permitted to keep up to ten players on an active "scout team". There are rules regulating which players can be kept on a scout team and for how long, but these players are maintained by the specific team and engage in team activities alongside the regular 53-man roster. Rules allow such players to remain on the practice squad for up to three years (with some exceptions), and to be "activated" onto the 53-man roster for up to nine games in a season without losing their eligibility to participate in the scout team. There's already precedent for this in EA's football games: the NCAA Football games included the ability to "Red Shirt" players.
As it stands now, most mid-to-late-round draft players simply aren't good enough to be retained on the roster. They usually have overall ratings in the 60's or lower, and usually end up getting cut in preseason. At this point, they disappear into the free agent pool, where (as far as I can tell) they do not gain any experience or enhance any of their skills. This is a shame, since it creates a static pool of players in which elite players are always elite and poor players are always poor. New players aren't given the opportunity to develop and become elite simply because no team is able to keep them around on their active roster in order to level them up.
MOCK UP of a "Practice Squad" chart showing the players I would have kept on my practice squad.
There's 7 offensive players, and 3 defensive players, including several rookies that I want to continue developing.
Madden 17 could also include a "practice squad" as well, which would be made up of your scout team players and backups from your 53-man depth chart to fill in remaining positions. Or the remaining positions could be random, no-name players generated by the game. Each of the 32 teams in the league should have a scout team and practice squad, and these players should be able to practice and gain experience and confidence just like the other players. They could be used as the CPU opponents in practices and drills, and can earn experience based on their play in those drills and practices. This way, the user doesn't have to go out of their way to explicitly practice with these players (taking practice time away from starters). You can keep your third-string, rookie quarterback and continue to develop him without taking up space in your 53-man roster.
In addition, if a starter gets hurt, you don't have to go to the free agent pool. Instead, you can elevate a scout team player in order to fill in your depth chart. In addition, if a particular scout team player performs exceedingly well in practice, he could receive a large confidence boost, and you can even activate him to the 53-man roster to play in an upcoming game. The CPU teams should all be able to do this as well, and every now and then, some young scout team player should come in to relieve an injured started, have a great game, and be moved into the CPU team's active depth chart.
Now, in order to make this mechanic work, the scout and practice players might have to have some kind of "even teams" setting applied to them. This would be intended to prevent the starters from just steamrolling over them in practice, thus giving the user a better idea of how their players would perform in a live game situation. It would also prevent the starters from performing exceedingly well in practices and getting excessive experience boosts, and it allows the scout players to perform at a more comparable level, so that they do gain experience. So while storing an extra ten players on a team roster should be trivial, balancing the practice mode so that the mechanic is functional could be a bit more tricky.
Now let's move on to features that should be part of the actual football games themselves.
Blocking assignments and "hot blocks"
Several years ago, NCAA Football completely overhauled their running game mechanics for the read option. Part of this overhaul was a feature in which each blocker's specific assignment would be displayed when the user view's the play on the field with the coach cam. You could see exactly which defender each blocker expected to block, and who would be left open for you to read.
Madden 12 used to show all blocker's individual assignments.
This feature was ported into Madden for a couple years, but has since vanished to the land of the QB vision cone where Madden features go to die. But unlike the QB vision cone, this is a feature that I would really like to see come back! I'd like to know whether or not my guard is planning on double-teaming the nose guard, or if he's going to block the linebacker that's sitting in the A-gap showing blitz.
I'd even like to see this go one step further. Madden 17 could hopefully also include some "hot block" options equivalent to receiver hot routes. This would allow the offense to adjust their blocking scheme to assign a specific blocker to a specific assignment. If I see a blitz, I should be able to tell my guard to block the blitzing linebacker. If a particularly powerful nose guard has been stuffing my power running game, I should be able to force a guard to double team him. These sorts of features are already in the game for running backs, who can be hot routed to block left or block right, and linemen already have the shift option. So I don't see any reason why more specific alterations couldn't be made to blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage.
Accelerated clock management
With the last few iterations of the series bringing in a pseudo-physics-based tackling engine, new defensive line mechanics, and upgrades receiver logic and controls, the largest gap in on-field gameplay are in special teams and clock management. Let's start with clock management, specifically, the two-minute drill.
The accelerated clock is quite possibly the greatest feature that has been added to football games in the past decade. It enables a comfortably-paced, realistic, full-length game with 15-minute quarters. But for some reason, the developers of Madden think that this genius feature should be disabled in the part of the game in which it is most necessary: the two-minute drill! This is the point of the game in which simulating the time it takes to huddle and call a play is most important! In some situations, it's actually quicker to mash X to go into the play-call screen, quickly pick a play, and then audible from the line of scrimmage instead of rushing up to the line. This can be achieved with only two or three seconds being ticked off the game clock, and is completely unrealistic. The accelerated clock should stay on in the two-minute drill!
The ball shouldn't magically teleport to the new line of scrimmage on hurry up plays.
In addition, the game should include animations of the officials picking up the ball and spotting it between plays, and this should extend to hurry-up plays. The ball should not magically teleport to the new line of scrimmage. Spotting the ball takes time, and that time could make a difference in the game. That should be represented in Madden. You guys added these fancy referee character models, so use them for something meaningful!
Delayed kneel down and "rugby punt"
And on the opposite side of the spectrum, teams that are trying to run out the clock should have additional options to try to run a few extra precious seconds off. When selecting the QB Kneel play, the user should have control of when the QB performs the actual kneel. After snapping the ball, the QB should stand in the backfield until the user presses a button. Perhaps the "dive" button? Another [safer] way of handling this would be to allow the user to hold a button after snapping the ball in order to delay the kneel. The QB would then delay the kneel until the held button is released. Holding down the "snap ball" button could work.
In either case, this allows players to run a few extra seconds off the clock, but at the risk of keeping the play live longer. An unblocked A-gap blitz (a so-called "Nano Blitz") could potentially allow the defense to get to the QB and possibly strip the ball for a game-changing play.
Dustin Colquitt executes rugby punts.
A similar option could be added to punting plays, such that the user can deliberately delay the punt. This "rugby punt" is gaining popularity in college football. The punter will receive the snap, then run off to one side or the other to eat up a second or two before punting a squib punt down the side of the field. While the resulting punt may not get as much hangtime or distance as a normal punt, the delay runs a valuable second or two off the clock, gives the coverage team more time to get downfield to stop the returner (or force a mistake), and it forces the return team to have to respect the possibility of a fake punt every time. I think I've seen this style of punt once or twice in the NFL, so it would be a nice addition to Madden (especially since there's no college game anymore).
Rugby-style punting is being utilized by some teams in the NFL (with out without the slide or the delay), and Chiefs punter Dustin Colquit (under the coaching of special teams guru Dave Toub) has been effectively rugby kicking for at least a year or two. It's only a matter of time before more teams catch onto this, and Madden has a chance to be ahead of the curve by implementing it before the majority of the league has already adopted it.
Special teams snafus
Next up, I really don't know why formation substitutions were taken out of the game.There should be more detailed special teams depth chart that allows you to set who is on your coverage squads. At the very least, there should be some positions on the depth chart for coverage "gunners", and "Kick Coverage" should maybe be a player skill that determines how good they are at avoiding blockers and taking the correct angle towards the returner. I'd also like to see a depth chart position for "Holder". Some teams use a backup QB as a holder. Some teams use a punter. Some teams use Tony Romo, and then immediately regret it.
Botched snaps and holds should be possible (but very rare) in Madden.
It's also virtually impossible to block field goals and punts. This is mostly the result of the speed in which these plays happen, and the absolute perfection in execution. These plays should be slightly slowed down so that defenders have a split second more to reach the ball and possibly make a block. But the game should also model some of the snafus that happen in real football. Snappers should botch the occasional snap, the holder should occasionally fumbles the ball or hold it "laces in", or bobble the hold and force the kicker to delay the kick, and kickers and punters should occasionally stub their toe into the ground and shank the kick. I certainly don't want things like this happening very often, but they should at least be possible. A "Long Snap" skill should be added that determines how accurate a player is at executing long snaps for field goals, punts, and shotgun plays. Having a long snapper with low skill would increase the risk of snaps sailing over the punter or QB's head or being off to one side. After all, the longsnapper is a dedicated position on the special teams depth chart in Madden, so might as well make it a useful designation! The punter, QB, and field goal holder's catching skill could determine his likelihood of catching an off-target longsnap, and weather could certainly play a role in accuracy as well.
There actually are animations for high, low, and off-target snaps,
but they are mostly meaningless, since they never result in a broken play.
A really common-sense feature is that users should be able to audible into a max protect punt formation if the opposing defense lines up in an obvious punt block formation. It rarely matters in Madden currently because the perfect execution and speed of the long snap and punt means that punts are (as far as I'm considered) impossible to block. I haven't seen it happen in a Madden game in years. But if my suggestions from above are incorporated into the game, and long-snapping is based on a player skill, and punters, kickers, and holders have a risk of botching the execution of the play, then audibling into a max cover punt suddenly becomes essential! It was allowed in earlier versions of Madden, so I'm not sure why it was ever removed.
UPDATE 25 NOV, 2015:
Madden 16 apparently does allow the user to audible to Max Protect Punt at the line of scrimmage. I'm not sure if I just missed this function, or if it is something that was added via a post-release patch. In any case, this is something that has come and gone in various iterations of Madden, but it should always be present. EA has no excuse to remove it.
Onside kicks and lose ball recovery
Another area that Madden seems to perpetually get wrong is onside kicks. Granted, onside kicks are exceedingly difficult to execute in real football, and I don't think any football video game has ever gotten them right, but I'd still like to see improvements in this area. I rarely even bother attempting onside kicks because the mechanics for executing them are so vague, the ball rarely seems to bounce or pop up in the air as you expect, and the receivers always seem to magically suck the ball into their hands with no effort and no risk of botching it. Even when EA made a big deal about adding surprise onside kicks to the game (following the Saints executing one to open the second half of the Super Bowl), they still didn't bother putting in the effort to actually make the damned things work.
Onside kicks are difficult in real life - but they don't even work in Madden.
In fact, lose ball situations is something that Madden has always handled poorly. In 2010, EA added the "Fight for the Fumble" gimmick as part of its [quickly abolished] PRO-TAK system. But rather than gimmicky button-mashing events, EA just needs to put in some better rolling and bounce physics.
Receivers shouldn't have magic
suction grip on onside kicks.
On punts, kicks, and even fumbles, the ball never seems to perform those weird hops and skips that you often see in real life as a result of its oblong shape. Instead, when it hits the ground, it usually just rolls or glides along a straight path. If you're trying to coffin-corner a punt, this usually results in the ball just sliding out of bounds or through the end zone. It never bounces up into the air, or backwards (forcing the coverage team to quickly down it to prevent giving free field position), and nobody in the game ever seems to have any trouble picking up the ball.
With better bounce physics, maybe the difficulties with onside kicks will simply resolve themselves, but EA would still need to adjust the kick catching mechanics so that receivers aren't still just sucking the onside kick into their bodies. Madden 16's new catching mechanics could probably be adapted for onside kicks and lose ball situations. Players could have the option to press one button to conservatively wait for the ball to come to him (at the risk of another player getting to it first) and then fall and cradle it in his abdomen. Another button could be assigned to make a more aggressive attempt to pick it up and run with it (with a high risk of bobbling and dropping it, or having the ball bound over his head, through his hands, or between his legs). And the aggressive button would allow the player to dive for the ball. Yet another button could maybe even be allocated for kicking or swatting the ball away (at the risk of a penalty).
Fumblers need to be more aware
and make an effort to recover the ball.
Such controls could work for recovering a rolling ball (such as in a fumble or squib kick) as well. They could also readily serve for onside kick recovery as well, with the player having the option to make a wait for the ball to bounce to him, run up to recover the ball, or leap to catch a pop-up kick at its highest point. It also wouldn't hurt if EA programmed the players who fumbled and who caused the fumble to actually make an effort to recover it, instead of lazily laying on their backs or standing up as if the play is over.
New receiving controls could also potentially be adapted to work for punt and kick returns as well. The "safe catch" button could cause the player (on a punt) to motion for other players to get away from the ball on a squib or bouncing punt. The "running catch" button could be used to stand under the kick and field it as usual. The "aggressive catch" button could be used to allow the returner to run up to an under-kicked or over-kicked ball to make a risky attempt to field it (at a high risk of muffing the return). And fair catch could be assigned to the same button as the "swat ball" command for DBs (R1 button on PS4).
Coach's challenge options
Another thing that doesn't really work in Madden is coach's challenges. Specifically, the player has no control over which element of the play you want to challenge. In many cases, this may not be a problem, but sometimes can be a real difference-maker.
You could have a situation in which a fumble occurs, is picked up by the defense, and the returner runs along the sideline for a touchdown. Say you think the offensive ball-carrier was down by contact, so you challenge the play. But the game decides to challenge whether the returner stepped out of bounds, which he obviously didn't. You had no way of knowing that the game wouldn't allow you to challenge the fumble, but you wouldn't have made that choice if you had known. But you didn't know, and the game doesn't give you the option.
At the very least, the challenge option should specify what element(s) of the player will be reviewed. So the button shouldn't just say "Challenge Play", it would instead say "Challenge the spot of the ball", or "Challenge the fumble". Ideally, the game should give the player options on what they want to challenge. Elements that can be challenged should include:
NFL 2k5 allowed the player the challenge
specific elements of a play.
- spot of the ball,
- stepped out of bounds,
- down by contact / fumble,
- catch / no catch,
- catch in/out of bounds,
- incomplete pass / fumble,
- illegal forward pass,
- hit while arm was moving,
- reviewable penalties - maybe even 12-men-on-the-field?
UPDATE 28th January, 2016:
The "Little Things" section that used to be in this post has been moved to a new post that focuses on offseason changes and other miscellaneous changes.
The pieces are all here; EA just needs to put them together
I think these suggestions have shown that a lot of the pieces of a truly great football experience are already present in Madden 16. They are just incomplete or don't properly interact with one another. By taking many of the pieces that already exist, and tweaking them to inform other elements of the game's existing design, EA can create a truly great football game that could rival all others in depth, complexity, accessibility, and replication of the sport, finally step out of the shadow of NFL 2k5, and make a game that John Madden would be proud to put his name on.
EA just needs to decide whether they want a truly good football game, or if they want a micro-DLC-fueled arcade cash cow. I know that it is unlikely for all of these suggestions to make it into Madden 17 considering the short development cycle, but I feel that these suggestions should provide a blueprint for the direction that the series should take over the next couple years.
And if they want, maybe EA can even throw in options allowing female players and coaches.