Well, here we are at the end of the NFL season already. Seventeen weeks are in the books, and the 2016/2017 playoffs are in full swing. As we prepare to say goodbye to the 2016 NFL season, it's also time to start looking ahead to the future of the Madden video game series.
I was really happy to see that the practice squad and weekly training added to this year's game. I feel that this allows for more realistic development of players over the long term, and it makes the draft feel more worthwhile since you no longer have to cut your late-round draft picks. Despite being a good thing to have, the practice squad feature has some problems.
Being able to see all of a player's ratings make it trivially easy to poach other team's practice squad players.
For one thing, determining who to start and who to throw on your practice squad is a pretty trivial process of comparing numbers in a spreadsheet. Heck, you can usually get away with just comparing a single number: their overall ratings. Practice squad poaching is another problem. Any player with a rating above 70 is likely to get poached off of your practice squad by another user (even by CPU teams). The reason for both these problems is that it's trivially easy to know how good any given player is - the game shows all their ratings right there in the menu. You don't need to put either of them head-to-head in practice or put them on the field to see how they perform. The ratings dictate performance, and the ratings are publicly available.
Uncover rookie ratings during training camp
How can we resolve this problem of practice squad poaching? Well, we can hide rookie ratings until you actually practice with them and play them in games. Much like how the true ratings of players in the college draft are hidden until you scout and/or draft them, the game could also hide the true ratings of incoming rookies.
This opens the possibility of a training camp feature being a valuable tool for player assessment. I've already proposed a training camp feature in my previous wishlist, but this idea could supplement that. As you put players through your training camp, you'd slowly uncover their true ratings by performing various Skill Trainer drills or other practice activities and scrimmages. Then, once the season begins, you would reveal further ratings through weekly training and by playing the players in actual games. This would also have the effect of adding further value to preseason games, as you'd use those as a proving ground to hopefully uncover any remaining key ratings for your young players. You'd actually have a genuine reason to play them in games because you honestly wouldn't know how well they'd perform.
Perhaps the ratings of incoming rookies should remain hidden, even after they are drafted?
In order to prevent (or at least limit) practice squad poaching, ratings that you unlock would remain hidden to all other teams, so that they won't be able to simply compare overall ratings with their own players. Once the regular season starts, each team could then maybe have the ability to spend some of their college scouting points on scouting other teams' practice squads looking for players that they could poach. Doing so would gradually unlock some practice squad player ratings.
There could also be a set of publicly-known ratings for each player that would be known to all teams in the league. These would be unlocked as the given player plays in games, and playing in nationally-televised games (such as Monday night) could maybe even accelerate the unlocking of ratings. So players who have been in the league for a long time, and who have lots of public game film would be more of a known quantity. We would all know how good Tom Brady is, but we wouldn't necessarily know how good Jacoby Brissett is until he actually plays some games.
The entire NFL knows that Tom Brady is a superstar, but not as many people know just how good Jacoby Brissett is.
In the meantime, the game could provide some more "fuzzy" ratings for players whose true ratings are unknown. Either keeping the grades that are used from college scouting (A, B, C, D, etc.), or by providing ranges for unknown ratings (e.g. a player's catch rating is between 75 and 85).
One thing that such a feature would also enable is meaningful positional battles in practices. Without knowing the exact ratings of players on your roster, determining who to start at a given position isn't a simple matter of just comparing their numbers. Instead, you may have to actually practice with them in order to find out who plays better based on your schemes, play-calling tendencies, and even your own play-style - or even who performs better in specific plays. Once training camp is over and the season begins, you'll still be somewhat uncertain what your players are capable of. I'm pretty happy with the current Skill Trainer-based practices, but that doesn't mean that we can't also have some kind of positional battle practice mode.
Perhaps a strong performance in training camp
and practice could lead to a positional battle.
If one guy has a good week of practice, he may be elevated over another player on the depth chart. Granted this happens less often in the NFL than in, say, college football, but it can still be relevant with rookies, and can definitely come into play during preseason. Even if a player doesn't necessarily earn a start, he may be granted some more playing time due to an exceptional week of practice. The play-calling screen could maybe have a button that allows such a player to be subbed into certain plays in certain situations.
Searching for players
With all this unknown information in the game, there would need to be new tools for searching through available players, since many practice squad players and free agents would have many hidden ratings. New filters should be added to the roster and free agent screens in order to accommodate this. There's already a "practice squad eligible" filter, so there should also be filters for things like "players with all ratings known", "players with most ratings known", "players with some ratings known", and players with no ratings known". Maybe also "players with key ratings known".
This would allow users to quickly find players that meet their needs. Looking for a reliable veteran free agent to replace an injured starter at a key position mid-season? Search for free agents with "all ratings known" so that you'll know exactly what caliber player you are getting. Or maybe you're looking to find some hot young talent who is being under-utilized by his current team? Search all teams' practice squads for "some ratings known", and spend some of your weekly scouting points to evaluate some of those guys and unlock some more accurate ratings.
Let's look at an example of how this process might work:
To examine how this all might work, let's look at a hypothetical draft pick: cornerback Luis Shipp from Florida A&M.
Scouting and drafting Luis Shipp
Luis Shipp is expected to be drafted in the 4th round. I spend my weekly scouting points to find out that he has B in zone coverage, a C+ in man coverage, and C in press coverage, and my scouting reveals that he's actually a late 3rd-round talent. Any other team that scouted him would have the same information. The combine comes along, and I find that he's in the top 5 of cornerbacks for speed and agility in this draft class, and this may reveal that his speed and agility ratings are somewhere around 90. I put him on my watch list and draft him at the end of the third round.
Step 1: My college scouts discover estimates of Luis Shipp's ratings and draft position.
Luis Shipp in training camp and preseason
He goes into training camp with most of his true ratings still hidden. His player card might list his zone coverage as "B", or it might provide a range of values such as "75-85". His overall rating might be given to me as "C" or "65-75". After some training camp drills, his ratings are narrowed down to 83 for zone coverage, 77 for man coverage, and 74 for press. Training camp also reveals that his true speed rating is 92 and his agility rating is 91. Training also reveals that his tackle rating is "D-" (or "55-65" if we're going with number ranges), his pursuit rating is D+ (or "67-73"), and his awareness and play recognition are both "D-" (or "55-65"). Maybe training camp also reveals that he has an "A" (or "87-93") rating for kick return.
Step 2: Shipp has a decent preseason, plays well in zone coverage, but gets beat deep a couple times in man coverage.
At this point, I know how good of a cover man he is, as well as a good idea of how well he tackles and pursues and how good he is are reading and reacting to plays. His overall rating has also been narrowed down to "70-76". Other teams, however, only have the public information from the combine - except for any other teams that scouted him and know he has a C man coverage, B zone coverage, and C press rating. They don't know that his man coverage rating is on the high end of an C grade (i.e. 77), nor do they have any idea of how good of a tackler he is. And they certainly have no clue that he might be a star kick returner.
Then preseason comes along, and he gets lots of playing time. His precise tackle, pursuit, awareness, etc. ratings might all be revealed to me, and approximate ranges for some of those attributes might be revealed to the teams that I play against during those games (since they get to see him first-hand). I've also started unlocking estimated ranges for many of his other attributes as well, such as hit power, block shedding, and so forth. By the end of preseason, I can see that his overall rating is around a C- "67-73", and it comes time to make roster cuts. I already have some good, young cornerbacks, and some veteran backups in the last year of their contract, so I stash him on my practice squad so that I can develop him for next year.
Step 3: [MOCK-UP] Luis Shipp gets stashed on my practice squad. I know many of his true ratings,
but potential practice squad poachers (like John Fox) don't.
Let's break-down this mock-up player card:
This mock-up shows John Fox of the Chicago Bears attempting to poach Luis Shipp off of the Raiders' practice squad. But John Fox doesn't have a very good idea of what Luis' true capabilities are. In this example, the presence of question marks (?) indicates that the rating is only a "guess". The actual rating is believed to be in that range, but might actually be a little outside that range. So Shipp's Play Recognition is believed to be in the D range (60-69), but may in fact be slightly lower or higher. Maybe it's 58, or maybe it's 71? Since Shipp got play-time in the preseason as a cornerback, his man and zone coverage ratings are more accurate. Zone coverage is confirmed to be in the B range (80-89). But is it a low B (like 82), or a high B (like 88)? John Fox doesn't know.
In the background, you can also see some ratings listed as "??" for other players. These ratings are completely unknown because that player has either not played enough, or hasn't displayed those skills in-game yet. In one case, there's an actual number, which means that the player's rating is confirmed.
Shipp's overall rating is listed as being somewhere between 65-75, but also has a question mark (?), which means that his true rating might still be outside of that range. In effect, John Fox has no idea what he's getting in this player, except that he's a good zone coverage man and mediocre-at-best at man coverage. Poaching this player with this many unknowns would be a huge gamble. Fox could spend some of his weekly scouting points to try to narrow down Shipp's ratings, but doing so would limit his ability to scout college players in the upcoming draft.
Luis Shipp spends a year on practice squad
That following year, after buffing a few of his attributes with exp from weekly training, he gets more training camp time and preseason time. More of his ratings are narrowed, and I find that he has an overall rating of 70 as a cornerback (including the extra attribute points that I've spent on him over the past season). Once again, he goes onto the practice squad. But this year, my kick returner gets hurt. I activate Luis Shipp from my practice squad. He's my fourth cornerback, but I start him as a 90-overall kick returner and he has a breakout season as a returner.
I use the experience from his successful kick returning to pump up his coverage and awareness / play recognition ratings, and in his third year, Luis Shipp is my starting kick returner and nickel corner.
This proposal can solve multiple problems
In the current Madden mechanics, Luis Shipp's true overall rating would be revealed (to everyone) as soon as I draft him. I - and every team in the league - would know that he's a decent-but-not-great 70 overall cornerback with good kick return attributes. If I stick him on my practice squad, he'd probably get poached by some other team that needs an extra nickel back or returner. I'd have no real reason play him during preseason (other to potentially give him exp from game performance and weekly goals), as I'd already know exactly what I have in him. I'd probably also be stuck having to keep him on my active roster (if I wanted him), since I'd know that he'd likely get poached off my practice squad.
But with this proposed long-term evaluation mechanic in place, his true talent remains mysterious enough that playing him during preseason becomes a necessity. Poaching would require some investment by the poaching team, as well as some risk. It would no longer be an automatic process, and it would add further strategy to the game. And as a side-effect, preseason is actually worth playing now!
This proposal also potentially solves another of Madden's long-standing problems: poor CPU preseason substitution logic. With this mechanic in place, the CPU can be programmed with new preseason logic that looks at what players still have unknown ratings on their roster, and they could be smart enough to substitute those players into preseason games during the third and fourth quarters in order to unlock more ratings.
This proposal can also potentially solve the long-standing problem of poor CPU preseason substitution logic.