The NFL season has come to a close and now it’s onto the playoffs. Twelve teams will battle for the opportunity to be called champion, guaranteeing that the fanbases for 31 NFL franchises will be disappointed, but one will not! After going my entire childhood without being a part of that one, I’ve enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as a football fan for my hometown New England Patriots have had a pretty incredible run of luck. Yes, that means a bunch of people now hate me because the football team that is geographically closes to where I reside happens to be both good and therefore detestable, but so be it. It will all end one day and this unprecedented run of success will become a story I tell my grandkids as my own grandparents did of the Boston Bruins of the 1970s or the Celtics of the 60s. For now I will continue to savor the ups and the downs as the season goes on.
Every football season I inevitably return to an old, beloved, game: ESPN NFL 2k5. This was the last Sega-produced NFL title before the league entered into an agreement with EA which would make it the sole holder of the NFL and NFLPA license to this day. It was a disappointing day for me, and it took me years to move on and actually buy a Madden title. And I still don’t purchase one annually as I haven’t bought a copy in 3 or 4 years. And it took me awhile to admit that Madden had finally surpassed my beloved 2k5, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy playing it to this day.
I enjoy it enough that I’ve done this post before. When I first posted about the game I was basically just dabbling with it momentarily. Since then though I have actually played it more and more to the point where I’m actually in year 2013 with the Patriots and an aging Tom Brady is still leading the charge against an NFL that has become nearly unrecognizable due to retirements across the league. I’m actually curious when this virtual Brady will tell me he’s hanging up his spikes as the real life version is still going at age 42. Surely, the video game version will not last that long because no one has. I assume I’m nearing the end, but who knows? The only non-game created players on the roster right now are receivers Deion Branch, Antwaan Randle El, running back Tatum Bell, and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren. Everyone else is some game-generated character, many of which share the same fake portrait image so it looks like I have a pair of identical twins starting in the secondary (which is kind of funny because the current version of the Patriots can say the same thing).
In playing a game that is now more than a decade old it’s interesting to see how much the real version of the NFL has changed. Take the shotgun formation as an example (I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you’re familiar enough with football to know what I’m referring to with “shotgun”). In 2006, after this game came out, the average NFL offense utilized shotgun for 19% of its offensive snaps. I don’t know if this data strips out kneel downs and spikes, but it will work here. In 2016, the average team utilized the formation 68% of its snaps! One team, the San Francisco 49ers, even used it for 99% of its plays. And why is that? Well, the game has opened up. Rule changes that went into effect during the offseason before 2k5 was released emphasized illegal contact by defenders which helped boost offense. Over the years, those types of calls have been helped along by additional safeguards for receivers as well as quarterbacks. Teams found that it was now efficient to simply spread defenses out and throw the ball, leading to an emphasis on receivers of all kinds, especially slot receivers, and a deemphasis on runningbacks and fullbacks. Most teams in 2019 don’t even have a true fullback on the roster anymore, but every team in 2k5 does with the game recommending that two be carried at all times.
This is amusing to me because the real life game has come to more resemble video games in some respects. Players often played these game in what purists would call an unreal manner. Lots of throwing, especially deep balls, with quarterbacks taking huge drop-backs and punting practically unheard of. I’ve personally never gone that crazy in my playing, but I also rarely play human opponents. Even playing in a more pass-friendly and aggressive scheme though, it’s actually hard to replicate the modern game in 2k5 largely because defenders can jam and impede receivers down the field without fear of a penalty. Maybe if I tweaked the penalty sliders I could pull that off, but I also think part of the “jamming” is just limitations with the animations and collision detection of a PlayStation 2 game released in 2004. Receivers in general are also notoriously bad at catching in this game so it would be hard based on that reason alone to replicate the high percentage throwing offenses of today.
In playing the game, I find route combinations with receivers are especially more vertical than the modern game probably features (unless you’re in a Bruce Arians offense). In the entire Patriots playbook, I can’t find a proper mesh concept, for instance, which is hugely popular in today’s game. Teams love crossing routes because they create natural pick plays, though the few plays of this type in 2k5 usually just lead to a jumbled mess. I find it’s much easier to to go with posts, go, and the occasional out and slant when playing this game. Fast receivers matched-up one-on-one on the outside are often pretty good at beating their man on a go route, and if you have time, the double-move can be effective. It’s just funny because it’s nothing like what the Patriots currently run, or really ever ran aside from when Randy Moss was in town, but it works here.
More and more though, it’s just interesting to notice the quirks that come up when you’ve played nearly ten seasons of virtual football. I play every regular and post season game on the schedule, only skipping the preseason. In game, few frequent bugs show up. There is one that I’ve noticed where a tight end just won’t be covered by the opposing defense. It always happens when I run a trips-bunch to the right with a single tight end on the left. Sometimes that guy is just all by himself for an easy completion (unless the tight end is stone-handed, a frequent problem with computer-generated tight ends where every pass is an adventure). The funny thing is this only crops up in certain seasons. It was basically one season where it happened a lot, to the point where I stopped using the formation because it felt like a cheat. It stopped once I finished that season, though recently popped-up again, but with the formation flipped and the tight end to the right. The receivers also had normal spacing and weren’t bunched. My current tight end has a horrible catch rating though so I actually didn’t even complete the pass, but I’ll be on the look-out to see if it comes up again.
By far though, the weirdest bug I’ve encountered concerns Philip Rivers. You know Rivers as the quarterback of the LA Chargers. In 2k5, he’s a rookie playing behind Drew Brees. I think he ascended to a starter at one point in my game, but he’s now a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Weirdly though, if I look at league leaders he’s usually near the top – in rushing. Now, as afar as I know, there is no way to play a quarterback at runningback. Maybe if all of your backs got injured in a game the backup Qb would end up there, but I doubt it. I’d guess another skill position player would inherit the role before a Qb. Anyways, that’s not the only thing that’s weird here. What is odd is that his statistics are a mirror image for whoever my starting running back is. I even played Tampa and can confirm that Rivers did not have a single carry in the game, but when it was over he was tied with my back for whatever ranking he was at for various categories. It’s truly bizarre, and just doing a google search on the same returned nothing, but I’d be surprised if this was unique to my game.
Another glitch, this one more annoying, is that I basically lost my fullback position. I don’t know why, but starting at around year 7 of my franchise my backup runningback assumed the fullback position. If I try to edit my playbook things look fine, but when I play a game the problem persists. It essentially has rendered fullback useless as I can’t get the guy into a game. And it means that I need to prioritize run blocking with my third string RB. The only fix I have found is if my starter gets hurt. Tatum Bell recently broke his hand and will be out for 4-6 weeks. For those games I actually get to trot out a legit fullback, who after going years without even a snap to his name, now has two receiving touchdowns. I’ve found he’s a pretty terrible blocker though, despite his rating, so my ground game has actually been pretty awful lately, but at least I have a fullback! A similar, but less annoying, bug is that my third string TE takes all of the I-Formation snaps. If I try to edit the personnel for that package I simply can’t swap him out for anyone else. It’s weird.
Another bizarre in-game bug concerns the kicking game. For whatever reason, it seems like one kick-off per game my controller will be near unresponsive. There’s a huge input delay often resulting in a brutal kick. Since I play on an old model PS3, I thought maybe my controllers were getting less responsive and started playing with my controller plugged in, but that didn’t solve anything. It’s just a bug. On the AI side, many teams for some reason have a lineman as their kick and punt returner. It looks pretty ridiculous to see a big man field a punt, and it also makes coverage pretty simple. Some teams also have a terrible kick-off person where the ball will usually land around the 30 or 35 yard line. It actually doesn’t lead to many long returns as the up-man often ends up catching the ball while on the run, but it is stupid to see. And in all of these seasons, I’ve never returned a kick for a touchdown. One of the criticisms of the prior game was that it was too easy and the designers basically over-compensated by making coverage teams spectacular. I have come close on a couple of occasions, but never sealed the deal.
One other bug I assume is quite common concerns the schedule. The NFL has a pretty simple formula where each team plays its divisional opponents two times each. It then plays one other division in its conference and one division outside its conference which is on a rotational schedule. The remaining games are commonly ranked opponents. For instance, the first place teams from the prior year play all of the other first place teams in the same conference, the second place teams play all of the other second place teams, and so on. This formula should be easy to program, but apparently it’s not or Sega/Visual Concepts got lazy and only programmed so many seasons. My Patriots have played the AFC North every year for the last I don’t know how many. The actual 2004 Patriots had to play the same, so maybe the game only programmed for one rotation through the divisions before it went back to the start and stayed that way. The NFC portion of the schedule generates fine, so I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to play this long, but I have to believe there are people out there who have gone well beyond where I’m currently at.
Even though this version of the NFL is almost unrecognizable at this point, and the bugs I’ve encountered sometimes drive me nuts, I still have fun playing this one. I’m just going to keep on playing it until I don’t enjoy it anymore. Will that come with Brady’s retirement? Maybe, or maybe it won’t. I think at some point I’ll be sick of playing with all fake players, but I’m practically there now and still enjoying it. There are things I do miss from modern games that aren’t here. In 2004, this game was the best at granting absolute control to a pass via the Maximum Passing setting, but it’s not nearly as robust as current versions of Madden. There are times when I wish I could throw a proper back-shoulder pass, or I try to stick a ball out in front of a receiver, and the coverage, only to find the quarterback basically tries to make the pass too catchable and it gets intercepted when really I wanted to make a legal throw-away. It’s also hard to intentionally throw a pass high for a tall receiver to go up and get. And the running game, which felt dynamic and ahead of its time, is no longer that way and it can be frustrating to take a patient approach or to steer the back through a certain hole. Plus, lead blockers are often dumb and will just run past guys or into the back. It’s not as bad as Madden’s “suction-blocking” from the same era, but it’s noticeable.
At any rate, this is my second post on the topic and maybe there will be a third. Who knows? This game is still cheap and easy to acquire and if you were watching football back in 2004 then maybe consider dusting this sucker off and taking a trip down memory lane. You may even decide you never need to play another snap of Madden again.