NFL Head Coach 09 First Look

We head to Indy for a look at the revived football-management sim from EA Sports.

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INDIANAPOLIS--NFL player ratings shouldn't be an absolute value. Instead, an NFL player's worth to his team is directly affected by the kind of philosophy that team applies on the field of play. An undersized, speedy lineman might be useless to a team that values size and strength, but for a team that puts speed above everything else, those quirks might make him a hot prospect. That's just one of the philosophies behind EA Tiburon's upcoming football-management sim, NFL Head Coach 09, a game that is trying a number of different things to update and improve on the original, released back in 2006. While in Indianapolis for the 2008 NFL Combine, EA showed off a work-in-progress build of the game, which is due for release this fall.

Guide your favorite team to Super Bowl glory or drive your hated foe into the ground. It's up to you in NFL Head Coach 09.
Guide your favorite team to Super Bowl glory or drive your hated foe into the ground. It's up to you in NFL Head Coach 09.

Realistically, NFL Head Coach 09 is a sequel in name only. Quick to admit to the original game's problems--a frustrating interface, sloppy artificial intelligence, ridiculous assistant coaches--the developers on hand in Indianapolis have said that with the exception of the Madden engine that will power the actual on-field games you will coach, everything in NFL Head Coach is entirely new.

One of the essential phrases you hear when producers talk about NFL Head Coach 09 is the idea of "bringing the game to you." That manifests itself most clearly in the coach's clipboard, an all-in-one-menu system that will give you information in one place on practically everything you need to be aware of in the game. Furthermore, beyond using the menu to check your player roster, depth chart, and salary-cap numbers, you can perform the majority of your preseason actions as a coach here.

The game progresses in real time (though you can speed up or slow down the progression at will) and, as you go, various actions will pop up on your screen, which you can choose to act on or ignore. These actions include everything from scouting activities, to making trades, contract negotiations, and much more.

Unlike attending useless meetings in the original NFL Head Coach, the goal is to keep the player always active during the off-season. One of the first steps to doing that will be in deciding what kind of coach you want to be in the game. When you first fire up Head Coach 09's career mode, you'll choose whether you play as an existing head coach or create a coach of your own. Once you've created your coach, you can decide whether you want to play the preseason activities such as the combine and the NFL Draft, or go straight to the regular season and start calling plays. For our Head Coach 09 demo, we went only to the former aspects of the game, with more information to follow on regular season activities.

Each actual NFL coach has a number of attributes associated with him, including roster talent, overall skill, GM skill, personality, and offensive and defensive coordinator. EA didn't spend much time talking about the personality rating and how it will affect the team, but we did note several different personality types while they scrolled through the menus, including stoic, promoter, guru, anchor, and strong.

Although we don't know all of the details yet, apparently the top-tier triumvirate in an NFL team--head coach, general manager, and owner--will play a role in how the game operates. This will be felt most obviously in the game's difficulty; if you take over a team with a weak GM, such as the Detroit Lions, your road to success will be that much more difficult. According to producers, it is possible to get your GM fired, and that decision is at least partially based on the relationship between the owner and you as a coach. Unfortunately, we don't yet know any of the specifics of how those interactions will work.

A good coach is a mix of field lieutenant and mastermind general, getting it done in all aspects of the game.
A good coach is a mix of field lieutenant and mastermind general, getting it done in all aspects of the game.

What we do know is that, as a coach, you can lose your job as well. An overall approval rating is always onscreen to give you a constantly updated look at how the fans, players, media, staff, and management are reacting to the choices you make. The difficulty level in the game will be tied to the real-life NFL teams, from the "pick up and play" New England Patriots, who are loaded on both sides of the ball, to the "insane-level difficulty" (our words, not EA's) Miami Dolphins. Though you can get canned in NFL Head Coach, the game will try to help you along if your approval rating plummets too low, whether by throwing a good player your way, or by helping a current player have a breakthrough in his potential.

Potential, in fact, seems to be one of the most important ratings in Head Coach 09. When looking at talent, it's important to note that players are evaluated in a different manner than they are in Madden. As mentioned before, a player's various ratings are determined by the distinctive types of players your organization is looking for, and therefore the metric is based on a player's ability measured against what your team requires. It seems that establishing a philosophy for your team and then building your talent around those core values will be one of the essential skills for success.

When it comes time to bid for a free agent, you'll do so auction-style, where the highest bidder wins.
When it comes time to bid for a free agent, you'll do so auction-style, where the highest bidder wins.

For example, if your team is built around a speedy, mobile quarterback, a pocket player like Peyton Manning might not be useful to you (not that Peyton would be available to you anyway). The same goes for defense. If your team is dedicated to the Cover 2 defense, you'll need players that are adept in that system; whereas if you're a blitzing team like the Giants, you'll want to put speed as a primary focus. A player's value to his team is determined by a number of factors--some of which aren't actual player ratings--including age, contract, team role, playbook, and more. When considering a player's contract, the organization will tell you whether a player is considered underpaid or overpaid; the team role will define a player's position on the depth chart as a roster-filler or a key player; and the playbook rating will let you know how well that player knows the playbook.

A final value rating will be assigned to a player based on all of these factors, from the guys who should immediately be on the trading block to the indispensable stars who you wouldn't want to trade for anything. All of this information will be found in the game's player roadmap, which is a great spot to check out a player's progression as his career goes on. In addition, there's a team roadmap option that will give you a quick-glance summary of every player on your team, complete with his salary numbers and relative value rating. It makes for an easy way to judge an organization's health for a team you aren't very familiar with.

As a coach, you'll have plenty of opportunities for scouting players: from the combine (though not all soon-to-be-pros will show up), senior classics (where you can scout college teams), and a number of pro days. The skill of your general manager will play into scouting in a big way; GMs with higher ratings will let you scout more players at an event. So if you've got the Colts' GM Bill Polian on your side, you're in good luck; but if you're working for the Lions' Matt Millen…well, Godspeed and good luck.

All of the transactions a real-life team can undertake with players are available in the game, from franchise tags to trades, as well as dealing with restricted and unrestricted free agents. In an effort to make free-agent signing more exciting, you'll be able to bid against other teams interested in the same player in real time, Ebay-style, and the team that bids the highest eventually gets the player. After that, you enter into specific contract negotiations with that player. Instead of having to design the packages by hand, a number of available packages will be presented, giving you lots of options for things such as yearly salary, signing bonuses, and performance incentives. You'll be able to go back and forth with the player for these contracts, and some players might leave the negotiating table altogether if they don't like what you're offering.

Similarly, trades have an element of interactivity that looks likely to spice things up. Here, you can discuss specific trade deals with more than one coach at a time to see who will offer you the best deal. (Just don't try to ask for too much or, once again, you'll end up talking to yourself.)

Other items of note in this early look at the game: A handy glossary that clearly explains all of the minutiae of the business side of the NFL (for things such as free agency, franchise players, and so on). Future draft classes after the 2008 season will include the occasional player based on legends such as Barry Sanders or John Elway. Our favorite? Auburn's "Boar Jackson." The NFL Network's Adam Schefter will appear in the game to give you the occasional breaking news on big trades or deals with players. The game will have unique playbooks for every team, and all of them will be actual plays run by that team. No word yet on a play-creator feature, but our money says it will be in the game.

The developers have worked hard to bring lots of information to the player in a way that isn't overwhelming.
The developers have worked hard to bring lots of information to the player in a way that isn't overwhelming.

Just as with the original NFL Head Coach, EA Sports is taking a chance on Head Coach 09. By reviving the game for the next generation of consoles, the developers have made the smart decision to rethink how players will be interacting with a game that is, by definition, extremely deep and complex. We still don't know how the on-field play will work, or about features such as the online suite, nor do we know how (or if) Head Coach 09 will interact with this year's Madden NFL 09 (the team is currently looking into it), but we expect to bring you all of those answers and more as we lead up to the game's fall release.

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