Simulation sports games face a difficult burden. They must offer a fun and engaging gaming experience while remaining as authentic as reasonably possible. In this regard, EA's NFL Head Coach 09 manages to strike an effective balance. Although the game lacks the slick presentation of longer-tenured sports franchises, Head Coach brings a strategic depth that one would expect from managing a sports franchise and offers a rewarding experience to those willing to endure hours of menu navigation.
NFL Head Coach 09 places you in command of an NFL franchise. You have the ability to sign and trade players, scout draft prospects, call plays, and perform just about every other task that you can imagine a coach/GM being responsible for. However, unlike EA's Madden franchise, you won't have direct control of your players on the field. As a result, the game is a test of preparation and strategy rather than of your prowess with an analog stick.
Head Coach gives you the option to continue the career of an existing NFL head coach or create your own. As your career progresses, you will learn additional skills, which will, in turn, aid your players on the field. This lets you customize your repertoire to suit a particular style of play. Your performance as coach is tracked via an approval rating. Many factors impact your approval rating, including the completion of designated goals and defining moments during a game, both of which are timely and appropriate. Although winning games consistently is the most effective way to boost your approval, these other factors allow coaches of lesser-skilled teams to placate critics until they turn their franchise around.
The game's interface, though far from perfect, is vastly improved from the previous NFL Head Coach. You are no longer restricted to scheduling specific events or running tedious practices. Instead, the game's tab-oriented menu system provides access to various player and team information, and most actions can be performed at any time. Menus update to keep you apprised of important events requiring your attention to help you manage your time as coach. Although the scope of options is impressive, it can also be overwhelming. Many menu items, such as the roster and depth chart, could have been combined to make navigation easier and, though you can adjust the progression of time, finding the appropriate menu item can still feel like a race against the clock. Even worse, it's easy to overlook critical events (denoted by a small caution sign) while dismissing the constant free-agent auctions. A tutorial tab is provided to explain various aspects of the game, but it still assumes that you have a good understanding of various football-related terms and may be difficult for newcomers to pick up. Even the one-second lag after selecting a menu item can become frustrating because menu navigation constitutes a large proportion of the game.
Despite the navigational woes, Head Coach does introduce many franchise innovations that will almost certainly become staples of the genre. Free-agent bidding allows for all interested teams to participate in a one-minute auction for the right to negotiate with the player. Not only is the process fast, but it also provides every team with an equal opportunity to bid on a player. The interface for trades and contract negotiations has been improved as well. Instead of having you jump back and forth between menus or adjust sliders, Head Coach provides you with a list of preset offer combinations sorted by asking price. Given that the negotiations are limited to two minutes, the pressure is on to quickly evaluate each offer and come to an agreement on terms. Head Coach even includes realistic elements such as restricted free agents, contract holdouts, and the ability to trade future draft picks, all of which add to the game's realism. Although the trading interface has been streamlined, it is not without its share of flaws. Only one-for-one or one-for-many trades are possible, and even then the exact proposal that you are searching for may not be an option. Trades involving more than two teams are also not available and, though the trading AI has been improved from the Madden series, its logic is still flawed. (We got Adrian Peterson via a trade for three scrubs.)
The gameplay in Head Coach uses what appears to be an older Madden engine. Though you have the option to rotate between various camera angles, the graphics simply aren't on par with what you will find in any recent version of Madden. Player textures lack detail, and there are noticeable drops in the frame rate. The action isn't difficult to follow, but the noticeable graphical drop-off from the current Madden will make you wonder how much better the game could have been if the same engine had been used. The in-game audio ranges from something out of an NFL Films broadcast during menu navigation to the in-game berating of players by your coordinators. Although neither is great, the game's audio is functional and doesn't detract from the experience.
Despite the graphical shortcomings, the gameplay in Head Coach can be a rewarding experience. The play-call screen offers numerous ways to select your plays, and you can even defer to your coordinators to make the call. Metrics are displayed to show you the success that each play has had thus far, and they even provide a glimpse into what your opponent has been calling. Penalties are called with realistic frequency, players will occasionally blow assignments, and teams seem to call plays consistently with their real-life counterparts. It is unfortunate that, though many preplay adjustments are available in Head Coach, the ability to audible to another play is surprisingly missing. Despite this, the gameplay feels very authentic.
Head Coach also offers a robust collection of tools to create custom plays and playbooks. Although the concept is nice and the plays are indeed effective, the play creator could have been stronger. The menus in the play creator are unnecessarily cumbersome and, seeing as how the only way to create a play is to modify an existing one, it can be a chore to simply find the formation that you want. Although many receiver routes are included, it would have been nice to be able to actually draw your own routes.
Head Coach also offers online play, but the experience is disappointing. Instead of using the same gameplay engine used in the single-player career, online play consists only of calling plays and instantly receiving the result in an overhead-view drive chart. Although this does speed up the game (games last 20 to 25 minutes), the result is an unrewarding experience that could have been better with some visual representation.
NFL Head Coach features many innovations that are uncommon in sports games and offers an engaging coaching/GM experience. The depth and authenticity with regard to team management are impressive, and there are moments during a game when you actually feel like a head coach. Provided that you are a hardcore football fan and can look past its flaws, Head Coach is an enjoyable game with rich replay possibilities.