Sports-management simulations aren't exactly a hot item among North American audiences these days. Some of the more dedicated sports fans have taken to any of the assorted menu-based managers available for the PC, and in Europe, multiple publishers have turned their popular soccer franchises into successful management simulations on both the PC and consoles, but over here, most fans have been satisfied with a new franchise mode in Madden every year, and little else. Of course, hardcore fans aren't necessarily satiated by such casual fare, and now EA is out to prove it can play the management game, too, in NFL Head Coach, a deep, involving management sim that puts you in charge of practically every aspect of a team's operation. From the off-season to the Super Bowl, you'll be dictating everything from practice schedules to contract negotiations, and you can even call the plays in an on-field simulation using the Madden engine. While all of this sounds wonderful on paper, Head Coach isn't quite a smashing success. Too little freedom and too much busywork often combine to make the flow of the game overly sluggish, and the on-field action isn't nearly as exciting or enjoyable as you'd hope. Still, there's a good, solid foundation for a better future rooted in Head Coach's design, and as a first stab at the genre, it gets more right than it does wrong.
While it would have been easy for EA to simply take its existing franchise-mode model from Madden, beef up a few aspects, and shove it onto retail shelves, NFL Head Coach isn't that. This is a franchise mode on serious performance enhancers--the kinds that lead to a major step-up in athletic ability but also harbor a few ill side effects. One thing to make clear from the get-go is that this is not a game for casual Madden fans. If you're the kind of casual-minded player that prefers to skip through most of the menu-based tasks of a Madden franchise mode and doesn't have a ton of patience for busywork, then you're going to find yourself frequently frustrated and annoyed with Head Coach's slavish dedication toward micromanagement. But if you're the type that can't get enough of the management mindset and loves to be the brains behind the brawn, no matter how much micromanagement might be involved, then NFL Head Coach is the kind of game that should be right up your alley.
You begin the game's career mode by building your very own coach. The premise here is that you're either the offensive or defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers, and now you're a hot commodity on the head-coach market. You simply pick your favorite team, and you'll soon find yourself entertaining offers from that team, as well as several others. You'll also get to play dress-up with your coach, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion. There isn't a ton of difference in the physical and facial attributes available, but you can certainly dress him up in some snazzy, team-colored sweat suits or a Tom Landry hat.
The only "free" time you get in the game is during some brief office-hour periods each day. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do here. You can only sign players during a designated "sign players" appointment. The same goes for designing plays, calling up potential coach hires, and just about everything else that isn't checking your e-mail, reading brief news bits from around the league on NFL.com, or managing your depth chart. And even depth-chart management is too tightly regimented here. You only get time for two specific tasks during these free periods, and each single move on your depth chart counts as one of the tasks. So if you want to assign three players to the first team before the next day's practice, you aren't going to have enough time to move them all. How silly is that?
Inflexibility aside, the sheer amount of stuff you can do in Head Coach is enough to make your head spin--at least at first. As a coach, you don't just show up on game day and call the plays. Between every game, you'll schedule a myriad of practices, from simple one-on-one, noncontact drills, to full-on 11-on-11 contact runs. You get 10 reps per practice section, and you can send any combination of first-, second-, or third-string offensive and defensive squads onto the field. The more you practice up individual players, the higher their attributes will go. No player in the game stays at his max potential at all times, and only by giving players a healthy dose of practice-field time can you get them to where they should be. It's not an exact science, mind you. Sometimes, no matter how much you put a player on the practice field, his attribute ratings just won't rise much, and he'll inexplicably start stinking it up on the field. It is mentioned early on that some players just don't jibe as well in a specific offensive or defensive system, but there's no particularly great way to gauge that, and mostly, the attribute rises and falls seem more random than that.
Another interesting, but even more unpredictable, component is strategy and motivation. During practices and games, you can talk to groups of players or individual players on the sidelines. If you feel a player is doing something specifically wrong, you can tell him to take on a different strategy. If your QB, for example, is too often tossing the ball wildly to avoid taking a sack, you can instruct him to protect the ball and not try and force plays that aren't there. The player artificial intelligence certainly takes this to heart, though sometimes almost to a fault. Fortunately, it's easy enough to cancel that advice when it's not benefiting your team.
Outside of strategy, you can try and motivate your players by saying one of two things to them. Each phrase has a different tone, either aggressive or passive. Different players respond differently to different styles of coaching--unfortunately, there's no predictability or measurement of which method ought to work, given the situation. Sometimes yelling at a QB that just threw an abysmal interception will get them on the right track, and sometimes doing the exact same thing at a different time to the same QB will provide a negative reaction. Likewise, there are some phrases that seem like they never should get a negative reaction but do. Why would a running back that just broke a 70-yard rush for a touchdown get pissed when you encourage him and tell him he's doing a great job on the field? In some respects, it's almost a surer bet to just not try and motivate your players, and that's certainly not the methodology of a successful real-life coach.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all in NFL Head Coach is that you are entirely at the mercy of the artificial intelligence when playing a game. You can instruct players prior to the snap to call audibles, do formation shifts, and set in motion--but that's the extent of your control on the field beyond play calling and strategizing. In most situations, the AI does a fully competent job of playing the game of football that you call. But for some reason, the quarterback AI has a tendency to get stupid at the most random times. You could be playing with a fully practiced-up Peyton Manning, and he'll still throw some really bizarre interceptions at the most inopportune times. So you can only imagine what happens when you try to play with a Rex Grossman or Aaron Brooks. Also, there are some plays that just don't seem to work right. Screen passes to halfbacks and wide receivers almost never result in the QB passing to the right receiver to set up the screen, and deep crossing routes often result in a whole lot of players bunching-up, which leads to passes being thrown well ahead of where the receiver actually is.
But with all of this said, NFL Head Coach really can be a fun and addicting game. A lot of this is thanks to the sheer volume of available tasks in the game. You really do get the sense that you're in control of every aspect of a team's business (despite your inability to dictate your own schedule in a freer manner), and the amount of time it will take you to get through all of these tasks is staggering. Simming as little as possible, it took us around 20 hours to get through our first full season. Granted, some of that time was due to the generally slow navigation from task to task (especially on the PlayStation 2 version, which suffers from significantly longer load and save times than the Xbox and PC versions), but considering all there is to do, it's hard to imagine anyone blazing through the career mode without doing a whole lot of task simulation. And simulation of these tasks is not something the game wants you to do. NFL Head Coach is built with the micromanager in mind, so essentially, if you don't take the reins on every major task, the team will suffer for it. This is especially true of practice situations. Simulating practices pretty much guarantees that you'll be walking into a game with a limper squad than you would have if you managed practice yourself, so you'll be far more likely to get your ass handed to you. Obviously, if you're playing with an exceptionally good team, you can still manage to get by and maybe even hit a wild-card spot in the play-offs. But this isn't the norm.
While there are certainly those who thrive on micromanagement and would balk at the notion of simulating past key tasks, the density of Head Coach's design is certain to be too much for some players. With so many off-season tasks to pore through before you even get to training camp, you'll spend hours sifting through menu screens, simulating tasks such as calling up player agents; sitting at a desk; checking your e-mail; drawing up gameplans; and having dry, generally unexciting meetings with your staff. If you've ever heard the old joke about games becoming so realistic that eventually you'll find yourself one day playing a virtual interpretation of your own boring, banal office job, NFL Head Coach might initially seem like the beginnings of that joke come to life. But in reality, nothing Head Coach does is really that different from the typical tasks found in a Madden franchise mode. It's just a much deeper, more granular version of what you've probably already played but without the added benefit of being able to play the football yourself.
For as deep an experience as NFL Head Coach can be, it is lacking in some of its ancillary features. Beyond the monolithic career mode, all that's available is a basic quickplay mode and online multiplayer. The multiplayer seems like it could be legitimately interesting in concept, but once you get online, you'll instead find a rather dull and frustrating experience. The online setup works functionally the same as any other EA Sports game, but once you're in a game, it becomes clear that functional is just about the only positive word to describe it. Without the ability to put your players into practice and build them up prior to a game, you're basically at the mercy of a team's rating. If you play as, for instance, the Bears, you're going to suck it up against just about any team that isn't statistically worse than you--not to mention that you're going to find yourself celebrating a festival of interceptions with the likes of Rex Grossman behind center. Unlike in normal Madden's online mode, where a good player can make even a bad team succeed, Head Coach's online mode once again puts you at the mercy of the artificial intelligence, and no amount of good play calling or motivational speeches can fix this. Not to mention that for some odd reason, you can't do any of the pre-snap controls online. So if you're about to send a running back into a massive wall of defensive players, there's no way for you to audible out into a passing play, or even set tight ends in motion to block on another side. Basically, unless you're willing to pick one of a handful of upper-echelon teams in the game, and you're the type of player that always runs the exact play you call, with no pre-snap adjustments, you're going to have a miserable time with the multiplayer.
On a more positive note, NFL Head Coach does a solid job with its presentation. On the field, you're looking at the Madden engine you have come to know and love over the years. You might see a slightly higher tendency toward goofy animations and visual glitches here and there, but otherwise, the game looks like Madden. Off the field, the developer has done a fine job of making the game fairly easy to navigate. The menus look slick, and for the most part, you should have next to no trouble figuring out where the information you need is. There are areas that don't seem quite as well thought out--there isn't one, all-inclusive injury report that shows on one menu who has what injury and for how long, for example--but these bouts of menu confusion are typically in the minority. The PC version in particular is especially easy to navigate, given the relative ease of the point-and-click mouse and keyboard interface over the controller-based on of the console versions. Not that it's especially difficult to sift through the console versions' menus, but it's just an easier task on the PC. The only things to really complain about are some of the presentational touches found in the old franchise modes. Would it have been such a hassle to bring back things such as the newspaper headlines or the Tony Bruno radio show? It needs something--anything--to give the game less of a dry aftertaste. It's understandable that the developer would generally want to stick to the business of coaching and its tasks, but seriously, don't coaches read the newspaper, too?
Practically all the audio from the game seems to have been lifted from last year's Madden, sound effects and NFL Films soundtrack included. The NFL Films music is used to particularly good effect here, though again, if you bought last year's Madden and turned off most of the lame licensed music, you've already heard this stuff. There's very little voice work in the game, save for some radio chatter from your coordinators when you're calling plays and a few phrases here and there during meetings. There's no in-game commentary, which is certainly more accurate to a real-life sideline experience but also makes the on-field action just a touch blander than usual.
There was a great deal of potential in NFL Head Coach, and that potential shines through in several key aspects of the game. But it's also hard not to be at least a little disappointed by some of its more glaring flaws. The artificial intelligence issues really put a damper on the on-field action, and some of the concepts within the coaching model, such as the motivation system, just don't feel as fleshed out as they could have been. Still, while Head Coach is ultimately an imperfect football-management simulation, it is also, almost in spite of itself, a frequently fun one. Those with a penchant for serious football management are most certainly going to find things to like about it.