Breaking Madden: A land where 'offsides' has no meaning

Fumbles are glorious, but over the last few decades, they've been on the decline in the NFL. Let's bring them all back. All at once. And let's destroy as many rules of man and God as we need to.

American football historians will tell you that the football, which was once perfectly round, grew oblong and sprouted its points to better accommodate throwing. They're right, of course, but there's another consequence of the modern ball's shape that is so profoundly vindictive, you might think it was intentional. You drop a baseball, it'll just sit there on the ground. You drop a basketball, it's nice enough to bounce up and return to your hand.

You drop a football, and you are punished. It will fall neatly on its side, or punch into the ground on its end, and you have absolutely no means of intelligently predicting which direction it will go. The next time you see a fumble, pay close attention to the limbs of the folks trying to retrieve it. A second ago they were finely-tuned hyper-specialists; now they are clumsy chuckleheads, legs moving one way as the ball looks like it might bounce left, then arms flailing the opposite way as it takes an unfriendly carom.

They are all unfriendly caroms. Even the friendliest possible carom, the one that puts the ball right into the player's hands, often comes as such a surprise that he's unprepared to grab it. He's like the camper lost in the forest without the good sense to stay put; the rescue parties comb the map, square by square, as the camper confidently marches out of the search grid.

The shape of the football is a cruel punishment, sitting deep within its stitches, waiting to be exacted upon the careless and clumsy-handed. Without a dog in the fight, this is often thrilling to behold. Fumbles are wonderful, and I wish they weren't going away.

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What if I am an old man and all the fumbles are gone? I don't want to think about an underwater Miami, and neither do I want to think about that.

In this week's episode of BREAKING MADDEN, we'll attempt to reverse this trend. Sunday night, the Saints and Panthers meet in an extraordinary match-up. Both teams are among the very best in the league at not fumbling. This will no longer be true. I'm going to try to engineer as many fumbles as I possibly can, and this is how I'm going to try.

Welcome, everyone, to ball security Hell:

Music: "The Cockfighter" from Scott Walker's 1995 album "Tilt"

I. TURN THE SAINTS AND PANTHERS INTO SUPER-TACKLERS.

Playing, as usual, with Madden NFL 25, I edited the ratings of every single defensive player on both rosters. They're now a perfect 99/99 in the categories of Strength, Tackling, Power moves, Hit power, and Stamina.

I also edited their tendencies to max confidence, consistency, and clutch. I'm unable to tell you how much of a difference these actually make, but I'm leaving no switch un-flipped here. I'm the dummy who buys the equalizer for his stereo and pushes every slider all the way up. Some might tell me I'm missing the point. I'm not. I just want to hear it crackle.

II. FOOL WITH THE GAME'S GLOBAL SETTINGS.

Graciously enough, the game allows us to adjust the overall frequency of fumbles, so of course I took full advantage. I also cranked the "fatigue" setting all the way up with the hope that the ball carriers get tuckered out and lose their grip.

The real-life Saints and Panthers play in the Superdome this week, which simply won't do. Instead, I sent them to play in a generic outdoor stadium and set the weather to "heavy snow."

Oh, and as you probably gathered from the video above, I disabled the "offsides" penalty entirely.

III. CREATE GOD-AWFUL RUNNING BACK COMMITTEES.

The likes of DeAngelo Williams and Pierre Thomas are gone. The Saints and Panthers now both have three running backs apiece, and they are terrible, boasting ratings of absolute zeroes in Carrying, Trucking, Stamina and Strength. They weigh 160 pounds in order to make them easy to tackle, and they're seven feet tall so that there's more of them to tackle.

As usual, I found these running backs on Twitter:

As an aside, I'll have y'all know that reading through my responses is one of the highlights of my week. I received around 900 applications this time around. Thanks so much to everyone who volunteered. In the end, I settled on the following six individuals:

Panthers RB: John Short (@johnwshort)

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No worries, m'man! It should be noted that the nuclear football contains safeguards that would prevent anyone who wasn't the President to authorize a nuclear missile launch. The same could not have been said of Soviet Russia's nuclear program.

If any of you ever meet a man named Stanislav Petrov, thank him for perhaps saving your life. In 1983, Petrov, a Soviet lieutenant colonel, received a report from his computer that a missile had been fired from the United States. He dismissed it as a computer error. The computer then reported four more American missile launches. Within a couple of moments, he had to decide whether to notify his superiors, who might well have launched a full nuclear retaliatory attack against the States. Under presumably immense pressure, Petrov decided not to inform his superiors, and the reports were later found to have been system errors.

Decades later, an American peace organization gave him a trophy and a thousand bucks.

Panthers RB: Lana Berry (@Lana)

Lanaberry_medium

A popular contention of the Evolutionist set is that Evolution is as easily proven as gravity. It's so not, but they enjoy trotting out that line while browbeating Creationists. This sport of mocking the reasoning and knowledge of people who were raised to believe differently than they were, in sociopolitical environments that are often quite different and poorer than theirs, is known these days as "militant atheism." Two things about militant atheists: first, they're right, and second, I find them insufferable and I don't want to be around them ever.

Panthers RB: Chris Plante, Polygon editor (@ctplante)

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I poked around to see whether this was a quote or reference from something. It's not! It's original storytelling! Suit up, Plante. Also, for those curious, "Plante" is pronounced by kicking over a wheelbarrow full of Atari Jaguars.

Saints RB: Brandon Stroud, With Leather editor (@MrBrandonStroud)

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Brandon is suiting up because he's my friend and ex-roommate and I am a favoritist, and also because we share stories of childhood, spilled tomato product, and shame.

It's actually the earliest vivid memory of my life. I was with my mom at a Food 4 Less grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska, which would have put me at about three years old. There was this glass jar of spaghetti sauce on the shelf, and I somehow managed to knock it over. It shattered. Spaghetti sauce was all over the floor. My mom assured me that it would get cleaned up and that I wasn't in huge trouble, but I looked up, and this girl -- who was probably around eight but may as well have been 30 feet tall -- just stood there and frowned, man. For the longest time. Just staring me down.

I don't think I've ever felt such enveloping guilt, shame, or uselessness. The first feeling I ever felt that I still remember was shame. That is not an accident. Shame works.

Saints RB: Josh Butler (@josh2butler)

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Thanks to my pal Pete for digging up this quote for me:

Rossini, the great opera composer, could recall only two moments of real grief in his life. One, when his mother died. And the second time was out on a boat when a chicken stuffed with truffles fell into the water and was lost.

It was tricky to find the proper perspective for that screenshot above. Just know that Butler is being catapulted seven feet in the air. The sorrows are just beginning for you, sir.

Saints RB: [ERROR]

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I selected this person's tweet for admission and put this person in the game, but by the time I went back to write this piece, the tweet had been deleted. I know it was funny, but I cannot remember what it was. For a week themed by the dropping of things, this is perfect.

THE GAME.

For this experiment, I completely disallowed passing plays. Both teams called rushes on every play from scrimmage. As for myself, I played exclusively as the defense -- I feel it's important to note that I never took control of any of the running backs, and am in no way responsible for any of the stuff they did.

Stuff like this.

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Chris Plante takes the ball, runs a couple steps ... and then just stands there. I've never seen an AI-controlled ball carrier do this in Madden, but then again, Madden has never seen me arrange a defense like this:

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It was like building a Rube Goldberg football device. I'd put the Panthers in singleback formation so that their running back didn't have a blocking back, and then I'd call a pitch right, and then I'd pick up the other controller and move the entire New Orleans defense to the right side.

Nothing could save these running backs from this.

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Not even the world's most feckless stiff-arm. It's like Plante was signaling a turn on a bicycle or something. See, this is where the aesthetic benefits of making these guys seven feet tall really shines through. There's just so much to tackle.

Every time, I'd send my defender hurtling toward one of these poor suckers with a well-timed hit stick. I feel confident that it is just about impossible to hit fools any harder in this game than I did.

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Injuries were piling up. They suffered broken jaws, herniated disks, and dislocated elbows. By the end of the first quarter, Lana Berry and Josh Butler were the only two backs who were medically able to play. The game's AI actually tried to fix things while I wasn't looking. Without notice, it quietly plugged the real-life fullbacks in at halfback.

NOT ACCEPTABLE. I simply switched to multi-back offensive formations, made the fullback block, and continued about my affairs.

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There's that Josh Butler hit I mentioned earlier. He's seven feet tall, and he got about 11 feet in the air. That is perhaps the furthest from the ground that a football player has ever been.

These poor fellas, man. They didn't like this one bit. One one occasion, Brandon took a massive hit, coughed up the ball, and while everyone else either went after it or stayed put ...

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... he immediately got up and ran off the field. Wrong sideline, friend!

So hey, remember when I told y'all I turned the "offsides" penalty off?

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I really appreciate Cam Newton's arm-flail up there. "That should not be allowed! Oh well. Time to line back up and see whether this will happen an 18th consecutive time."

After abolishing the line of scrimmage, a whole lot of possibilities opened up. I could place one of my guys right behind the quarterback, so that he ran right into me the second he snapped the ball. I could line up 10 yards behind the running back with Controller A, place Controller B on the floor and get a running start with my tackler. And then, like a diabolical sewing machine, I'd snap the ball on offense with my foot just as my guy was ready to lay the wood. It was the saddest of storytelling quilts.

Before long, I was getting pretty good at intercepting pitches.

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Thankfully, the game counted those as fumbles, which I was happy to add to the overall tally.

These offside shenanigans were so fun that I had to expand them to the kicking game. It wouldn't let me try to kick on the opponent's hold, which was frankly a little disappointing.

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Sometimes Madden will tell me, in no uncertain terms, "no."

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"No. You cannot do that. You cannot line up a defender between the kicker and the holder and then tackle the kicker before he gets to the ball. I have spun around in this little box all afternoon and watched as you committed 30,000 penalties, issued felonious quantities of assault, roundly mocked me, and trivialized the fine work that lots and lots of folks put into making a fun video game. But I cannot let you do that."

THE RESULTS.

Since both the Saints and Panthers were on equal footing, I frankly didn't care who won. Under these settings, the game was so extraordinarily time-consuming that I decided to call it quits after a half. (The score was Panthers 23, Saints 9, thanks entirely to defensive touchdowns and safeties.) I simply felt that I had ruined all I could. I mean, you can only burn a village to the ground once, you know?

After one half, this game featured:
- Negative-435 total yards
- 140 tackles
- 144 fumble recovery yards
- 30 fumbles

Yes sir/ma'am, we were on pace for 60 fumbles in a single game. That's more than double the amount that any real-life team has over the course of this entire season.

I was satisfied. Madden was thoroughly broken.

But with 10 seconds left in the half, we had a moment. It was the single most extraordinary moment in the history of BREAKING MADDEN. In fact, it might be the moment of my entire video-gaming life.

I intercepted one last pitch and ran to the end zone. I watched the replay, and Drew Brees caught my eye, and ...

Music: "The Cold Part" from Modest Mouse's 2000 album, "The Moon and Antarctica"

... and he looked up at me and smiled.

He smiled. He understands. He knows.

For more football video game miracles and catastrophes, check out our other episodes of Breaking Madden.

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