John Madden says the NFL is changing, and that's good

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation talked to one of pro football's most revered sages about the state of the game.

Broadcasting, coaching and video game legend John Madden is a busy man these days. He retired from the color commentary business in 2009, but is still working on a number of projects, ranging from constant enhancements to his video game franchise to working with the NFL on key issues. Madden is currently on a promotional campaign for Visa's NFL Fan Offers.

SB Nation caught up with Madden this week to get his Super Bowl picks, thoughts on offensive innovation, player safety, his Super Bowl picks and more.

Are you surprised by the success of your video game?

I've been doing it so long. When we started this we were making a computer game. Trip Hawkins - and this was the early 1980s - was saying there's going to be a day when everyone has a computer and they're going to want to do more on it, including playing games. So he started up a company, EA Sports, and he was going to have three games, football, basketball and baseball. So I was the football game. We got started and it took four or five years to get the first game going because I wanted real football, all 22 guys and all that stuff.


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We got it going and video game hardware started coming up and we started adjusting and adapting. The long answer is we didn't think it'd be that successful because we didn't even know there was going to be video games when we started.

How do you keep the game fresh, keep the experience different?

That's the thing. The game changes. How does the NFL do it keeping their game fresh. One point is the rosters change. If you want to play Denver this past year, you want to play Peyton Manning in Denver, not Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. That's part of it. Next, you're going to want to play as RGIII, you're going to want to play as Colin Kaepernick.

The football part, the part that I'm more involved with, is whatever is in the NFL game, we get in the video game. A lot of those things that you're seeing that are pretty new are here to stay, and they're going to have to be a part of the video game. You know, the pistol, the read option, those things that these guys are doing now ... when we do that, that's going to be a fresh part. And then, how do you defend it? That's kind of where my thinking is now, as a coach how would I defend that. In the video game, what are going to be some of the tools we're going to put in the game to defend those things.

There's still an element out there that sees the read option, sees the pistol as a gimmick akin to the wildcat. Do feel like this is more than a gimmick? Is this a part of the NFL going forward?

Yeah, I think this is part of the NFL going forward. If you look at it, that's why young quarterbacks can play today. Remember years ago you couldn't play in the NFL and win until you'd been in the league at least five years. That's because pro football was different football. Everything was drop-back pass, three-step, five-step, seven-step, seven-step with a hitch. That took a long time to learn and then ball handling, play-action pass; that's what a pro football quarterback was. That was different from a high school quarterback who was probably running wing-t, and a college quarterback who was probably running some kind of different run offense.

Anyway, the thing is now, everyone is playing the same football. They play the pistol, shotgun, read option in high school, they play it college and they play it in the NFL. So these guys are coming in now, they're rookies, but they're doing the same thing in football that they've been doing for four years of high school, four years of college. They've been doing this for eight or nine years. We're bringing in these young quarterbacks now, we're also bringing in these schemes with them, so I think they're here to stay.

The pistol, I think, is a great thing because it's just a shotgun with the backs behind you so you can still have a running game. I know that that's going to stay. How much running quarterback you use, that'll be the question. Is that here to stay or not? There may be some time when they go after your quarterback and you just say ‘the heck with it.'


More: How the pistol changed the game | Inside the NFL broadcast factory


Do you think there's a greater risk for injury for quarterbacks that play that style?

They get banged up pretty good in the pocket too. The end of the run is so damn violent. It's not running the ball. It's not even a single hit in the boundary, but when you run and you stay inside and three or four of those guys hit you, that's a pretty violent play.

I think if you can get the guy to the boundary, like Kaepernick did a couple times last week, get on that boundary and just step out of bounds. If you run inside, you better run all the way and make a touchdown, which he did some of that too.

What did you think about that 49ers game, Kaepernick's performance?

I've been watching him a long time because he went to the University of Nevada, and they would play those night games on weird nights, like Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night. I saw them beat Cal once and was really impressed with him. I thought this kid can throw the ball, he's big, he can run. Then the 49ers drafted him in the second round. Jim Harbaugh knew what he had. It was just a matter of time until he got him in there.

Do you think that gives the 49ers an advantage this week over Atlanta?

Yes, I do. Any defensive coordinator is worried about two things: a running quarterback and a deep ball. You know, don't get beat deep and don't let the quarterback run, because a big part of your defense can't account for the quarterback as a runner, so he gets a free run. Those are the two things I guarantee you that Mike Nolan, the defensive coordinator in Atlanta, is worried about, those two things, the deep pass and a running quarterback.

What's the key to defending those types of offenses?

That's the thing I'm kind of thinking about now, thinking about for the video game. I always think about what I would do if I were coaching it. I would go after the quarterback. I would make him get hit every play or every chance that I could to encourage him to run. Whatever I had to do to take away the option of him handing off and make him run, then I'd go get him.

Now, I don't know, that's a theory. There probably has to be a lot more to it, but that's where I would start.

Do you see a problem in the league with concussions and how they're handled?

Well, they're working on it. Some of the problems they had, I think they're working on catching them early and ruling them a no-go and the protocol getting them off the field and every test they have to pass to play again. They're on the right road, but there's a long way to go on concussions, not only in the NFL, but college football, high school football and all football. You wonder if some of these protocols can be used on every level.

You're never going to eliminate them. You're not going to eliminate concussions. Anytime you hit your head, you have a chance of getting a concussion, in any sport too. I think we have to learn more about it. Part of it is rules, part of it is equipment, part of it is medical studies, knowing more about the brain. I think we're making strides, but I still think there's a long way to go in all areas.

As far as the long-term care for veteran players who are retired, do you like the league's doing enough, or is there more they can do for those guys?

I think that they look into that, and I think that there's always more they can do. There's always more, and it's getting it identified and what do you do about and players speaking out. They put in a new hotline for players, ex-players and their famliy if they have any thoughts of depression, suicide and those things. There has to be awareness, awareness to them, and when they get awareness they start to catch some things and then what are you going to do about it. I think that's the stage now.

To say that everything is fixed and right, not really. I think they're on the road to getting there.

How have you found retirement to be?

It's pretty good. I'm doing stuff with the league office now. I'm on the coach's subcommittee to the competition committee. I talk to coaches, we talk about rules and stuff. I'm a co-chair with Ronnie Lott of a safety panel, so we talk about these things we've talked about ... concusssions, ex-players, the safety of the game.

Predictions for the conference championships games?

First of all, I want to give a disclaimer. I'm not good at this, and I don't believe that I know anything anyone else doesn't know. So, my predictions are guesses, and I change on these too. I would guess the 49ers because you get to a point in the playoffs - and I've always thought this, that even though we're a passing league and we're talking about read options and young quarterbacks and all that other stuff - it's still about running the ball and stopping the run. I think of all the teams in the tournament now, the 49ers run the ball and stop the run better than anyone. And tackling, they're the best tackling team, so I would think them.

The other one's tough. It's hard to go against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in that group. Those would be my two, the 49ers and New England. Again, preface that with it's just a guess.

Tell me about the Visa Fan Offers platform that you're working with?

It's an experience for Visa cardholders to win a contest and spend a day with me. I have a studio. My video game's set up, and I have a big movie theater screen and 63-inch monitors around it. So it's playing Madden with Madden and watching all the games on a Sunday.

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