Something terrible is happening to Cam Newton.
He is being haunted. No one will believe him.
The last time we visited Cam Newton in Breaking Madden, he and the Panthers managed to slog their way to an agonizing 23-9 win. This in spite of the fact that I disabled the offsides penalty and lined up an opposing tackle behind the line of scrimmage at the snap.
The next month, Cam Newton joined the modest list of NFL players who have actually seen Breaking Madden. American hero and Sporting News writer Jesse Spector took the opportunity to show him a couple of episodes. Cam saw the one in which Bo Jackson is an unstoppable man-God, and then the one in which he's tackled 0.1 seconds into every play. And then he looked up and said:
Y'all would do that to Bo Jackson, and then y'all would do that to me.
Mr. Newton, we at Breaking Madden are not in the business of charity, nor celebrity appeasement. We recognize, however, your desire to hold some sort of agency over what happens to you in a video game.
How about this? Let's do this:
Steve Smith plays the wideout position aggressively, to the point at which he's almost his own enforcer. He's also one of the NFL's premier trash-talkers. Last season, while still with the Panthers, he and the Patriots' Aqib Talib spent a whole game stepping in each other's cereal. After the Panthers came away with the win, Smith was asked what happened between him and Talib:
I don't know. You're gonna have to ask him, because he didn't finish the game. Ice up, son. Ice up.
It should also be noted that in that exchange, Smith called Newton a "young great quarterback." A year later, that sentiment seems to have completely vanished. Smith, now with the Ravens, commented last week that Newton doesn't think fast enough. And before he even signed with Baltimore, he talked the most memorable shit of the calendar year to date:
I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they're going to get the best, in-shape 35-year-old guy they can get. If that happens to run through [the Panthers'] Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on, 'cause there's going to be blood and guts everywhere.
Steve Smith is apparently a man so used to blood and guts that when the thought comes to mind, his next thought is, "you don't want that stuff in your eyes, believe me," with the same measured caution you hear from your dad when he tells you you'd better get your oil changed.
So. Let's set the table.
I. STEVE SMITH, SR. NOW PLAYS DEFENSIVE END FOR THE BEARS.
Central to this narrative is not that Steve Smith plays for the Ravens, but rather that he really, extremely does not play for the Carolina Panthers. The Bears are their Week 5 opponents, so naturally, that is where Smith goes. He will follow Cam and the Panthers everywhere.
Steve now plays on the opposite side of the ball. I didn't touch any of his ratings when I switched him over, because Madden does that automatically. His rating immediately dropped to the 40s or 50s. In other words, a good wide receiver just became the worst defensive end in the NFL.
II. STEVE SMITH, SR. IS UNBOUND BY THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE OR NATURAL LAW.
I disabled the offsides penalty. Every time the Bears are on the field, I'll move Smith behind the line of scrimmage, as close to Cam Newton as I can get him without drawing an encroachment penalty. He moves as a ghost, and is sworn to haunt Newton throughout the entire game.
III. CAM NEWTON IS GIVEN THE GREATEST OFFENSIVE LINE POSSIBLE.
This is the situation for Cam: if he can somehow shed Steve Smith for even a second or two, he'll benefit from the best offensive line any quarterback has ever had. Should he ever manage to hand the ball off, his running backs ought to be able to take huge chunks of yardage.
Of course, these linemen will not even notice Smith, who is standing behind them. They will not believe Cam when he tells them he's being haunted by a ghost. Surviving Steve Smith is up to him, and him alone.
All five of these linemen are seven feet tall and weigh 400 pounds. As always, I found them on Twitter.
if you would like to be in the next Breaking Madden, please share the worst lie anyone ever tried to tell you— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) September 29, 2014
Please welcome your brand-new Carolina Panthers.
Left tackle: Tyler Bleszinski, founder of Vox Media (@papiblez)
Ahhhh dangit. The gig's up, y'all, and so is the jig. I joined Vox Media a little over five years ago, before it was even called Vox Media. It was called SB Nation, and all its employees could fit into a living room. I had duties and responsibilities, and if I didn't get things done, people would notice.
Since then, the company has grown exponentially, which has presented me with the opportunity to disappear. Everyone else in this company is selling ads, writing stories out in the field, designing websites, maintaining servers and doing all manner of other things. It is remarkably easy to create the illusion of doing work when nestled within a collage of people doing meaningful things. I have spent quite a lot of time dickin' around with a video game on the company's dollar.
Someone has finally noticed. Tyler's always been super-cool, but I doubt he's gonna let me slide on this. It's curtains on this nonsense. I'd write a tell-all book about SB Nation, but the only juicy secrets I have are that Chris Mottram brews his own beer, which may be illegal, and Spencer Hall once used his laptop in our hotel bathtub.
Left guard: NOBODY
Longtime readers of Breaking Madden know that this happens from time to time. I pick out the tweets I like the best, make the players, and play through the game, and by the time I'm finally ready to swing back around and write the dang thing, one of our players has deleted his or her tweet. Now I get to wander upon one fewer unnecessary tangent, and it breaks my heart.
I used to do over-the-phone tech support for an ISP. Half my time was spent telling people that their router was the problem, and another 25 percent was telling people that, no, really, their router was the problem. The rest of the time was spent apologizing for field technicians who didn't show up.
Most field techs did their job, but the few who didn't gained such infamy that we learned about them in orientation. They were called "ninja techs," and they were masters of their craft. They would sneak up to a customer's front door, quietly leave a "sorry we missed you" tag on the door, and bail. Multiple customers told me that they watched them literally sprint back to their truck, which they'd parked down the street so as not to be spotted.
That's a phenomenal hustle, and a remarkably sustainable one. Some of my company's service areas were managed by lawless independent contractors who were pretty much accountable to nobody. In these places, techs could screw off in apparent perpetuity. Hey, you didn't ask to be born into this cursed world. You see a way out, you take that shit by the horns. From one professional bullshitter to another: respect.
Right guard: Jonathan Webster (@jweb460)
Oh, so you attended school in the Deep South too, huh?
WORST THINGS I WAS ACTUALLY REALLY TOLD BY AUTHORITY FIGURES AS A KID IN THE SOUTH POWER RANKINGS
10. Pop music is dangerous. The rhythm of pop music resonates with human cells at a fatal frequency and causes cancer
9. Do not watch the movie The Craft. I put it in my VCR just to test it for y'all. It melted the circuits in the VCR because it's of the Devil
8. Your leg isn't broken. Try to stand on it. C'mon, stand up. Try to stand on it. C'mon. Stand on it
7. That snake ain't gonna hurt you. Red to black, friend of Jack. Red to, uh ... that snake ain't gonna hurt you
6. No, Boardwalk isn't the best space. The best space is the Lord God
5. The Devil put dinosaur bones in the ground to trick us
4. Y'all don't need to be shootin' toward the house, y'all just prop up that rock over there and shoot at it
3. Y'all know why the gas can didn't blow up, right? It's a plastic can. You gotta shoot a metal gas can, that way it makes a spark
2. The Civil War wasn't about slavery, it was about freedom
1. [Literally anything that referenced Ephesians 6:5]
Right tackle: Chris DiNardo (@chrisdinardo1)
We aren't finished here. This monstrous offensive line will be going up against:
These are the defensive linemen the Bears will send out there to be destroyed. When asked to share the worst lie they have ever been told, they each responded with some variant of:
Now all y'all are in the game, which means I have made liars of you all. POW.
One more rule: After I line up Steve Smith in enemy territory, I put the controller down. Everything that happens afterward is his doing.
Immediately, a lesson is learned:
Cam Newton should not take any snaps out of the shotgun. Granted, if a tackler lines up nine inches from him on every snap, I'm not really sure of what he should be doing. Just not that, though.
If I were calling plays for the Panthers, I'd probably run a few direct snaps to one of my running backs, just to see whether it would throw Smith off the scent. The Panthers are calling their own plays, though, and they keep throwing the occasional shotgun into the mix.
True to the narrative, Cam really seems to be the only member of the Panthers to recognize what's up. Once I line Smith right next to him, Cam starts looking left and right, tapping his thigh, frantically calling some audible or another. It doesn't seem to matter much.
The poor fellas can't even manage a handoff most of the time. Steve barrels in from behind and bowls over the entire backfield at once.
Cam is losing the trust of his teammates, and it's kind of heartbreaking. What you're seeing here is not a play-action, but an honest-to-God handoff.
Cam hands the ball to DeAngelo Williams, who seems to just kind of hand it back to him. "Ehhh ... you can have it, pal. This one's all you. Knock 'em dead."
This is a disaster, but this story becomes pure tragedy once we realize just how great this offensive line is. This happened just about every time they were on the field.
A few episodes back, I described Tony Romo as the Henry Bemis of football. I want to retract that and repurpose it for Cam Newton. He's stranded in The Twilight Zone, the last quarterback on Earth, gifted with everything he's ever wanted. If only his spectacles weren't broken. There was time now.
We should remember that Steve Smith is not a very good tackler, but even when he whiffs on a tackle, he creates chaos. Cam's linemen are so dang big that real estate is kind of at a premium. Blockers are constantly running into each other. Here is [UNKNOWN PLAYER] tackling his own quarterback, who is ruled down because No. 1 on the Bears was lucky enough to barely graze him.
Cam persevered, though. To be honest with y'all, I expected the Panthers to be obliterated. I predicted that they'd score, at most, one or two field goals by virtue of lucking into great field position. But Lordy, he really hung in there.
Late in the third quarter, the Bears led, 31-17. I took it as a miracle that the Panthers could let an opponent hang out in their backfield all game and still score 17 points.
The true miracle, the one that was to follow, was the one I could not have imagined.
I want to reiterate that I didn't play as Steve Smith for a single second after the snap. I set him up in Panthers territory, then I just let him do whatever Steve Smith wanted to do. For the sake of consistency, I had the Bears call the exact same play every time -- Mike Will Blitz -- but in spite of this, Steve would occasionally decide that he needed to be in zone coverage.
There is nobody out there, Steve. The ball carrier was right there, and you ran away to man a post light-years away from any other player. What are you doing, Steve?
This happened more often as the game went on. It created the illusion of a shred of artificial intelligence that was trying to understand itself, to think for itself. This Steve Smith, it decided, is not a mere replicant of the real-life Steve Smith. It is its own soul, working its way through its nascence, trying to understand what it is.
And I swear to God, I think this Steve Smith looked within himself and recognized himself as a wideout. Not only was he running away from Cam at a greater frequency, he was starting to run routes.
Tell me that's not a receiver route he's running. He's definitely not playing man coverage, nor is he digging into zone coverage. He's even looking back at the quarterback as he runs, just as a wide receiver would.
This Steve Smith has found himself. He has refused to play our little game. He is in open rebellion.
Cam Newton, longer haunted by his spectre, instantly begins to unload on the now-pitiful Bears defense. He has battled back.
Panthers 34, Bears 34, overtime. Carolina has the ball inside Chicago's 30. Cam hands off to DeAngelo, and the Steve of a couple quarters ago would have laid waste to him both. But look. Steve runs off. Maybe he decides he's in the wrong place. Maybe it's a slant route. I don't know.
Final score: Panthers 40, Bears 34 (OT).
Cam Newton: 134.8 passer rating, 31 completions, 39 attempts, 478 passing yards, two touchdowns, three fumbles.
Steve Smith: 24 sacks, two fumble recoveries.
This is the most improbable win in the history of Breaking Madden. That Cam even survived long enough to give himself a chance is remarkable, but Steve's gradual erosion into what he became is difficult for me to explain. I called the same play each time. Nothing should have changed. And yet, he did.
I didn't expect Cam Newton's Panthers to score seven points. They scored 40 in complete defiance. I felt as though Cam deserved to be rewarded somehow. I restarted the game, took Steve Smith off the field, and let Cam do all the nothing he wanted.
Time enough at last: