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Breaking Madden: Jadeveon Clowney's quest for 201 sacks in a game

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Breaking Madden has returned. It missed you.

A year ago, Breaking Madden began as an innocent, fun little series of posts. I created funny-looking players in Madden NFL 25, tweaked the game's settings, and orchestrated some digital slapstick. I introduced a round little man, Clarence BEEFTANK, who could bowl over a half-dozen men at a time. I asked questions of my Twitter followers, and if their answers made me laugh, I'd put them in the game. For quite a while, it was a happy time. It really was!

And then Madden descended into morally empty delirium, driven mad by the rapid erosions of natural law and common sense. It grew more and more displeased with each passing week. Its displeasure gave way to nihilism and malice. The Super Bowl, in fact, was halted halfway through when the game removed all the players from the field, and placed this ... thing ... neatly at the 50 yard-line.

Breaking Madden has remained dormant since that dark day seven months ago. Madden had been broken, both logically and spiritually, in a hundred places. Its ruination was so complete that there was no work left to do.

In this, the second season of Breaking Madden, we move on to a new installment of the franchise (Madden NFL 15) and a new console (Xbox One). The purpose of this series will surely vary from week to week, but broadly speaking, I'll be concentrating a little less on destroying a video game I have already destroyed, and a little more on laying waste to our understanding of the sport of football.

In this week's season premiere, here is how I want to do that:

I intend for this year's top overall draft selection, Jadeveon Clowney, to break Bruce Smith's all-time record of 200 sacks, and I intend for him to record all 201 of these sacks in his first-ever NFL game. Preparing for this nonsense is a two-phase operation.

I. PUSH ALL AVAILABLE SETTINGS IN THE DIRECTION OF MR. CLOWNEY'S FAVOR.

Clowney's out-of-the-box stats in Madden are already pretty impressive, but just for good measure, I've bumped him up to a perfect 99/99 in every category: speed, strength, block shedding, and dozens of others. I've also tooled around with the game's global settings, setting "pass blocking" to zero and "tackling" to 100.

After a couple of test runs, I realized that a little extra finesse was required. It's important that Clowney gets nearly all these sacks, and that he doesn't share them with his fellow Texans, so I edited the rest of Houston's defensive line and pulled many of their ratings all the way down to zero.

This experiment would be far easier, of course, if I turned off the offsides rule. I've done it before. But it's important to me that these are legal, honest-to-God sacks. I want to stress that I left all the rules of American football perfectly intact.

I did, however, take control of Washington, the Texans' Week 1 opponent. Every time, I'd have Robert Griffin III snap the ball with the other controller, then simply leave him to stand still in an empty backfield. Some might take issue with this. Two things. First, if we're going to try for 201 sacks in a single football game, we're going to have to pull out all the stops at our disposal.

And second, defeatism is not set against the letter of NFL rules, nor their spirit. This league is a celebration of loss. Have you ever watched it? It is a towering monument to defeat, stretching from hell to the heavens.

II. REPLACE WASHINGTON'S OFFENSIVE LINE WITH THE WORST PLAYERS ALIVE.

I dropped all of Washington's offensive linemen and tight ends from the squad, and replaced them with custom-made players. They are all five feet tall and 160 pounds, and none of them are any good at anything at all. They are completely unready to stop a man like Jadeveon Clowney.

I found them on Twitter.

Y'all tweeted me about 800 stories. Thank you so much! Lots of them made me laugh, but these are the 12 I liked the most.

Tight end: Austin Masters (@BossAus)

masters

Thanks to Mr. Masters here, we are off to a roaring start. Eating dry macaroni sounds terrible, but I bet that with enough resolve and the right attitude, you could turn "wait, was that the macaroni or my tooth" into a fun game.

Left tackle: VICE Magazine editor Harry Cheadle (@HCheadle)

cheadle

Man, I remember the "looking for a job on Craigslist" beat. Mine was about eight years ago, when I decided to quit my job and Become A Writer despite having only about $300 a month in freelance gigs. I turned to Craigslist's jobs section to supplement my income, and very nearly started working for this Internet search service.

I wish I could remember what it was called, but it was essentially a search "engine" where you entered a search query, and then an actual person on the other end would go and find what they were looking for, almost invariably by Googling it and sending back a few links. That's just about the most steampunk search engine possible. As that person, I would have had to deliver those at the rate of two or three per minute, for 20 hours a week, for free, and if I were selected as someone who was good at it, I would have earned a commission of roughly $1.50 per hour.

They probably should have just shut down the Internet for reconstruction between 2005 and 2009.

Right tackle: Sam Dinosaur (@spongedinosaur)

I didn't know you could freelance-motorcade. If the Secret Service is willing to hire some random person in a minivan, they've got to be setting the bar pretty low, and I shudder to wonder how bad you'd have to be to get fired. "Hey, pal, you just assassinated the congressman again. That's two today. Three strikes, you're out."

Right tackle: SB Nation editorial director Spencer Hall (@edsbs)

edsbs

all of this is your fault

all of it

Right tackle: John Maynard Lolbrarian (@a_lolbrarian)

lolbrarian

.

Oldest surviving copy of what? Doesn't matter. I think it was just the oldest surviving copy of anything in the history of copies, which I guess would be whichever book came before Genesis. Now we'll never know for sure what God was like as a kid. This was prior to the creation of the universe in Genesis, of course, so I'd imagine it was just a single being in an endless dark void telling wiener jokes to nobody.

Right guard: President Trex (@presidenttrex)

trex

Barack Obama. YouTube comments. 2008. That's a perfect storm of stupid. I don't think you moderate those comments with a keyboard and mouse. This is more of a large-scale operation. I think you're wielding a sledgehammer with white knuckles inside a YouTube data center and feverishly smashing everything that blinks until it stops blinking.

Right guard: Jimmy Gards (@jimmygards)

gards

[SMACK]

"hmm"

[consults Morse code translator]

morse

"thank you for this wonderful message"

Center: Jeremy Burgess (@Free_Burge)

burgess

This is perfect.

Center: Chris Fortress (@30AcreFortress)

fortress

This is a super-weird sort of believable. In a freshman engineering class in high school, we were told to consider a tennis ball, imagine ways in which it could be re-purposed, and come up with as many alternative uses for it as possible. If you're stranded in the wilderness, you cut it in half, set the halves inside-up, and use them to collect rainwater. That sort of thing.

We had to come up with about 25 of them, and by the end my ideas were getting pretty bad: if your car was missing a steering wheel, you could, like, glue a bunch of tennis balls together in a circle, and use them as a steering wheel! This was the dumbest idea of all time, so when it came time to share our ideas with the class, I just skipped over it.

The very next kid called on: "you could like, uh, make a circle out of the tennis balls and make it into, like, a steering wheel ..."

Left guard: Ken Hanson (@kenhanson24)

hanson

Every kid in America should participate in at least one Pinewood Derby, because it's awesome, and because you're guaranteed to be exposed to the spectacular failures of others. One kid I knew had absolutely no excuse, because his dad helped him and everything. The wooden chassis of the car was neatly whittled and sanded down, and had windows and doors and the like painted on it. It looked pretty sweet.

Problem: the little metal axles they give you to mount the wheels on? They didn't use those. They just straight-up glued the wheels to the side of the car. So this poor little sucker is beaming with pride, setting his car at the starting line of the track with his proud father behind him. He lets go of the car, and of course, the wheels don't spin. It just sort of slowly slides down the ramp and stops after two feet.

Lesson: you can be a kind and loving dad and still be the shittiest dad ever.

LG: Eric Dahl (@replytodahl)

dahl

I swear, y'all, there are at least two or three This American Life stories in every Breaking Madden.

Tight end: Sonny Duke (@stuker)

duke

This suggests to me that you were away from home, because surely you would have had something in your home that would be more appropriate than a spoon. And now we arrive at a more worrying prospect, which is that you have a car spoon. You have a spoon that just lives in your car. Surely it isn't left over from, like, a picnic, because you don't bring silverware to a picnic, and anyway, you don't usually eat anything at a picnic that requires a spoon. Did you, on some occasion, bring soup from your home and eat it in your car? I don't want to explore this any further.

THE GAME.

Oh dear.

edsbs


As usual, I want to remind y'all that this is the computer's doing. Everything you see here from the helpless baby lineman was controlled by Madden's AI.

Spencer doesn't really want to block, he just wants to cower under RGIII's frame like he's an oak tree in a thunderstorm. You get struck by lightning when you do that. Both men are easily tackled at once by Jason Ankrah. Jimmy Gards, number 17 up there, didn't really block him so much as he became his green turtle shell.

Clowney's teammates did record the occasional sack, but I did all I could to ensure that Clowney himself recorded at least 90 percent of them. The competition was pretty stiff. This wasn't really a Washington vs. Houston game so much as a "Texans vs. other Texans" game. They probably tackled themselves almost as often as they brought down RGIII.

wattcollision

201 sacks in a game is a tall order, certainly, but it really is possible. Here was my process:

1. Washington first down, snap in empty backfield, sack, hurry-up
2. Washington second down, sack, hurry-up
3. Washington third down, sack, hurry-up
4. Washington fourth down, sack, clock stops, turnover
5. Houston first down, spikes ball
6. Houston second down, spikes ball
7. Houston third down, spikes ball
8. Houston fourth down, spikes ball, turnover

And repeat. This was pretty tedious, but absolutely doable. As a safety net, I wanted to keep open the possibility of overtime, so I took care to make sure that the Texans' defense never scored. If the line of scrimmage ever got too far deep into Washington territory, I'd simply have Arian Foster run backwards and go out of bounds at midfield.

Sacking RGIII with Clowney was pretty much a drag-and-drop operation. Sometimes I'd switch Clowney from the left side to the right just for variety's sake, but most of the time I just ran past Harry Cheadle, the worst left tackle in world history.

cheadle2


To his credit, that slight turn does indicate that Clowney piqued his interest for a fraction of a second. That's the key to winning at football: be interested, occasionally.

I don't think Cheadle was merely unaware (although I did pull his Awareness rating down to zero). I think he was just on some serious "ain't my job" shit. This is like when you can't find anyone in the clothing department at Sears, so you go ask the dude in electronics. The right side? NOT HIS DEPARTMENT.

cheadle

Completely by accident, Harry Cheadle became a co-star of this episode. In the rare instances when he did literally anything at all, he did something completely, inarguably wrong.

push


The left side is totally empty. There are no blocks for him to miss. He has run out of ways to screw up, but whenever God closes a door, He opens a window. Cheadle just straight-up shoves his quarterback right into the tackle.

And then he sits up and scares the shit out of me.

talking


GUH! Why are you looking at me? Why are you talking to me? What are you saying? YOU THINK THAT'S A HIT WELL WAIT UNTIL SEE YOUR NEXT HOUSE PAYMENT CALL DITECH TODAY

The nice thing about these little guys is that they're extremely portable. Here is Jason Ankrah picking Jimmy Gards up off the ground and straight-up throwing him.

gards

Our Twitter players really weren't enjoying this at all. After a time, they got cranky, and I saw something I've never seen before in Madden. Spencer tries to comfort Chris Fortress, who basically tells him to fuck off.

cranky

Now, back to the quest itself. I actually had to start the whole thing over a couple times so I could tweak the settings, because Clowney just wasn't getting enough of the sacks he needed to stay on pace for 201. I finally hit paydirt once I yanked his teammates' Awareness ratings to zero. And that is how we arrive at Jerrell Powe barreling toward RGIII, looking him in the face, and then running the Hell away.

powe

If you're looking for evidence of a broken Madden NFL 15, here you go. Longtime readers may recall that in last year's Breaking Madden Super Bowl, the game stopped counting once I got to 255 points. After that, I could score as much as I wanted, but the scoreboard would remain stuck at 255. This is because Madden reserves only a single byte -- which can represent 256 possible values -- for a team's score. Folks who know far more about programming than I did found this bizarre. From Metafilter:

Also, how about a game release for the Xbox 360 in 2013 that stops counting points because it stores the score in a byte.

And from Hacker News:

I can't possibly believe something like a game's score would be recorded in an unsigned byte. The last time I saw an unsigned byte in use in a game was in the original Starcraft [...]

Madden 15 is visually stunning, and its understanding of football has really taken a leap forward this year. It's an achievement. But buried deep within itself are relics from decades ago: the inability to count higher than 255, or 63, or 31. And that is what we are seeing here.

stats


The game wouldn't count past 31 sacks. Luckily, it kept counting tackles, which for Clowney's purposes were the same thing. But then it stopped counting those at 63. I could have, and should have, declared the experiment a success and closed up shop.

I did not.

clowneysacks

Yes, the handwriting is bad. You try writing left-handed with a marker without it coming out lookin' like the dang letters before the Ninja Turtles cartoon. Anyway, Madden itself was the subject of the experiment, and it seemed foolish to allow the subject to quantify itself. I simply drew my own chyron and took matters into my own hands.

A couple minutes into the third quarter, Jadeveon Clowney was on pace to break the all-time career sacks record. He had 114, by my manual count, and if I couldn't keep up the pace, I always had 15 minutes of overtime to fall back on. The game took forever -- I started at noon, and didn't reach halftime until about 3 p.m. -- but the game would not stop me.

I began to pity Robert Griffin III.

worst

I really like RGIII. He's one of my favorite quarterbacks in the league. When I saw that the Texans' 2014 season opener was against Washington, I proceeded with some lament. Robert has done absolutely nothing to deserve this.

"Why, Jon?"

If only Video Game Robert Griffin III could speak. If only he could look through the screen at me and let me know that deep within this black humming box, obscured by a half-dozen digital Texans, there was a soul.

I spotted him throwing up his arms after the 114th sack, and I went to the replay.

"Why, Jon?"

whyjon2

I was halted not by the machine, but by my own guilt. I was shamed by a pretend digital man, awash in mud and despair. I promptly quit the game. Jadeveon Clowney's quest stopped at 114, though I built sufficient evidence that if two teams work in tandem with the same goal, 201 sacks are indeed possible in a single football game.

Robert Griffin III, for his part, emerged bruised and defeated well past the point of embarrassment. Such is the price of digital sentience. You won, Robert, in your own way:

Click here to check out the first season of Breaking Madden.