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Breaking Madden: 44 quarterbacks vs. 44 defensive ends

Breaking Madden has returned for a third season. It missed you.

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The Bengals' Margus Hunt and the Saints' Obum Gwacham are two defensive ends clinging at the margins of the NFL. Neither of them even played football until they went to college. I had never heard of either of them until last week.

That was when, along the course of building a team entirely out of defensive ends in Madden NFL 16, I noticed dormant passing and receiving abilities stashed deep within their player ratings. I went out on a limb. I made Hunt the quarterback, and Gwacham a receiver.

They wrecked shop. These are the two newest heroes of Breaking Madden.


And God knows that Breaking Madden will need heroes this season. After 33 episodes, there were so few things left to try and glitches to exploit that originally, I wasn't planning to do a third season at all. I feel like I've found a way to make it work, although it will mean fewer episodes. There are big dumbass ideas I've kicked around for a while, and since they're big, they'll tend to take longer than one week to put together.

One such big dumbass idea: build one team entirely out of NFL quarterbacks. Build another team entirely out of NFL defensive ends. Smash them together and see who wins, because I genuinely do not know:

Music: "My Song" by Labi Siffre

I chose the positions of quarterback and defensive end because they seemed like the two most interesting groups of folks to rip out of their natural elements.

The quarterback is the most important player on the field. Naturally, then, the all-quarterback team has a huge advantage: they get to start an actual quarterback at quarterback. There's also a decent amount of physical diversity at this position. A smaller, quicker guy like Johnny Manziel might make for a good speed back. Cam Newton's size and strength could make him a decent No. 1 runner. If Tim Tebow isn't quite tight end-sized, he's close. Et cetera.

The defensive end's advantages take fewer syllables to describe. BIG. FAST. STRONG. I don't think any position in sports features this combination to such a degree. Their skill when it comes to actually handling the ball is probably not special, but 21 out of 22 guys on the football field don't have the ball at any given time. Defensive ends are very good at not having the ball.


This actually took forever, which is why I'm just now publishing this even though Madden was released a full two weeks ago. You wouldn't expect it to be that difficult, right? Ideally, the process would go something like:

1. Find the quarterback on some other team, go to his "edit" screen, and switch his position to whatever position we need.
2. Trade him to our all-quarterbacks team.
3. Do this 43 times.

This is usually more or less how it works when I edit rosters in other sports games. Madden, however, hardwires its salary cap system directly into every mode, including -- for reasons I don't understand -- roster editing. Baked in with Aaron Rodgers is his $80 million trillion salary, and if we want him on our all-quarterbacks team, we have to do tons of mathematical gymnastics. This was the process:

1. Find the quarterback on some other team, go to his "edit" screen, and switch his position to whatever position we need.
2. Ah damn it, that puts this team below the minimum number of quarterbacks.
3. Alright, find a quarterback on some random third team to trade to this second team, but make sure he's not a quarterback you'll want for the QB team, because if you do this you might forget where you put him and you won't be able to find him later.
4. Ah shit! This trade, which is between two teams we don't even care about, is illegal because it puts this third team over the salary cap.
5. Spend a couple minutes playing general manager with this third team, releasing its expensive players and replacing them with cheap placeholders from a fourth and fifth and sixth team, just so it works.
6. OK, you should be able to go back to the second team now and trade that quarterback to your QB team now.
7. Shit, what was that second team again?
8. Oh yeah, I remember.
9. Oh my God, this puts my QB team over the salary cap.
10. Release everyone on your barely-assembled QB team you possibly can and buy yourself enough money to not have to do this for another hour or two.
11. Do this 43 times.

Madden is so weird. We've been over this before, but it's so ... so weird.

Sometimes, when you play this game, you feel like it was made just for you. When you play the actual game itself, the one with the football and the players, you feel like it was built by hundreds of people who have been loving and playing Madden for a decade. The perfection isn't there, because I think perfection exists only in theory, but year after year, new tweaks and animations show up. Many of those improvements are too subtle to really be advertised. You see almost eerily real graphics; also, unmistakably, you see the love that went into them.

And then you start walking through the corridors of the game. The menu screens, the roster editor, the franchise mode. So much of it is a microwaved holdover from Madden 15, Madden 13, Madden 12 ... hell, if you told me the guts dated back to Madden 06, I would believe you. Every screen should come with its own landlord, fumbling to pick the right key out of his keyring: "Jesus, you really want in here?" I suppose I'm glad these features are left to remain largely untouched year after year until the wind blows them over, rather than bulldozed outright. It improves my career prospects, to be sure.

It's just that for years running -- like, half a decade, minimum -- departments of this game don't feel like they were made for anybody. They were just made. Who wants a salary cap in a sandbox roster-editing mode? Do the people who made that rule meet in the EA cafeteria with the people who craft those spectacular graphics and animations? What do they talk about? Do they shuffle off and eat alone in their cars? I would. And my game would look like Madden NFL 16, a qualitatively wonky product that keeps getting better in some areas and keeps getting more shamefully neglected in others and keeps being $60 either way. Monopolies have a way of ferreting out who among us actually gives a shit.




Madden's player ratings are pretty damned sophisticated. For starters, each player has 50 or so ratings categories, and with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 players in the game, that puts us somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 little knobs, each of which turn from zero to 99.

When you mess with one of the knobs, the player's overall rating rises or dips just a little bit. And when you change a player's position, everything goes bonkers. For example, suppose you make Robert Griffin III play linebacker. Madden knows that his passing accuracy rating doesn't mean crud anymore. It looks instead at his blocking ability and strength, stifles its laughter and yanks his overall rating from 78 all the way down to 12.

All this shit's gettin' broke.


Due to the salary cap restrictions I mentioned, it proved mathematically impossible to get more than a few big-name quarterbacks on this team. It's just as well. Frankly, I'm just delighted to see Jeff Tuel again.

That RGIII example was not hypothetical. His rating has dropped by 66 points, lower than almost any other quarterback's. Meanwhile, Tony Romo, Tarvaris Jackson and Teddy Bridgewater have essentially been reduced to laymen. You may as well ask them to construct a battleship.

But the real joy here is in finding out how ... not-terrible some of these guys are in their new careers. Johnny Manziel, who's rated 71 overall as a quarterback, dropped by just three points. We took a guy from one highly specialized position to another very different position, and Madden just shrugged.

Look at this, though, y'all. Look at it. This astounds me:


Cam Newton suffers only a six-point drop after switching to running back, down from 90 to 84. That 84 makes him the 13th-best running back in the NFL, according to Madden. That puts him above Gio Bernard, Lamar Miller, Jonathan Stewart, Alfred Morris and lots of other running backs you'd happily start on your fantasy team.

On to the defensive ends.


That is pretty weird, right? Madden is self-confident enough to decide that it knows better than the real-life NFL. That's a hell of an assertion, too, because there are serious differences between what makes you a good defensive end, and what makes you a good safety.

I stumbled upon that one by accident, but in most cases I did try to set both teams up for as much success as I could. As you may have noticed in the video, I originally had J.J. Watt penciled in as the defensive ends' quarterback. Once it turned out that he was complete ass at throwing the ball (Madden and I disagree on this), I switched him to running back, a position he is actually pretty decent at.

Watt was supposed to be the hero. Margus Hunt and Obum Gwacham trashed all plans and expectations I had. We will get to them.


HEY! Hey, y'all, we're at the GIF part now! The part where you actually get to see me play the game! Remember how we switched Johnny Manziel to running back? Wanna see how that's going? Here you go!


That's in real-time. I didn't speed it up one bit. Robert Quinn moves through Manziel as quickly as he does through air. He doesn't even have to tackle him. He just aims his body and fires. He is both the flaming horse carcass and the catapult.

We knew that in one-on-one, last-man-standing battles, the defensive ends would always win here. It was not a secret. It's still a delight to see it happen. Here is Russell Wilson, defensive tackle.


Again, that's defensive tackle. The Texans' L.T. Walton is trying to protect the pocket. He's not actually supposed to go bowling downfield like that, and he normally wouldn't, because any defensive tackle worth a shit would actually pose a challenge and give him something to do.

From an ecumenical, "this is how the sport is supposed to work" perspective, Russell has a role here. He's supposed to be the bread bowl in this tortilla soup. Sure, he's supposed to be eaten eventually, but until then he's expected to help hold this whole thing together. If he doesn't, the order of things is all fouled up.

Last year, I spent hours and hours playing, recording, and watching Madden 15 gameplay. Hours and hours and hours and hours. And already, the differences in animations and player behavior are revealing themselves. What's New In Madden NFL 16: defensive players will straighten themselves, head to neck to spine, into torpedoes, and fire their helmets at the fourth vertebra of a defenseless player who is clearly on his way down, if not down already.


Oof, Cam. Sorry. I don't remember these dudes doing this last year. This is an interesting reversal. Ten years ago, Madden featured, and even advertised, players' helmets getting popped off after a hard hit. The NFL presumably asked them to stop short of telling the whole truth, so the pop-off helmets were gone. And now -- granted, it's early on, and I haven't seen tons of gameplay yet -- the violence actually exceeds what I typically see in the real NFL.

As for Cam, his 84 rating as a running back just didn't matter at all. His line was so comically outmatched by a team of defensive linemen that of his 10 carries, I think he made it past the line of scrimmage once. He finished with negative-18 yards.

Custom-created players aside, Blaine Gabbert is the worst defender I have ever seen.


Way to make a play Blaine.

Thank you Blaine.

So the Packers had no real defensive ability, no ability to run the ball, some athletic receivers, and the best quarterback in the game. They made the most of what they had.


Rodgers connected for 140 yards with his best receiver, Andrew Luck. Luck had enough size and speed to at least hang with the defensive ends downfield. His "Awareness" rating of 85 was higher than just about anyone he went up against, so he was sometimes the only dude in the vicinity who actually had his head up and looking for the ball. He was actually very, very good, and scored two touchdowns.

And he celebrated like a dorko-malorko-goofus-maloofus after both of them.


It's not that this is inaccurate. This is exactly what I'd do if you asked me to act out "Andrew Luck celebrates a touchdown." It's like he's ... riding an invisible horse, but he's turned in the wrong direction? GIDDYSIDEWAYS Y'ALL

I think this is what happened: the director of the motion-capture department dragged in some guy who had never heard of Andrew Luck or seen a football game in his life. The director told him, "Listen. You're playing a guy who loves concrete. Like, he thinks concrete is awesome. He has a book about concrete. He actually brought it on a business trip with him and was showing his coworkers and everything, and just going on and on about concrete. Got it? OK, you're him right after something good just happened. Go!"



Say this about the people who calibrate the ratings for the players of Madden: they do their research. They knew to set Margus Hunt's "Throw Power" rating to 70, even though that of every other defensive end is like 25. Hunt's "Accuracy" rating is 45; nearly every other defensive end's is 6.

It turns out that Margus Hunt of Estonia is a former World Junior Championships champion discus thrower. He set records, and also competed in shot put and hammer throw events. In 2009, he moved to the United States to join SMU's track and field program. As soon as he got there, the program was shut down.

Despite never having played football in his life, Hunt was encouraged to join SMU's football team. This is because Hunt is an athletic freak of nature. At 6'8 and 277 pounds, he can run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Over his college career, Hunt learned the game well enough to be drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. He remains an unknown as of now, but as our own Stephen White wrote earlier this month, Hunt has all the tools he needs to bust out this year.

One of those tools, by virtue of his ability to chuck a discus, is throwing power. If Madden hadn't reflected that in his skill ratings, I don't think anyone would have noticed, because no one would start a defensive end at quarterback. No one but us, anyway. Whoever's responsible for that fantastic attention to detail: I see you.

The people behind Madden also knew to crank Obum Gwacham's "Catching" ability up to 70, far higher than the majority of defensive ends. This is because he originally played wideout at Oregon State before being moved to the defensive side of the ball. Again: I don't think this is the sort of thing Madden's researchers could have just ripped out of a spreadsheet. They have to know this stuff, and apparently, they do. And God dang can he, or at least his Madden self, haul in a catch.


Hunt's and Gwacham's stories are very similar to each other's, and extremely different from virtually every other player who steps foot on an NFL field. Both are foreign-born. Neither played football until they were legal adults. Both were outstanding track-and-field athletes whose physical abilities have sent them fast-tracking through the sport of football.

I thought the defensive ends' inability to throw or catch would be their undoing. Thanks to Margus Hunt, and thanks to his only reliable receiving target in Obum Gwacham, it wasn't. Wherever y'all are, I hope you feel famous for a minute or two. You won:

Music: "Rolled Together" by The Antlers

There are 33 more episodes of Breaking Madden. They are all right here.