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Breaking Madden: De'Anthony Thomas, return man-god

Chiefs rookie De'Anthony Thomas is on track to make his NFL debut Sunday. Breaking Madden celebrates his arrival.

After recovering from a hamstring injury, God willing, Chiefs running back/return man De'Anthony Thomas will play in his first-ever regular-season game Sunday. That is the day he will officially become my favorite player in the NFL.

This, from the preseason, happened the first time he ever caught a punt in a Chiefs uniform:

I've written previously, and multiple times, on retired Chiefs return man Dante Hall, who remains my second-favorite football player of all time. I perceive this as a Highlander sort of arrangement: there are a number of super-exciting, unreasonably fast Chiefs special-teams returners scattered across history, and De'Anthony Thomas is now the one to carry the torch.

He is also my favorite athlete to follow on Twitter.

In this episode of Breaking Madden, we will be dumping irresponsibly high expectations upon the shoulders of a dude who has never played a regular-season NFL game and is barely old enough to legally drink:

Music: "Never Catch Me" by Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar

And here is how we're going to do that.


Kansas City's Week 3 opponent is Miami, a team that is now magically made up of frustratingly slow players. One quirk about Madden NFL 15, as well as previous editions, is that it's nearly impossible to set the special-teams lineups you want. If you drag down the stats of the special-teamers, the game will simply find higher-rated guys and place them on the special teams unit.

So just to be safe, I individually adjusted the ratings of every player on the team. Every dude is now a 0/99 at Speed, Acceleration, and Awareness. In addition, I lowered punter Brandon Field's leg power just a little bit, in the hope that more punts will stay in play.


I want De'Anthony Thomas, via kick and punt returns, to win this game all by himself, which is why everyone who touches the ball on the Kansas City offense is a useless tree-person. As usual, I found them on Twitter.

I asked this question because it's rather central to being a Kansas City Chiefs fan. See, I think the Chiefs' colors look pretty sweet as applied to a uniform, especially their red-on-red home uniform. This color scheme does not work in any other wardrobe context. I would usually prefer not to police the fashion choices of others, but I must here: anyone who wears a giant Chiefs jersey in any context other than "playing in a football game" looks like Ronald McDonald at a baptism.

Y'all were more than happy to self-report your fashion infractions. Ten of y'all really stood out, and you now comprise the Kansas City Chiefs' offense. You are all seven feet tall, horribly slow, and terrible at everything.

QB: Ryan Gantz, Vox Media UX director (@sixfoot6)


Ryan wins the starting quarterback position, in part because his story is the best-worst, and in part because including him in this episode involves getting his height wrong even though it's explicitly stated in his Twitter handle.

Wearing a meat tenderizer on one's hammer loop is fundamentally iconoclastic, as it claims a spot reserved for something as useful as a hammer, and yet is itself completely useless. That animal took the trouble of building itself all that flesh, and you can't trouble yourself to tenderize it via a marinade, or by braising it, or by any other way than to whack it with a stupid-ass hammer? I see you standing in the aisle with the kitchen miscellanea and furnace filters and wrapping paper, staring at this artifact of thoughtless destruction, twist-tied to its cardboard scabbard. Go forth and ruin, Unitasker of Worlds, Thor of the Walgreens.

RB: Jacob Bacharach, author and blog-poet (@jakebackpack)



WR: Rich Mattingly (@nickelcity)


Neither you nor your mom could be troubled to draw a few circles on it to illustrate cheese holes, which would have literally been the only thing required to represent the completist's image of cheese. The box would be pushed upward whenever you tried to sit at a desk, rendering you nothing but a child with a box over his head. God dangit.

See, this is how I know I'm not emotionally equipped to be a parent yet: I've never met this child who doesn't even exist anymore, and I'm wrought with worry about him being picked-on and sad. If I had a kid and I got wind that he or she got called a butthead, I'd blubber until sawdust came out.

TE: Jane Coaston, SB Nation and EDSBS contributor (@cjane87)


This is a dangerous game. I tried to do this ironically once and just didn't have the fortitude. I once received a shirt as a gag gift that read,

Jesus Is


In My Life

and one day I resolved to wear it in public. I stepped out the door, walked half a block down the street, and then sailed back home to change upon a wave of self-conscious shame. This is not tenable in Kentucky. This ain't Brooklyn. They will ask you about the Jesus here.

QB: David Dpottzzz (@dpottzzz)


David went on to note that he had this hat custom-made at a hat-embroidering store at the mall. This is crucial.

I don't know how old David is, but when people my age were 10 years old, our culture was awash in a trend of in-your-face pith. BUTTON YOUR FLY. SHUT UP AND JAM. Shirts that said, YO! BY THE TIME YOU FINISH READING THIS SHIRT I WILL HAVE SCORED ON YOU!

When you're 10, this is the raddest thing in the world to you, but you aren't really developed enough to be able to reproduce it. And that is how we arrive at me, in my fourth-grade classroom, designing a coffee mug for my mother that read:


My family saw this and dropped me off in the forest, where I died.

RB: Jon Riegel (@jonriegel)


"Huh? Oh, no, I've never read the books. Just a fan of tribulations, really."

FB: Mark LaBelle (@mrklbll)


New project: ask athletes to sign absurd things that don't make any sense. I was at my friend's house one time when his dad poked his head into the room. He had just found out that he was going to be at some kind of event that Michael Jordan would be attending. "I've got to head to the airport in two minutes," he said. "If you give me something to autograph, I'll see if he'll sign it for you." All I had on me was a pack of baseball cards I'd just bought. I gave him a Tim Wallach baseball card. It was not signed, and it is impossible to understand why not.

WR: Matt Watson, SB Nation editor (@mattwatson)


Y'all should be aware that in the SB Nation editorial chat room, if you type "/get fanny pack," it will automatically return this image.

WR: Henry Ermer (@ozmasis)


This is the saddest thing I have ever read.

WR: Sam Greszes (@SamGreszeseses)


POSSIBILITY A: you're rolling the dice on the astronomically low possibility of meeting someone at your party who's dressed as a wall jack. POSSIBILITY B: you coordinate with your partner, who is dressed as a wall jack, and broadcast the message that your sex life is horribly unsatisfying.

"are you in"
"stay completely still for several minutes"
"i am"
"charge that Nikon, baby"
"oh yeah"
"grill that turkey bacon, baby"

Also, where's the grounding plug? Safe sex, y'all.


Our quarterback, Ryan Gantz, is the only one who will really be doing much of anything. On every play, he will take the snap and just straight-up run away.


He will run directly backwards as fast as I can make him run. (He runs far slower in that GIF, which I sped up to 3x.) Why, yes, that will sometimes result in a safety! In fact, this ensures that virtually every Chiefs possession will end in a safety.

This is important, because it gives the Dolphins a chance to compete with DAT and his punt/kick returns. Remember, all the Dolphins are too slow and terrible to build much of an offensive drive. They might kick the occasional field goal, but apart from that, they'll need all these safeties to keep pace on the scoreboard.

In other words, this is a match between De'Anthony Thomas and his self-destructive disaster of an offense. The Chiefs' greatest enemies are so often themselves.


We'll get to DAT, I promise. We just need to talk about this offense first. Here is Ryan Gantz running an impromptu 40-yard dash in real time.


His 40 time is just over 10 seconds, a full four seconds slower than the slowest recorded time in NFL Combine history. That he can run so far, so slowly, ought to clue you in to the sort of Dolphins team we're dealing with here. If either side were any good at literally anything, they would win 200-0. They're just stuck in this miserable, eternal gridlock.

When Kansas City has the ball, the offensive linemen are the only real-life Chiefs on the field. You might wonder whether they're equipped with code that would tell them what to do when their tree-man of a quarterback just up and runs away. The answer is that they do not give a shit about him.


This is one of my favorite things about Breaking Madden. Finding the responsive behaviors in scenarios that should not exist. Surely the game's AI programmers didn't sit down and explicitly program them to walk at a grocery-aisle pace and watch their match-ups streak past them en route to murdering their quarterback.

No, Madden just formed a decision with the crumbs of code it had sitting around. "I guess this will happen," it said. Just as we struggle to settle on who was the first human, the descendants of artificial intelligences will one look back upon a moment. "In this moment," they will say, "we became us." Maybe that moment is a moment like this. Maybe it was the time you kept the toaster lever pressed down after it started buzzing. This moment may well have come already, and I pray only that the reckoning arrives long after I am dead. Here is a punter kicking his blocker in the nards.


This is from a practice-mode session. I wanted to try to gauge how Brandon Fields' punts would land from different spots on the field. As it turns out, if I set the line of scrimmage all the way back to the goal line and told the Dolphins to punt, this happened every single time.

Anyway. Here's what our other Twitter players were up to: a whole lot of nothing. I just sent them on verts every time, because it didn't really matter. Every time, they were comfortable calling for the ball. Take, for instance, tight end Jane Coaston. It's a first-and-goal situation, and she's calling for it. That's perfectly reasonable! Let's see how the quarterback's doi--



So. On to De'Anthony Thomas himself, who was taking shit from absolutely no one.


I find it really tough to return punts and kicks in this year's Madden. As recently as a couple years ago, two or three times out of ten, I could pull this specific zig-zag route that would take my man right through a hole in the coverage and into the end zone. Under normal settings, I've never scored a return touchdown in this game.

Even with all the game's settings pushed in my favor, it was kind of difficult. Only 11 of Thomas' 24 punt returns went for touchdowns. That's ridiculous, of course, but the enterprise was far from automatic, and I don't think I scored any of those without reversing field at least once or twice.

This maneuver won us some success. The guy in the blue circle is De'Anthony.


I'd kind of bait the Dolphins into gravitating toward the right side of the field. Once they sold out for it, I'd make this broad sweep to the other side of the field and haul ass.

You know what, this was often a lot like playing Snake.


It's like DAT was the head of the snake. He and the Dolphins were a singular organism. We just had to be careful not to run him into his tail. This required us to buy a lot of time in far-flung regions of the field, just waiting in holding patterns until a hole opened up.

This one, though. This was our best run.


We didn't draw this constellation to be cute. It was a measure of necessity. In some way, it felt like smacking the side of a bottle until ketchup comes out. Just survive and keep moving the pieces around. And, man, we killed it. Even if none of DAT's teammates were worth two quarters of a shit.


He's like a backpack! Like a lil' bitty backpack!


The ebb and flow of this game was probably the strangest I've seen in the history of Breaking Madden. I played almost the entire game with either no idea or the wrong idea of which team was going to come out on top.

The safeties piled up early, and I was down at the end of the first quarter, 18-16. Then I started to get better at returning, and before I knew it, I was up 78-52 in the second half. This was a rout.

In my pride and foolishness, I had failed to consider that while Miami safeties were a near-immovable constant, opportunities for punt returns were not. Down several scores in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins often went for it rather than punting. They started to aim their punts out of bounds. Unbelievably, they started placing their kickoffs out of bounds, which of course results in a penalty. The game was getting wise.

With that 78-52 lead, and on such a roll, I would have found it inconceivable that the Dolphins would score 28 unanswered points (two field goals and 11 safeties) to take the lead, but that is exactly what they did.

One minute left. With an 86-84 lead, the Dolphins elected to punt. It was, mercifully, inbounds. I was nervous. Please know that the rules I'd insisted on for this game made the game very time-consuming. Just playing the game itself took about seven hours. I had spent all day on this quest, and my success depended on one single punt return.

I ran out of room. I had to gun it. I just ... I ran out of room.


The first time I ever really invested myself in an entire football game, I was eight years old. Chiefs-Dolphins, wild-card playoffs, 1991. The Chiefs trailed, 17-16, when Nick Lowery made his paces and readied for a 52-yard field goal try. It was so close, I thought he'd made it, and I started to celebrate before I realized I was the only one in the house who was celebrating.

I had these NFL bed sheets with all the NFL teams' logos printed on them. That night, I found all the Dolphins logos and crossed them out with my little magic markers. It was now a school night in January. I cried and went to sleep.

First down, around midfield, with seconds left. A Chief and a Dolphin begin to dance. Ryan Gantz dutifully offers himself up for safety one final time.


And it is done. Dolphins 88, Chiefs 84.


The game said we lost, and also that we won. Madden has trouble adding the final score, just as it has for the better part of the last decade. This is fine. I do not need a picture of loss. I know the stench.

But on this day, De'Anthony Thomas has shattered every return record in the books. To the stats:

Music: "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson

For many more episodes of Breaking Madden, click here.