Ratings actually matter this year. That’s about the biggest compliment that I can give to a Madden NFL title. To illustrate this point, I give you a tale of two very different seasons that I experienced in years 1 and 2 of my Carolina Panthers (Keep Pounding!) franchise.
To give you some insight into how I play as a player, I am not one who looks to “cheese” the computer. I don’t actively try to break the game. Or to try to trick the computer into a crappy trade. When playing, I want to be challenged, and I try to keep the same philosophy that my own Panthers have. Which is to build through the draft, develop my home-grown talent, and keep as many of them locked up long term as possible. I really only use free agency to sign one year deals for added depth at key positions and don’t get locked up for a long time on some mediocre talent. Though, ahem, Dave Gettleman seems to have lost his way in this regard. Josh Norman, anyone?
So, in year 1, using the day 1 Panthers roster (which is extremely overrated) I could see that my weaknesses were going to be in the secondary (Josh Norman, anyone?) and in pass protection. In year 1, I was able to run the ball to grind out the clock and had Cam Newton winning his 2nd consecutive MVP award. On the other side of the ball, I knew that I had to make up for my secondary’s weakness by getting to the quarterback with the front seven. Led by Kony Ealy’s 13.5 sacks (bahahaha!) and another 12 from Kawaan Short, I was able to mask my secondary and ended up with the number 2 defense in the League by the end of the year in route to a 13-3 finish and winners of the NFC South 4 years in a row. I destroyed the Giants in the NFC Divisional Round 42-14 and held off a valiant effort from Seattle in the NFC title game 29-23. Alas, in Super Bowl LI, which ended up being Tom Brady’s swan song in the game, I lost to a Gronk-less Patriots squad 27-24.
Fast forward to year 2 of my franchise. One of the key additions to this year’s franchise mode was regression. I saw several of my guys regress, including one of my top DE’s in Charles Johnson after I signed him to a 3 year extension mid-season last year. In 2017, he was a fraction of what he used to be. Ealy wasn’t busting through offensive lines anymore, either. Remember how I said ratings do matter? Well, with a regression at DE, my secondary ended up being hung out to dry. I found myself behind late in games and, guess what, the flaws in my offensive line’s pass protection showed. I was getting less and less time in the pocket. And, since I was down in a lot of games, I had to abandon my effective run game (I rushed for 1300 yards with Cameron Artis-Payne in year 2). Halfway through the season, I was at 3-4, 2.5 games back of New Orleans in the NFC South. I wasn’t used to this in Madden. I usually take my lumps in the first season of a dynasty and then I become a beast as I figure out the game. I found my receiving corps depleted with Greg Olsen, Philly Brown, and Devin Funchess all hurt. Kelvin Benjamin tore it up with 1400 yards receiving and 14 TDs, but he was my one and only read on passing plays. I was going backwards. Ratings matter.
So, I wound up benching Charles Johnson, who had like 1 sack, in favor of my first round draft pick. A fictional rookie DE named Casey Fowler from Louisville. While his overall was lower than Johnson, his block shedding, power moves, and speed were higher. What a difference he made. After the switch, I ripped off 6 out of 7, found myself at 9-5 and in the heat of the race for the 6th seed in the NFC. Fowler would wind up being runner up for DROY with 11.5 sacks the second half of the season and my secondary wasn’t getting blown up every damn game because I was getting to the QB.
I was at 9-5 and the only team that could end Carolina’s run of 5 consecutive playoff appearances were the 8-6 Lions, who had beaten me week 4. All I had to do was win both games and I was in the playoffs. I lost both. The Lions went 1-1. We both ended up 9-7 and the Lions got the 6th seed by head to head tie breaker. Heart breaking, I know. Ironically, it was another QB in a twilight type season in Drew Brees who led the Saints to a win over the Raiders in Super Bowl LII. Cam, you’ve got another 10 years until you get yours! 🙂
The slide has continued as I find myself at 1-2 to start year 3, barely avoiding an 0-3 start. I say all this to show you that the franchise mode, and the overall difficulty of the game, is much more challenging than in year’s past. When I picked up Madden 15, the last title in the long running series that I devoted any kind of time to, I was beasting by the end of year 2 and in the NFC Championship every season, making it to multiple Super Bowls, though never winning one :(. I played very little last year as the real life Panthers were in the midst of what should have ended up being an historic run. Playing on All-Pro, not touching the sliders, it just feels right. The game is challenging, but I never felt cheated, even in the midst of losing streaks, I always feel like there is something I could have done to get the win.
From what I can tell, the passing game saw just tweaking, not really the over haul it was last year. They fixed the aggressive catch to where you can’t just throw it up to your tall WR and he comes down with it every freaking time. This year, it has worked less than 50% of the time for me. The only time I really see a lot of success is in the red zone and I’m tossing it up to Greg Olsen or Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone.
The running game has seen a vast improvement, though. Playing as the Panthers, and being a fan of old school smash mouth football, I have really loved this part of the game. It is not overpowering, there have been games when my run game has gotten shut down, but the Panthers offensive line is built for the run game, and again, I rushed for 1300 yards with Cameron Artis-Payne after Jonathan Stewart got hurt in my 2nd season.
Defensively there have been massive improvements. My favorite by far has been the inclusion of gap play for your linebackers against the run (finally!) as well as defenders committed to the cut back lanes and force players when the offense tries to run outside. I was initially pissed at the game when I was getting gashed time and again on outside runs. You really have to pay attention this year. If you are getting burned outside it’s because you don’t have the proper defense being called. Flicking the right stick to the left and right will tell you who the force and cut back players are. I’ve found that running a Cover 4 on teams that run the outside works because your outside linebackers are the force players. I’ve found that in defenses where the force player is a CB or a DE I was getting gashed. If it was a safety, I was just out of luck. They say that the developers really focused on pass defense as well with better zones. I play as the Panthers. I have no idea if this is true or not…
Special teams also saw improvements in terms of blocking punts and FGs. For me, personally, I still haven’t mastered it and still haven’t blocked a kick since that one time in like 2002 or something. But, I’ll tell you, I’ve had numerous times where my own kicks get blocked and half the time the other team picks up the ball in stride and scores a TD off of it. It is not overwhelming, but if your punter fumbles around with the snap, you know you’re in trouble…
Graphically, not a lot has changed, but the visuals are noticeably better this year. Lighting is better and the team continues to make the helmets for every team look amazing whether during a bright Sunday afternoon game or on Monday night with the lights of the stadium reflecting off. While not as big of a deal in football, you can still recognize players on replays and cutscenes behind the helmet. It is one of those things that’s merely a nice touch, but not necessary.
Overall, I give this year’s effort a B. It’s a solid effort and is loads of fun to play and, for me at least, difficult to master. One still can’t shake the feeling that it’s not such a huge improvement over the past couple of Madden games, but I’ll tell you, the argument that it is “just a $60 roster update” is null and void here.