Coach makes you work for it
This is not a Madden title, and neither does it pretend to be. NFL Head Coach has you stepping into the loafers of an NFL head coach/general manager, not the shoes of an NFL quarterback or defensive tackle. You pick the players, you pick the plays, and the game runs out on its own. (So if you don’t want to preside over practices and swap third-stringers with the Falcons, stay far away.)
There’s really only one mode here, the coaching career. And this being an EA Sports title, you know what that means: create a coach (you can select an actual coach, but not if you want to play as Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells — they aren’t in the game), detail him minutely, get hired by a team, and try to climb the ladder to unseat Don Shula as the greatest coach of all time. (That’s EA’s opinion, not mine.)
Starting immediately after Super Bowl XL, the game puts you right to work hiring coordinators, re-signing potential free agents, reworking holdouts’ contracts, fielding trade offers, and scouting for the draft. It’s in this mode that NFL Head Coach becomes most engrossing, particularly if you like to play the “what if” game while you watch football, mulling over questions like “How good would Tom Brady be if he had Marvin Harrison to throw to?” And since it takes place at the start of an offseason that’s now winding down, it provides a tantalizing opportunity to rewrite history. Colts fans can open the wallet for Edgerrin James; Houston residents can do something really crazy, like taking Reggie Bush with the first overall pick in the draft.
Problem is, the game kills its own fun by limiting what you can do. In an effort to make you feel that running a football team is an actual job, EA prescribes a rigid schedule of tasks, with certain things doable only at certain times. Plus, you have to hold “office hours” twice each virtual day, during which time you can’t do anything except read your e-mail and reshuffle your starting line-up. You can make trades only during the designated “trade players” time. You can talk to your scout and your coaching staff only during your scheduled meetings with them. There’s even a designated time for you to (wait for it) change your coach’s appearance.
So you’re already a little antsy once you get onto the field. But game time is when Head Coach really turns dull. You’re supposed to be selecting the plays, but the coordinators suggest each one. Sure, you don’t have to listen, but it sure feels if their plays had a higher success rate than yours do. And since the CPU’s AI plays the game on both sides, it can be extremely frustrating when your team isn’t getting it done. I don’t see how anyone can sit there without wanting to grab control of the team on the field. It goes against the whole allure of the sport-video-game genre.
“DON’T GIVE UP THE BIG PLAY”? EA needs to do better.
You can interact with the players during the game, but you have only two options: provide motivation or offer strategy. In this game’s view, there are only two ways to play football: play it safe and work with your players’ strengths, or go for the bomb on every down. And each dialogue option sounds as if it had been lifted from some boneheaded player-turned-commentator’s “keys to the game”: “Look for the open man,” “Don’t give up the big play.” You can’t destroy your surroundings in a fit of frustration, you can’t book a “team-building” boat cruise (à la the Minnesota Vikings), and you can’t re-create Jim Mora’s famous “Playoffs!?” meltdown with the media. Maybe in ’07.
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