NFL Head Coach Review (PC)

There was a period of time from about the age of 10 to 16 where I was sure that I was going to be an NFL football player when I grew up. I could throw. I could catch. I could hit. And I could take a hit. Somewhere around my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the NFL dream was simply that – a dream. I played a few more years before a shot in the back during an attempt to walk-on at my university caused me to hang up the cleats for good.

My playing days were done, but my love for the sport and what I had learned from it was stronger than ever. And the older I got, the more I respected the “X’s and O’s” of the game more than the physical ability to play it.

I’ve kind of gone through the same evolution in my sports gaming. I still love playing football games, but I find myself each year getting deeper and deeper into the off-the-field portions of the game. Whether it’s a Franchise, Dynasty or Owner Mode or even participating in an online league, I’m getting as much, or more, enjoyment between games then during the 60 minutes on the field.

That’s why I was so excited when I first heard that the team at EA Sports was taking a stab at a strategy/simulation title surrounding the duties of a head coach in the NFL - appropriately titled NFL Head Coach. Besides my love for all things football, I’ve also grown to love simulation games over the past four or five years. I’ve probably spent more total hours this year playing The Sims 2, The Movies, and Rollercoaster Tycoon for pleasure than I have on sports games. Sports gaming is still my first love, however, and between reviews, leagues, and “just for the heck of it games”, sports gaming still rules my consoles.

When I first popped NFL Head Coach into my Xbox, I had a head start. I’d been playing the PC version since release day - purely "off the clock" - just for fun. And while there aren’t major differences between the two titles, this review will be focusing on the Xbox review, using the PC version only as an occasional reference.

The concept of NFL Head Coach is pretty simple at the core. You are either the offensive or defensive mastermind behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl victory. Before you can even catch a flight out of Detroit after Super Bowl XL, it’s well known around the league that you are the next man to lead a franchise. A virtual Trey Wingo even lauds your talents on ESPN.

Your first task is to create your coach. You already made the decision whether to be the former offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator, so the first step is to decide some of your other philosophies. What type of offense you like to run. What your ideal defense is. These decisions start to shape your coach’s abilities. My created coach, who I named Luthor Van Dam after the man who never really got his chance to show that he was in fact the brains behind the Minnesota State Screaming Eagles, would be a former defensive coordinator who ran a vertical offense and a Cover-2 "D".

Shaping coach Van Dam’s look was my next task. The coach creator represents a decent first effort for a rookie series, but considering EA Sports has been using player creators for over a decade, I expected a little more. The options were deep but limited. Choosing different outfits for different situations is nice, but when there are only about four combinations of clothes, and most of them made me look like my seventh-grade gym teacher. I guess I didn’t expect EA to pull out a Sims 2-esque creator, but 90% of the coaches that I was able to create either looked like George Siefert or John Fox.

Next thing I knew, "Coach V" was in his home office ready to interview for a head coaching job. You’ll only have one interview - and though I tried to - I wasn’t able to find a way to fail it. The sim geek in me wanted to have the ability to tank an interview and either get no job offers (forcing me to simulate a year without a job) or get offered only coordinator jobs. Then again, that would be more like NFL Coach than NFL Head Coach.

During the interview, "Generic Owner Guy" asks you various questions about your coaching philosophy, demeanor and other areas, and you’ll actually watch your attributes change as you answer. It’s pretty simple to figure out rather quickly how to answer the questions to steer your coach down the path of a motivator or more of an “X’s and O’s” guy. I chose to have Luthor ring up the Ford family and interview with my beloved Lions. They changed coaches this off-season, so it didn't require the same suspension of disbelief as bouncing Marvin Lewis out of Cincy or coverboy Cowher out of Pittsburgh would. However, that is an option, and something I’d like to see changed in the future. Like the Coach's Mode on 2K’s College Hoops title, maybe give the user an option to play two different modes. One where you can interview for any job, and one where the job opportunities are more realistic would be a nice addition in a future release or expansion. Team-specific interview questions would be nice, too. If I interview in Atlanta, ask me questions about how I’d use Michael Vick.

Unbeknownst to me, the Lions must have had me on a conference call, because that one interview resulted in five job offers (as they always will). The expectations vary depending on the team's relative level of success. One team might want you to make the playoffs. Another may just want six wins. My offers looked like this:

Detroit: 4 years – $11.1 million
St. Louis: 3 years - $7.2 million
Green Bay: 3 years – $8.9 million
Minnesota: 4 years - $8.2 million
Houston: 5 years – $10 million

Coach Van Dam chose to join the Lions and try to build a winner in Detroit and become the Hall of Fame coach that he was destined to be. A brilliant career had begun.

The owner comes calling at this point and goes over some goals. The conversations in NFL Head Coach are usually limited to two reply options for each question or statement. Unfortunately, it seems like those options are either being a complete suck-up or a total jerk. There’s really no middle ground here.

The first matter of business was to meet with my coaching staff and start making decision on who I would be retaining and who I would send packing. Coach Van Dam decided to hold onto Mike Martz and Donnie Henderson at the coordinator spots. Even though Martz clearly didn’t like me from the beginning and has been nothing but a constant buzz-kill, coordinators and coaches that eventually become head coaches in other organizations help your legacy. It's kind of a build-your-own coaching tree.

When it came to the task of staffing my now-vacant position coaching spots, you are tasked with calling coaches and scheduling interviews. The information provided on the coach that you are scheduling with is very minimal, and you really only know their greatest strength at the beginning. I’d really like to see some scouting reports on these candidates or at least be able to sort the list by who fits my philosophy. If I’m going to run the Cover-2, I want assistants that know that system.

Once the coaching staff is in place, off-season activities begin. Remember, your career starts right after the Super Bowl, so it’s still February. You have months before you’re even going to the NFL Draft.

Your calendar is broken out into blocks of time where certain activities can take place. The AI will block out your calendar, as it deems necessary, leaving you the option to swap out certain activities with other. Some activities, however, are locked and cannot be moved. They must be entered or simulated through. While I understand that the calendar was probably necessary to the programming, it’s far too restrictive and not an accurate simulation in many, many ways.

For example, during “Office Hours”, you can work on your depth chart. However, you can literally only move two players during that period. If a real head coach was working on his depth chart, how realistic is it that he would do one or two moves and then move to the next activity? Certain activities really need to be opened up. The developers may want to consider going to a running clock during those periods where you can do as many things as possible, from, say, 1:00p to 4:00p, then you have to move on to a meeting.

During Office Hours, you’ll occasionally get an email from your staff or another team about a trade. Not only is their no direct link to look at the trade, but also you have to actually schedule a time period to work out that trade. That gives the game a cumbersome feel in places, which isn’t aided by the fact that the control interface is not ideal, even though it was definitely built toward the console version and not the PC.

As you prep for the draft, you’ll be visited by your scouting director to scout the draft class. Some prospects are already scouted when you get started, but most are simply displayed as a range of possible ratings. You have to tell the scouting director whom to scout. And even at that, you’ll find some players listed as “PS” or "Poorly Scouted", and you have to use one of your eight spots to re-scout him.

As a quick side note, I hate my scouting director. And, in the twist of twists, you can’t fire him.

Before you get to the draft, you’ll have the opportunity to resign your players and tender offers to RFAs (Restricted Free Agents). One word of caution, make sure you pay attention to the compensation for the RFAs or you’ll suddenly find yourself without draft picks. Coach Van Dam decided to stay out of the RFA market for just that reason.

It’s important to remember during this period that the game takes place before the real NFL off-season, so most of the moves that took place in the real NFL are not in the game. Drew Brees is still on the Saints. Daunte Culpepper is not a Dolphin. And so on. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything about that without making every possible trade and move for each team which would likely take just shy of 27 years to execute. Let’s hope for some type of roster update or at least the ability to make moves before you begin your career is added in a future release.

The draft itself is a lot of fun. Mel Kiper kicks off the show with a little pomp and circumstance that actually got me a little hyped up. During the draft itself, it’s just you and the scouting director in the "war room". You can simulate straight to your pick, but I really enjoy letting the draft run. It doesn’t take long between picks and Kiper actually comes back and gives his take on each selection. Well done, EA.

When you’re on the board, your scouting director will give his opinion on whom to take. You can take his advice and give him a warm fuzzy by way of a positive response , represented by a plus sign, which, like all other characters in the game, will improve your relationship. Or, like I do, blow him off and watch him pout. I told you I hated the guy. In fact, after blowing off his first two selections and grabbing Jay Cutler in the first round and Claude Wroten in the second, when I went to him for his advice in the third round, he said, “Not like you’re going to listen to me anyway.” What a baby.

After the draft, you still have the UFA (Unrestricted Free Agents) signing period to deal with, as well as time to sign your draft picks. Not to mention you still have your weekly meetings with the owner and your coaches.

Are you starting to get an idea of the depth of NFL Head Coach?

When I started my career with Coach Van Dam, I actually spent 8.5 hours of total playing time before I hit my first practice. You can certainly speed that up with some simulation here and there, but it’s a testament to how much this game can pull you in.

Eventually, you’ll have a staff in place and a roster (somewhat) locked in. That’s when training camp will begin and you’ll start holding on-field practices with your team. There are different types of drills, including Contact and Non-contact drills, Pass Skeletons, and OL vs. DL trench fights. Practices are used to raise the confidence and abilities of your players between games. You’ll choose the plays and the players either individually or by depth chart unit, and watch the action unfold. You’ll be able to stop and talk to individual players or entire units between reps to boost or crush their self-esteem. You’ll also be able to talk strategy about how you want to see a certain play run. If your halfback is bouncing the Misdirection play outside instead of hitting the hole, tell him about it.

The more you run particular plays during practices, the better you will know them and be able to execute them in the game. NFL Head Coach will track this number as you build towards making it a “Money Play”. Now, personally, I wish EA had picked a different name than “Money Play”, simply because of the negative connotation that it has - especially in the online "cheeser" world - but it does get the point across.

The cycle continues to repeat until you get into pre-season, where things remain similar, with the addition of the weekly pre-season game. Now you actually get to hit the field for the first time.

The gameplay on gameday is taken directly from an old Madden engine. There’s nothing new or groundbreaking in what you are physically seeing on the field, simply in how you are influencing it. Your coordinators will give you play recommendations during the game and you will have the choice to go with their choice or freelance. You call the plays, but you are doing nothing to actually control them.

On offense, once your team takes it to the line of scrimmage, you do have a variety of options, including audibles, line shifts, WR progressions, and motion. You can get everything set just how you want it before snapping the ball. However, once you’ve snapped it, you just have to sit back and hope you’ve coached them well, because what unfolds on the field is dictated completely by the AI. That’s a new and fun experience. But, if they truly wanted to make offense accurate from a head coach’s perspective, the QB needs to be more autonomous. I shouldn’t be calling the audibles, he should. I shouldn’t be changing assignments, he should. That’s a level or realism that was missed here.

Defense and special teams work pretty much the same way as offense, but like the "O", I think you are given a little too much control. If you let the linebacker be the defensive QB, it puts more of an onus of responsibility on you to get the right personnel. I know; usually people will complain about not having enough control, but I’m saying that there's too much.

The gameplay itself stays constant into the regular season, but it is important to point out that the pre-season games do not have any type of logical substitution pattern to get the second and third stringers in. Yes, that is probably intentional to force you to make those decisions, but the AI doesn’t do it either.

Speaking of AI, one thing that will upset more than a few of today’s sports gamers is the lack of sliders to make game adjustments. As a reviewer, I always play games at the default settings during a review, but as a gamer, I would make a few adjustments to this game (like lowering the overwhelming number of interceptions) if I were playing the game for fun. Sliders will be a welcome addition in a future installment.

The cycle of practices and games continues throughout the season as you drive your way towards your ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl and becoming a coaching legend. Just like in the real NFL, in NFL Head Coach, the season never really ends; the year just changes.

The next time they hold an EA/EA Sports company picnic, I would suggest that the makers of NFL Head Coach wander over to the EA/Maxis table. I really love the concept of this game, and really respect the level of depth that they got into a first release. However, we know that simulations can be done far better than simply adding graphical representation to a text-based game. The limits that have been placed on this game are frustrating and at times illogical. They really need to open this game up for it to grow. Give me a whistle, some gym teacher shorts, and a little bit more freedom and I’m hooked.

That said, the future of this series is bright. I do believe there is a market for this game. I’m not sure that I will or would ever export my coach or team to Madden, but I think there is some exciting potential. In fact, I see a market for an NCAA Head Coach game that links all four EA Sports football titles. Play a little theater of the mind with me.

You could start as an NCAA player in their new Student Athlete mode. From there, you move your player into Madden’s Superstar mode to play out your NFL career. Upon retirement, you try out coaching in a new NCAA Head Coach game. When you’re ready for the big time, you export to NFL Head Coach.

Are you listening EA? Put me in, Coach.

While we’re waiting for EA to call me and thank me for my idea, NFL Head Coach is a solid first effort. This game is certainly worth a look for the hardcore football fans or the gamers looking for a nice pre-Madden fix.

NFL Head Coach Score
out of 10