NFL Head Coach 09 Review (Xbox 360)
When it comes to football gamers, the vast majority will look at something like NFL Head Coach 09 (NFLHC) and ask one simple question.
You don’t control the players. A football game where you don’t control the action on the field seems rather unconventional to most gamers, but there is actually a large market for players who would rather coach than play. While not quite on the same level as PC-based text simulations, NFLHC is deeper and more engrossing than any console sports simulation that has come before it. If you’ve ever wanted to look over depth charts, assess salary cap situations, develop young players, and find draft-day steals, Head Coach is for you.
The first thing you’ll notice when you hop into a Coach Now game is that the game looks horribly bland compared to Madden NFL 09. It’s running on what appears to be the last-gen Madden engine, so it doesn’t have any of the pizzazz of next-gen Madden. The field textures look rather ugly, and the players themselves make it seem like you're watching an original Xbox game from any of the cameras that you choose. I tend to alternate between broadcast, cinematic, and overhead for my camera choices, as none of them give you that “real” TV look, and most are far away from the action. Why they didn’t put an actual sideline cam from the coach’s eyes in the game is anyone’s guess.
The audio isn’t anything to write home about, with a white noise crowd sound in the background, and your coordinators rattling in your ear. The actual play calls are great to hear, but if I have to hear, “We’ll win this game one inch at a time … one inch at a time,” ONE MORE TIME, I’ll scream.
Head Coach 09 had to improve off of the dreadful original Head Coach, right?
At the very least, Adam Schefter and the NFL Network integration are fantastic. Hearing him rip your game plan preparation for the upcoming week, or break down the upcoming draft class is golden. If you pay attention and take quick notes as he rattles off names, you can even zero in on future stars or busts when it comes time to scout. Schefter adds a lot to the overall experience, and I found myself actually looking forward to the little blurbs he’d spout when the TV would pop up for an NFL update.
Thankfully, even with last-gen graphics and ho-hum sound, you will still find yourself sucked into the game due to the authenticity of the on-field action and the overwhelming depth of the Career mode.
The bulk of the Head Coach experience is played out through Career mode. The majority of most gamers' time spent in the game will be here. You start by choosing which team to coach, and whether you want to take over as an existing coach or create a new one. I don’t know many gamers that would prefer to act as if they were possessing the body of their favorite team’s coach, so I’d have to guess that most will go through the incredibly deep coach creation process.
To begin with, you must give your alter ego a name and a body style. There are over 100 avatars to choose from, but sadly you can’t customize parts like a lot of gamers may be accustomed to. You just choose an overall model and name, and off you go. At least you have a wide variety of models to choose from, and most people will be able to find one that at least vaguely resembles them. I found four, but ended up choosing one that looked about 20 years older than me.
The interface in Head Coach 09 gives you a lot of information and can be overwhelming, but it's better.
Once you get past your name and your looks, you’re hit with the first of many overwhelming choices that you’ll face during your time with the game: your personality. Do you want to be a “guru,” which is the E.F. Hutton of football? Would you rather be a "traditionalist," an opponent-crushing "titan," or a "superstar"? Possibly the mad scientist-like "analyst," concocting plays in a sealed room is more your cup of tea? The choice you make at the beginning of the game really affects how you will interact with your team, so it’s not one to be taken lightly. It’s something to keep in mind during everything you do while acting as an NFL Head Coach.
Personality will only get you so far, though. What about skills? The truly great coaches can motivate players to perform at a level that may be greater than the player’s own ability. NFLHC has an RPG-style skill system that models this fantastically well. You can choose to make your coach better at developing both physical and intangible attributes for players at all positions, assign special skills that make all players reporting to this coach perform better, improve all aspects of run blocking, etc. The choices you make have a tangible difference on how your team performs, so choose wisely.
Some of the choices, however, don’t have much use if you’re physically coaching your games instead of simming. As far as I can tell, the Play Calling and Adjustment special abilities seem unimportant if I’m calling my own plays and adjusting, but would be vital if I were simulating games and I had total control otherwise. My first run-through of a preseason I coached all of my games, and came out of it with a 2-2 record using the Raiders. My second one, I simulated and came out 0-4 with two games where I was shut out entirely. The talent level wasn’t any different; my coach’s simulated ability was though.
Once you have spent your initial batch of attribute points and determined your personality, you can choose whether to begin at the start of the 2008 offseason, or just before training camp. If you re-do the offseason, everything that’s happened since the playoffs in the real NFL season will not be reflected in your coaching career. You’ll go through free agency, the draft, and training camp again. If you choose to begin with preseason, you will open training camp with your team’s current roster.
Negotiating player contracts is one of many duties you will have to perform in Head Coach 09.
It is here that you’ll be hit with the first of many waves of intimidation that Head Coach will throw at you, regardless of whether you start during the offseason or preseason. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the first hour in NFLHC may be the most intimidating and overwhelming experience that you will have in a sports game. There are so many tasks that you can do, and so much to cover, that you can’t help but feel a bit daunted by the monumental task ahead of you.
Fortunately, most of the tasks are streamlined to the "clipboard," which is essentially the entire interface for NFLHC. As opportunities arrive to complete tasks within the game world, you get notifications on your clipboard. Pressing the A button opens up the notification, allowing you to take action or dismiss it (it can also be dismissed by pressing B on the clipboard itself). This is a much more streamlined interface than the clunky “meeting room” in the first Head Coach. You can quickly and easily access current tasks from the clipboard.
I started my Raiders career in the preseason, with a fairly accurate roster of players. One oddity that most players will see is that their top draft choice isn’t shown on the roster anywhere. Darren McFadden, Oakland’s fourth overall selection in the draft, was shown as a draft result, but not listed on the depth chart or roster. Eventually, he comes to you with a "rookie negotiation," which allows you to sign him to a contract and put him on the team; but it’s a bit strange at first, especially considering other rookies were already on the team. He was also assigned the wrong number by default. It seems an undrafted camp invitee had stolen McFadden's number 20, but that was quickly and easily corrected by editing his jersey number from the player management tab of the clipboard.
The pressure will be on from your owner and from fans to win on day one, be prepared.
Once you start seeing the notifications pop up on the clipboard, you’re in for a wild and enjoyable ride. In my first preseason, I was presented with trade offers, able to enter into negotiations with free agents, set practice game plan agendas, and develop rookie players on a daily basis. One thing that immediately struck me as impressive was the fact that teams kept offering me a right guard, which was a significant point of weakness and lack of depth on my team. This happened in several offseasons and during the draft, where teams kept trying to offer me overpriced mediocre guards to take advantage of my desperation for a quick fix at a hole I had. Very cool.
When you start to game plan for your first opponent, you can start to get confused again. Several times a week, you’re asked to game plan a practice. Your options are to boost a particular play, train individual players, or set agendas (like focusing on the defensive line stopping inside runs, for example). How you choose to practice that week will have a drastic effect on how your team performs on game day, which is how it should be. My first few weeks of practice, Adam Schefter of the NFL Network came on a miniature TV, saying how unprepared my team was, and how far ahead my opponent was in regards to preparation.
This can lead to some frustration for gamers, as you’re not really sure why he’s saying this, or what you’ve done wrong. The clipboard is a very handy tool for dealing with the day-to-day affairs of a franchise, but it’s not the most helpful thing as far as knowing what exact effect your choice will have. This is a situation that will crop up throughout your time with the game. You’re presented with a wealth of data from a bird’s eye view, but the nitty gritty is contained somewhere else. You may want to negotiate a contract with a player, but you can’t see the ramifications on your salary cap for the next three years, for example. It’s not a problem as much as it is a desire to have a bit more streamlining than there already is. In some cases, you need to back all the way out of the current activities to sift a few tabs over and view the information you want to see.
Sometimes you’ll also end up with goals that aren’t easily understandable. You may end up with a goal to increase a player’s playbook knowledge to 25 percent during the preseason, but only rookies show up on the focus options; so, if you have a GM that’s recommending you increase the knowledge for three veterans, you may end up confused. You have to play the players during preseason and insert them into the lineup while calling many different plays to handle this, but it’s not readily apparent to begin with (and the typically flimsy EA instruction pamphlet barely covers anything).
At any rate, you will be able to get done what you need to get done, even if you hop from screen to screen occasionally to do it. The objective you should keep in mind for practice is to get the largest amount of players to learn the plays that you want to run. It sounds simple, but it’s tough to keep in mind when you have so much that you can do. You will be running a much smaller play set in Week 1 of preseason than you will be in Week 17 of the regular season, I guarantee it. The reasoning behind that fact is the most realistic thing you’ll see in a sports simulation.
Head Coach even nails the regional weather for the offices! Maybe it was just by chance.
You see, you can’t just call plays and have them work. Since you don’t directly control the players, you need to actually be a coach and run these plays in practice (or game situations) so that the players can learn them. If a play is “unlearned” based on the knowledge rating, then there is a far greater chance of one of your 11 players blowing an assignment, leading to failed blocks or blown coverages. I can’t tell you how incredible it is to have that realistically frustrating feeling of being handcuffed by your young quarterback’s lack of knowledge of the playbook.
Using JaMarcus Russell, I had flashes of brilliance from my young gun. One game, he would throw pinpoint passes all over the field, causing me to open up more of the playbook. He was just “in a zone.” Other games, he would be 8-28 with three interceptions. As the deficit grew, I was forced to choose whether or not to throw more, which led to more turnovers. Since half the team didn’t know all of the passing plays I was trying to call, it was a game where I was practically run out of the stadium by halftime.
Conversely, when I was able to focus on my running game, and had a large number of rushing plays to choose from midway through a season, I was able to grind out a game and only ask JaMarcus to throw 10 or 12 times a game, and had much better success. Coaching as the Colts, I could call 45 passes a game with very little risk; with the Raiders, it was a guaranteed way to lose quickly.
I’m confident that no two coaching careers will be identical, because no two coaches are identical.
That’s the beauty of the knowledge system. Each practice you can focus on improving your team in a way that only you may understand. I’m confident that no two coaching careers will be identical, because no two coaches are identical. My analyst, run specialist coach, who had skills completely slanted toward the offensive and defensive lines, as well as the running back abilities, was able to create a dominant running game in practice by working on individual between-the-tackles rushing plays and focusing on Darren McFadden’s playbook knowledge every other week or so.
I used the same personnel with a guru personality and a larger focus on the passing game, and the run blocking was nowhere near the level it had been with my previous coach. JaMarcus was more consistent, however. His decisions were better, and he threw into double coverage much less. That level of coaching depth is amazing, and provides infinite replayability in a sim like this, which is a requirement when you can’t physically control the players.
In addition to making sure that your players know the plays, you also work on keeping them happy. Happy players perform better, and during key plays in a game, you are able to give an “emotional” or “calm” response to sway your players’ approval of you. The idea here is to raise their approval and encourage them to play harder. It’s not very simple, either. Players all have different things that they want to see from you in different situations. Thomas Howard of the Raiders wants me to show emotion when he scores a TD, but not if he makes a sack or has a big tackle for a loss. McFadden doesn’t want emotion unless he has a huge run. I guess he expects to score and rush for 150 yards, so I should expect it as well.
Learning your roster is a game within a game, finding out how to best relate to your players without pampering them is very tricky. Johnnie Lee Higgins dropped a pass, and I was calm (most players approve of you if you don’t jump down their throats when they make a mistake). After the third dropped pass, I was still calm, but his approval actually dipped. After that, I started dogging him for every mistake in the game, and eventually his approval rating was pretty low … but he quit making mistakes. Within six games he was my leading receiver and I had elevated him to the starting lineup due to his ability to hold on to the ball and make plays. That kind of unpredictable play is what makes NFLHC such a gem.
Keep an eye on that approval, keeping it high will keep you gainfully employed.
Approval doesn’t stop with the players, either. You are constantly trying to please everybody, from the owner, to the coaches, and even the media and fans. It’s a slippery slope to be the toast of the town, though, as you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in a matter of weeks if you’re not careful. I started my career with a horrendous approval rating (does any coach in Oakland ever NOT start already on the hot seat?), but after three straight divisional wins, I had it all the way up to a 94 in my first season. I was riding high.
Then the losses started to mount.
The Chargers stomped me. I decided not to go for it on a 4th and 2 from midfield against the Broncos while leading by two, and my approval plummeted -- that’s rather odd, by the way. A coach may play the “smart” move and punt, yet your owner is furious with you for giving the team the best probability of winning. I decided to simulate the rest of the season to see how it handled it, and my horribly-rated coach finished out the year winless, and in the unemployment line. The Raiders firing a coach after only one season? Shocker.
That’s what makes it such a unique experience though. You’re constantly tasked with handling duties that a real coach must: pleasing fans, the media, players, and even sportscasters. Off the field, coaches must deal with a bunch of extra information and issues, and the same thing happens in NFLHC. It’s not just about what you do on game day, but what you do between game days as well.
On The Field
On the field, however, NFLHC could be some of the most rewarding simulated football I’ve experienced. In the first Head Coach, you couldn’t really call a realistic game plan since the AI wouldn’t follow a logical pattern. You could call a simple screen pass, but the QB would heave a huge rainbow ball down the field for no apparent reason. The running game was a joke, as the CPU could never mount a consistent attack, let alone against another CPU opponent.
Thankfully, that’s all a thing of the past, at least for the most part.
Calling a game has never been more fun than it is in NFLHC. You can genuinely stick to a game plan and hammer away at a defense’s interior, or attack the perimeter with quick passes. The AI is generally believable, with the occasional instance of the running back getting strung out along the line of scrimmage, running slightly backwards before being tackled for a loss. Those are few and far between with a decent running back, however.
Lesser backs may plow into blockers or dance around too much in the hole, but you can honestly tell the difference between a superstar back and a career journeyman. Backs like Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson can find the smallest crease and explode for a huge gain, while undrafted rookies and backup tailbacks seem to dance around in the backfield, getting popped for a loss more often than premier runners.
The differences between average NFL players and the elite ones are noticeable at every position, not just with tailbacks. The difference between Peyton Manning and Rex Grossman is huge. JaMarcus Russell took a lot more time to find a receiver than Kurt Warner. Even defensive players seem to be standouts: on my Raiders squad, Thomas Howard seemed to be everywhere, stopping runs in the backfield, intercepting passes, and even getting sacks. You’ll really get a feel for your team as you play.
These guys aren't going to be happy if you blow this one coach.
If you know OTHER teams, you’ll be one step ahead of the game, as well. The tendencies of the teams you’ll face in NFLHC are remarkably similar to the real clubs. In my first game against Denver, I had a chance to focus on outside runs, but instead worked on my own passing game. The Broncos promptly shredded my defense for almost 200 yards on the ground, almost all of them on cutbacks and stretch plays. In the rematch, I worked diligently with my linebackers on the outside runs, and the Broncos' rushing total was cut to a paltry 75 yards.
If you’re not too familiar with defense, but know the offense inside and out, you can even hand over the reins to your defensive coordinator on that side of the ball, or even jump to Supersim mode, where you see a web-style graphic of the field (like you were watching a real game on NFL.com in progress). With Oakland, Rob Ryan is rated as an 86 overall defensive coordinator, so I would frequently dismiss the play call on defense, allowing him to call his own scheme. More often than not, he was much better than I was when I attempted to call the schemes, as he seemed to call the plays based on the personnel better than I did.
The knowledge carries over to the defense as well, so even if you only run 10 or 12 defensive plays, if your players know them really well, you can be successful. The Tampa Bay Bucs used a lot of variations of the now famous “Tampa 2” defense in 2002, and had great success. That type of formula is modeled in NFLHC, where elite talent and thorough play knowledge can be a formula for success, even more than having 200 defensive plays. What’s the point of having a billion plays if your players can’t successfully run them?
All is not candy and roses on the field, though. In its current state, NFLHC plays a sublime game of football 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent can be extremely frustrating, however. For starters, fumbles seem to be really out of whack some games, and completely fine in others. I’m all for random occurrences, and players sometimes have bad games. I also understand that the current issue may be handing the ball off too many times to your running back, or his fatigue being low. That’s all fine.
The problem I have is that it’s not MY team who is having a problem fumbling. The CPU seems to put the ball on the ground at an alarming frequency. The worst instance of note in my experience so far would be LaDainian Tomlinson fumbling four times in my game against the Chargers, losing three. Tomlinson has 24 fumbles (with 10 lost) in his career -- on 2,365 touches. He lost four in 26 touches in my game (and I have never even used the “stop HB by forcing fumbles” agenda). When that kind of unbelievable weirdness can occur in a game, it loses some of that immersion.
A patch is said to be in the works to look at the fumble mechanic, as most of the fumbles seem to occur after jarring hits. Either toning down the big hits or giving ball carriers better ability to hold onto the ball against those hits is probably the solution, but in its current state, the fumbles are a definite problem. Human players can probably learn to call their game a bit on the conservative side to avoid it, but it’s a glaring problem for the CPU. Other issues like late-game clock management, where your own team may just run out the clock when trailing by three and in field goal range, are very tough to deal with when the rest of the game is so realistic. You also have a lot of NFL kickers who can’t kick a 45-yard field goal without clanging it off of the crossbar, or kicking it short altogether. I never knew kickers were so limp-legged!
But the real stumbling block for NFL Head Coach 09 so far seems to be the buggy release. This is a double-edged sword with any release, as you can expect some bugs to crop up post-release. It’s the nature of software development. You can test all you want on ten or twenty machines, but when you release it to hundreds of thousands, little things pop up that you never saw in your test environment. Things like the starting fullback for the Raiders, Justin Griffith, having his career stats in 2007 showing as “ATL,” when he was playing for Oakland. Little things that are easily overlooked.
These stumbling block bugs I speak of are not like those.
These are career breaking, hair-pulling issues. In its release state, simply following the prompts on your clipboard into the play creator will permanently break injuries in your career. That’s right, nobody will ever be injured again, and nobody who’s currently injured will ever heal. By itself, that is a huge, glaring issue. How something like that escapes testing, assuming the testers simply played through the game like a normal person would is beyond me. It would be pretty strange if I was simply play testing a game and a receiver with a sprained wrist (listed as 2-4 days) was out for nine weeks with no hint of getting better.
All in all, though, the on-field gameplay feels very authentic. I had the same feeling watching my defense play in NFLHC as I do on Sundays...
To their credit, the developers have really stepped up to the plate and been extremely active with the community here at OS. I give them top marks for communication and giving us workarounds for the major issues that exist with the game currently. Most of the current bugs have workarounds, and many of them I wouldn’t have ever personally seen (other than the obvious injury bug) without reading forum posts. Others seem to be in situations that rarely happen.
A CPU-controlled team running out of healthy players at QB, for example, fills the spot with a CB or TE or somebody who can’t play the position, and never signs another worthwhile QB to fill in. These issues, although not terribly common, are understandably huge when you have the Green Bay Packers playing a backup WR as the QB, completing 2-30 throws on his way to a 0.0 rating, nine interception day. Hopefully, by the time the stand-alone game “officially” launches in September, things like this will be ironed out.
All in all, though, the on-field gameplay feels very authentic. I had the same feeling watching my defense play in NFLHC as I do on Sundays watching the real thing, including a few “jump out of my chair cheering” moments when Nnamdi Asomugha or Thomas Howard would make a game-changing play on defense. Examining a team’s roster to find their weakest positions, and coming up with a game plan in practice to attack those positions, is incredibly fun. To see my players execute it on game day, pounding the opponent into a bloody pulp in the hometown stadium, is beyond rewarding. Even with the high number of bugs (most of which can be worked around), the game day experience is second to none, even if you’re not actually controlling the players.
On field gameplay will only get you so far in terms of longevity, though. The average gamer will probably play a season or two at the most if his team remains the same or it’s too easy to build a team up from cellar dweller to Super Bowl champion in no time.
Thankfully, the process of improving your team is far from easy. For starters, since I’m always the Raiders in my football games, I’m in Salary Cap Hell immediately. I have under-talented players who command huge chunks of the salary cap with no real way to get rid of them. Terdell Sands carries a $3 million dollar signing bonus, and he’s rated a 63. Explain that one to me. The worst defensive tackle on my squad is a player that I can’t cut without putting myself over the cap.
Speaking of ratings, evaluating your players is quite possibly the best it’s ever been in a football game. Your player ratings are based on your GM’s ability to evaluate the player, as well as the player’s strengths within the system that you run. If you are running a West Coast offense, but sign a QB who can throw it a mile (yet not very accurate on the short throws), that QB might be rated a 50. When you put that same QB in a system that is run-heavy and throws deep bombs off of play action, his rating might jump to an 85. That kind of rating system makes it feel more authentic than anything else -- “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has never been more appropriate. Thanks to Tennessee for cutting that TE who can’t block, he’s an 80 in my system, since he just needs to catch passes!
Coupled with the overall rating is also the potential rating. This gives you an approximation of how good the player can become. I’m not sure whether I like it or not. If I draft a player and he has a 95 potential, that really seems to take a lot of the guess work out of the team building process. If I just continually find guys with a high potential, then I’ll constantly be building a better club, and always be improving, right?
That potential may or may not be reached with your current coaching staff and scheme. If you have a horrendous defensive line coach, even a future Hall of Famer won’t develop properly. In theory, you can collect high-potential players, but having them reach that potential is a tricky juggling act with game experience, practice focus, and coaching -- as it should be. I’m just not sure if I like having a player’s potential spelled out for me in a hard-coded rating box.
Did we mention the pressure would be on to win and win now?
Either way, not many gamers will be able to collect a stable of Pro Bowl players on their roster. You really need to be a shrewd negotiator to even keep the players that you have, let alone bring in new ones. If NFLHC has taught me one thing that cannot be disputed, it’s that I am a horrible GM. When I see “money to spend”, I spend it. And spend it. And suddenly, it’s draft day and I can’t even sign my first-round pick because I spent $20 million on a superstar guard and tackle, and assigned the franchise designation to an above-average (but not fantastic) linebacker that I just didn’t want to lose.
As a testament to my inept abilities as a GM, I will describe for you my five-month tenure at the Miami Dolphins, which is where I went after Oakland fired me upon the simulated loss streak to end the 2008 campaign.
I signed with the Dolphins, which took me to free agency and college scouting. I went after Logan Mankins like he was the last LG on the planet, showering the 93-rated player with millions. I franchised the 81-rated MLB Channing Crowder, not realizing the huge eight-figure salary cap hit it would give me. I had $150,000 of cap space, and I hadn’t even reached the draft yet.
I spent much of the months leading up to the draft trying to determine which players to scout, and which pro days to attend. Pro days in particular are very cool, as you have a choice of which school to send scouts to. Do you ignore the big schools and focus on the mid-range schools that may only have two or three recruits, but possibly find a huge potential player that nobody knows about? I actually had a DT from Fresno State rated number two on my board heading into the pro days, and managed to find a DT from Wisconsin that was unknown, yet my scouts rated even higher than the all-world Fresno State kid. Very cool.
Not content to actually do anything good in my offseason without an equal dose of ineptitude, I continued my three ring circus of an offseason to the draft, where I wheeled and dealed with the CPU teams that were constantly offering me trades. While it was nice that I was being offered trade after trade, it would also be nice to have a brain. Knowing that I probably wouldn’t make it very long, I decided to see how badly I could pull a Nick Saban on the Dolphins. I traded away 2010 draft picks, 2011 draft picks -- whatever teams wanted, I at least listened. I ended up picking #2 overall, #5 overall, and #16 overall. Then I didn’t have a choice until the fourth round.
With those players, I figured I had three solid starters for the team. I mean, common sense would tell you that if you picked that high in the draft, you are sitting pretty. Now, imagine having three picks in the top 16 and you have $150,000 of cap space. I spent the next 30 minutes cutting players (many of whom were starters) to try and even get the first two signed and under the cap. I was given a warning that if I cut many more players I would be fired, and then another stating that I was racking up too many salary cap penalties, and I would be fired.
And then I was fired.
I can’t put into words how cool that experience was. It will really take some savvy would-be GMs to gather elite talent and depth at every position, while not putting themselves in salary cap hell. The player negotiations are fun, as the players will tell you which package they want and you can counter back with a lower offer. But if you low-ball them, they could walk and never sign with you, no matter what you throw at them. So not only do you have to deal with collecting talent at affordable cap hits, but you have to get them right, as well. One wrong choice at the top of your draft can literally handcuff you for years, as it should.
In the end, I’ve discovered that I’m a fantastic game planner and coach, and a horrid general manager and personnel man. When a game can teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know, that’s pretty amazing.
On my third go-around as a career coach, I finally got it right. I started again with the Raiders, built a power running scheme that I wanted to run with McFadden, Fargas, and Bush, and hit an absolute home run with the preseason and game plan preparation. I began dismantling teams 27-7 on their home turf. I was rushing for 200-plus yards a game, and surrendering 10 points a game. Everything clicked. Then the injuries came.
First it was Fargas. Then it was Griffith. Then Derrick Burgess. Then DeAngelo Hall. Then Kwame Harris. I literally lost half of my 22 starters in the span of four weeks. I went from 7-1 and sitting pretty to 8-7 and facing a must-win game at the end of the season to even have a shot at a wild-card game. I didn’t win.
I got fired again.
In the end, I’ve discovered that I’m a fantastic game planner and coach, and a horrid general manager and personnel man. When a game can teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know, that’s pretty amazing. At its core it is a coaching simulation, and outside of a few AI quirks (that are hopefully addressed with a patch), it’s the best in the business, reminding me of my early days of PC gaming, when Front Page Sports: Football Pro was the gold standard. Up until its last release (still one of the only games I can ever remember that got recalled after release due to its buggy state), FPS Football was the only game that had me going to bed thinking about how to develop my team. A good coaching sim can do that, but even the best text sim won’t hook a player if they want to physically SEE what’s going on (like me).
Speaking of seeing what’s going on -- if you’re an online gamer, you’ll be sorely disappointed. You only have the Supersim mode available, with no graphics. That’s not too big of a deal to me, but when you combine that with the fact that you have absolutely NO substitutions -- or if they're there I haven't found them online -- and you only get “Larry Johnson rushes for 42 yards” as a text result, it’s maddening. Did he rush over the right side? Left side? Was it a counter, or a draw? A dive? Did somebody miss a tackle? Absolutely nothing gets conveyed to the “coach” online, which ends up playing like a random game of darts. You pick a play and your opponent picks a play, and you’re not exactly sure why it worked (or didn’t work). Online play is an afterthought and good for a quick distraction, but not worth visiting very often. I feel like it was put in there just to say it had online, but not really fleshed out enough to be a true feature.
When you boil it down, though, NFL Head Coach is the best coaching sim on the console market. It’s exhaustively deep, and there is a believable game of football going on when you’re on the field. You can build your team any way you like, and your choices have concrete results on the practice field, and on game day. There’s a HUGE need for a game like this in the marketplace, and I honestly believe that I’ll be playing Head Coach all year and possibly into next. The incredibly difficult challenge of building up the sad-sack Raiders into a contender (or even to avoid getting fired) is too great to ignore.
For me, it’s closer to a 10. I found it extremely easy to look past some of the issues that it has since I was easily able to work around them, and the on-field action kept me up until two in the morning
There are some notable bugs (some of which will really get to a large percentage of gamers), but they’re not bugs that have no workarounds, or are completely game breaking. I’ve never struggled so much over a score as I have with NFL Head Coach 09. On one hand, it doesn’t have full-featured online play, and it’s got a somewhat large bug list. On the other hand, I have had the best football gaming experience of my console life while playing the game. I could see reviews scoring this anywhere from a 7 to 10 due to the very niche gameplay style of coaching, as well as the bugs and oddities.
For me, it’s closer to a 10. I found it extremely easy to look past some of the issues that it has since I was easily able to work around them, and the on-field action kept me up until two in the morning. However, without online play, I can’t give it a score like that. But if there was ever the very definition of a realistic, deep, and fun football game, NFL Head Coach is it. There are parts of the interface that should be improved (contract negotiations, defensive audibles during the hurry-up offense, adjustments in general), but overall, the game is incredible. I’d also go so far as to say it’s one of the most significant releases in console football history for football aficionados.
On the Field
Best in the business. With the exception of too many fumbles and the occasional weirdness that reminds you that it's a game, you can really believe that the players are NFL players, and not AI routines.
Serviceable, but decidedly last-gen. It gets the job done, but nothing will wow you graphically.
Adam Schefter's presentation during the tasks is great. The breakdown of the draft and upcoming draft classes is superb. Coach chatter is forgettable.
Off the charts if you're a football die hard. Think you can do a better job than your favorite team's coach or GM? Here's your chance to prove it, and get completely engrossed in the process.
It can be fairly steep early on. Once you get through the preseason, most gamers will have a handle on how to operate. Putting it all together and building a contender will definitely take some time. You're in for the long haul with this one.
Non-existent. It gives basic single game sessions, but with no graphics, substitutions, or even summaries of the plays called. Just a very basic interaction overall. Thankfully, this game is all about building your team, and not many aspiring GMs will spend much time competing online with default rosters.