Alex Smith is as frustrating to play with in "Madden NFL 13" as he is to watch in real life.
That's the first lesson I learned by playing through a season as the 49ers in the game's new Connected Careers mode, as I attempted to bring San Francisco its first football championship since the Steve Young era.
This is my story ...
If you're learning about "Madden 13" for the first time, there are two huge additions, and one big subtraction, from past "Madden" games that you should know right up front. First off, the game's physics have been completely revamped to include real-time collisions, helping the game look and feel fresh. I've seen more cool tackles, diving catches and running backs struggling for extra yards in a week playing "Madden 13" than I can remember out of the last few years of playing past games combined. Second, the game's old franchise mode is gone in favor of a new feature called Connected Careers, where you take command of a coach (controlling the entire team) or NFL player (controlling only that one player) and play through season after season in hopes of boosting your overall legacy score. Get sick of your coach or player, and all you do is simply retire and move on to control a new superstar or team.
What this means is you can no longer use a fantasy draft since you are supposed to be stepping foot in the current-day NFL. It's also a lot tougher to simulate right through any specific time period, because when you control your team, you also control practice time, upgrading player attributes, trades and free agency. There's a lot to get through on a week-by-week basis, which is great for gamers who want to feel like they control it all, but not so great for anyone looking to quickly play through a single season or attempt to simulate how your team is going to do on a weekly basis for real-life comparison or betting. (Yes, people have told me that they use "Madden" to help them place wagers.)
I start my Connected Career, and I can either create my own coach, be a legendary coach such as Tom Flores (Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, John Madden and Joe Gibbs won't be unlocked until September for some reason, according to the game) or take over the virtual life of a current NFL head coach such as Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh is rated an 82 overall as a head coach, with an 83 for offense and an 87 for defensive schemes. I set the difficulty to All-Pro, and within seconds, the preseason is here.
Mark Schlereth tweets in the game that if there is any coach who can deal with pressure, it's Harbaugh. Thanks, Mark. Meanwhile, Skip Bayless tweets that he thinks by the end of the season, Trent Richardson will be talked about as a top back in the NFL.
I click on My Career and am given a season goal to reach the conference championship. I'm then given a checklist of actions, including making cuts, practicing and playing my first preseason game. Before I do anything, I click on the free-agent list and see familiar names such as Plaxico Burress and Albert Haynesworth out there, but man, I can't stomach Plax and Randy Moss on the same team, even if it is a video game.
Besides, looking up and down the 49ers' roster, they seem to be pretty deep. If anyone gets injured, maybe I'll come back to this list, but for now, I head to practice, scratching my head as I see the Vikings have signed Donovan McNabb to be their quarterback. Isn't the definition of insanity repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Click on practice, and the first thing you need to do is pick a scenario, from the easy -- up by 10 in the third quarter, hang on to win -- to the more difficult -- down eight with three minutes left in the game. It's up to you what type of challenge you want to present to your squad. The harder the task, the more XP you earn for your coach if you succeed. You can cash in this XP to upgrade players on your team by adding to their player ratings (speed, spectacular catch, hit power).
I start off with a scenario that is normal difficulty, as the 49ers are down six with three minutes to play and I need to win to collect the 400 XP. I start at the 49ers' 20-yard line, and Smith completes a 15-yard pass to Vernon Davis to begin the drive, then hits Moss for a 12-yard curl to advance even more. But then Alex Smith turns into the old Alex Smith, overthrowing a wide-open Michael Crabtree and forcing the receiver to Superman jump just to get his fingertips on the ball. Crabtree gets smashed by the safety, and the rock is knocked free, which happens a lot with the new physics as players in the air are now more vulnerable. Luckily, Mario Manningham bails Smith out after a few more incompletions, catching a crossing pattern and taking it to the house after jumping over a tackler to give me the 400 XP.
After practice, Chris Mortensen tweets that the 49ers are entertaining offers for Delanie Walker. Really? I thought I was in control of this team. I can sign free agents, cut players and make trades, so why are the 49ers putting somebody on the trading block when I didn’t do it? Odd. I love Walker and would never trade him. He is a mismatch just waiting to happen in the open field.
Beyond practice, another way to earn XP is through weekly goals. For the 49ers, it was to go four quarters without throwing an interception one game and rush for 150 yards the next.
As I progress through the preseason, collecting XP and checking out my crew, I'm moving the ball extremely well in the second half when I have Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and LaMichael James at running back. I took off with Kaepernick in the first game, ran over the corner blitzing and took off for a 64-yard touchdown. James is slightly faster than Frank Gore, and while he doesn't have the power to run through tackles, his agility helps him bounce to the outside. Once you get him around the corner, the kid can blaze. When the season starts, I'll stick with Smith and Gore to see how they do, but Kaepernick and James will play key roles if I'm going to win the Super Bowl. Besides, a little competition couldn't hurt.
Week 1 of the regular season is a tough one, as the 49ers play the Packers at Lambeau Field.
"Hello friends," Jim Nantz says as he introduces the game along with Phil Simms. They both sound great in the game when nothing is happening, but during long touchdown runs or exciting plays, you might as well have the game on mute. They seriously have no excitement whatsoever, even if you make an unbelievable play. Boo.
While I have been seeing some great things with the new physics, the real-time collisions and reactions can cause a few whacky things to happen after the play. You'll see lots of players tripping over teammates on the ground as they try to get back to the huddle. On one play, Gore got up after a tackle and tried to hand the ball to the referee, but as he reached his arm out, he hit Clay Matthews right in the groin; Matthews buckled over as he fell to the turf. Great unintentional comedy right there. One of those moments I can't quit replaying in my mind.
Overall, the physics add a lot to the game, even with the post-play mishaps, as you see so much more variety in the tackles and movement than you saw in "Madden 12."
One thing gamers will need to avoid, however, is trying to hurdle for extra yards. When I talked about players being more vulnerable when they're in the air, that's not just for receptions. After a long bomb to Moss along the right sideline to open the game against the Packers, I tried to jump my way into the end zone past the final defender. Instead, I got blasted, Moss fumbled the ball, and Green Bay recovered. Not the best way to begin the season.
Smith plays up and down to begin the season -- should his new nickname be Roller Coaster? -- hitting Davis over the middle for a beautiful touchdown pass just out of the reach of the Green Bay defenders in the first quarter. Then he throws one of the worst interceptions I've ever seen right before halftime, not anywhere close to where Crabtree was supposed to be.
In the end, Aaron Rodgers was too much for the 49ers to handle, as he lit up the secondary for 342 yards, including two touchdowns to Greg Jennings. When Rodgers arm wasn’t killing me, his feet were, as twice on third-and-long he sidestepped the rush and took off up the middle to pick up key first downs. Packers win 27-24.
After the game, Mike Hill tweets how the 49ers defense looked lost out there against Rodgers, and Mortensen adds how he thought Harbaugh would have had a better game plan. Harsh, but I deserve it. I didn't expect to lose the first game of the season.
The 49ers bounce back in Week 2 thanks to the strong running of Gore, helping San Francisco take down its newest rival, the Detroit Lions. (If only the coaches could virtually fight after the game.) I replaced Smith with Kaepernick after Smith threw a pick on the first drive, but Kaepernick fumbled away the ball on the next drive and threw an interception in the third quarter, so it looks like I'm going to ride or die with Smith for the rest of the season.
Before Week 3, there is already news about top prospects coming up for the draft, and I'm able to spend scouting points to unlock information about key players I might be interested in. I love how deep this mode has become as well as the navigation from task to task. Very smooth.
Throughout the season, players will approach you to negotiate extensions on their contracts, enabling you to see their desired deal, their interest in staying and how they fit your scheme -- player attribute ratings fluctuate depending on how he fits your system. After submitting an offer, the player’s agent will get back to you the following week with an answer as he tries to do what agents do best, scrounge for more loot.
Another thing to love about Connected Careers is that when you're playing with friends, they can control different teams or players, and you're all free to retire at any time and continue playing with new teams or players. It helps break the monotony of simply taking over the 49ers for the next 30 years and seeing what happens. If that's what you want, you can still do that, but it's great to be able to skip around from coach to player and back to coach if that's your desire. It’s also cool to see what your friends do after swearing up and down that they're Raiders fans then watching them retire from Oakland and take over the career of Peyton Manning. Add to that the fact that you're constantly comparing your legacy score to your friends while receiving league news via text messages to your phone, and you can see why this feature adds so much life to the game this year.
As I progress through the season, I use thousands of upgrade points on Smith, spending 20,000 XP points to give him the Clutch Trait so he will come through in critical moments while also upgrading his deep throwing accuracy in order to better hit Moss downfield.
The points pay off, as Smith starts to light it up more than I've ever seen him do in real life, even if he does have the occasional misthrow, such as the time the 49ers were up by three with the ball and four minutes left against Seattle when Smith threw a pick-six in a heartbreaking loss.
No worries, though, as the 49ers head to the playoffs as a wild card with a record of 11-5. (Seattle finished 13-3 to win the West!)
Unfortunately, in the final game of the regular season, Manningham broke his ankle and Ray McDonald broke his femur, knocking two huge contributors out of the postseason run.
As far as my season stats went, Alex Smith threw for 3,733 yards, 33 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for an 89.5 QB Rating. Frank Gore ran for 1,661 yards and 10 touchdowns, LaMichael James added 498 yards and six touchdowns, and Randy Moss led the team in receptions with 76 catches for 1,123 yards and nine touchdowns.
The first playoff game is a rematch of last year’s classic nail-biter against the Saints, but before I get to that, I take a look at the news from around the league. The Lions fired Jim Schwartz for failing to make the playoffs. Tom Coughlin decided to retire after the Giants finished in third place in the NFC East. Always fun to see how the game sees the NFL's future playing out.
The NFC playoff teams are the Seahawks, Packers, 49ers, Cowboys, Saints and Panthers, while the AFC representatives are the Ravens, Patriots, Chargers, Bengals, Colts (Andrew Luck is a beast in the game) and Broncos. Wow, could you imagine the hype if the Colts and Broncos played each other in a playoff game this season?
But I can't worry about any other teams, as I have a grudge match against the Saints. New Orleans wins the coin toss and drives the length of the field, scoring on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston. I went for the pick, just missed the ball and got burned.
The 49ers strike back with an 80-yard drive capped by a 13-yard score to Moss.
For the remainder of the game, I abuse the Saints with Gore, running hard up the middle and trucking my way through tackles. By the time we get to the fourth quarter, the Saints D is battered and tired. I put in James, and he breaks one off tackle to the right for 57 yards and the winning touchdown.
Talk about a rookie coming through in the clutch.
Next up, the 49ers take on the Packers in a rematch from Week 1, only this time, I hit-stick Rodgers as he scrambles on the first play from scrimmage, knocking him out of the game with an injured shoulder. From there, Smith fires three touchdown passes, and the 49ers easily beat the Packers to move on and face the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game.
Who's got it better than us? Nobody!
"The whole season is down the tubes for the Packers," screams Skip Bayless via Twitter. Meanwhile, Adam Schefter praises Smith for his clutch performance.
Against the Panthers, it's bad Alex again, though, as he throws three interceptions in the first half. I think about benching him, but the dude has gotten me this far so I keep him in and stick to the running game. The 49ers defense steps up, with Carlos Rogers returning an interception for a touchdown while Gore rushes for 128 and two touchdowns to help the 49ers advance to the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Can the 49ers really win the big one with Smith as their quarterback?
The Patriots win the toss and take the ball, with Tom Brady hitting Brandon Lloyd for a 76-yard touchdown to open the scoring. The game goes back and forth, with Smith taking control in the second half, leading the 49ers to a 27-24 lead as we head into the final minutes of the game.
But that's when the 49ers defense starts to unravel. I blitz Brady to apply pressure, but he sidesteps the rush and hits Gronk across the middle for a big gain. As the Patriots hurry to the line, Brady barks out signals then throws a perfect spiral to Wes Welker on a slant. I hit Welker high for what I hope is a knockout blow, but he spins off and dives for the go-ahead score with only 1:28 left.
It's not over yet. Ted Ginn returns the kickoff to the 49ers' 28, and Smith completes four passes in a row to get the 49ers within 40 yards of the win. Time is tick-tick-ticking away as Smith hits Moss on a fade at the 10 before the receiver is shoved out of bounds.
With just over 30 seconds left, the Patriots bring a fierce blitz from the corner, but I see it and run Smith up the middle. There's daylight, but the safety is closing fast as I attempt to hurdle over the tackle and past the goal line. Smith launches himself into the air, and he's going to score. Smith is going to score!
When Smith was at about the half-yard line, he was hit while flying up in the air and fumbled the ball. (Why didn’t I just listen to my own advice from earlier in the article!?). The Patriots recover. The 49ers lose the game, and I have to sit and watch former Super Bowl MVP Troy Aikman walk out onto the field and hand the Super Bowl trophy to Brady and Welker. Ugh.
I can't remember a video game making feel this way before, like Brock Lesnar just clobbered me in the guts. One of my worst losses ever. I don't know whether I should throw my controller against the wall or run around the block a few times to work out some of this rage.
Instead, I decide to retire as head coach of the 49ers in favor of a new career -- as the 49ers quarterback.
That's right, I’m about to play a season as Alex Smith. I'll make this kid a winner if it kills me (and it just might).