There's just as much to do during the off-season as there is during the season. You'll have to jump back into the office and make roster adjustments to compensate for players who might've retired, renegotiate expired contracts, sign free agents, evaluate trades, and release players. More importantly, you'll also have to prepare for the draft. NFL 2K3 gives you a brief look at rookies and their abilities before the start of the draft, but to get a better idea of their skills, you'll have to participate in the NFL combine. In this mode, you'll have access to a list of the rookies who will be in the upcoming NFL draft, as well as some of their basic physical statistics, such as their 40 time and jumping ability. To get more information on these players, you have to devote scouting hours to them. Since there are only a certain number of hours in each day of the combine, you can either sink three or so hours into a few players to get a detailed rundown of their abilities, or you can just use a single hour for several players to get a general idea of where they are. The reports you receive will specify what the rookies' strengths and weaknesses are and what skills they'll be able to improve. When the combine is finished, it's time for the draft, but before you jump into it, you can hold a mock draft to get a general idea of how teams will select certain players so you can adjust your strategy as necessary. At the draft, you'll get to see which players have already been selected and which players are currently available. In addition, you'll be provided with a list of the players you've scouted on a separate screen and a number of suggested picks on a PDA located on the desk in the draft center. Finally, you'll have to sign any players you've picked up in the draft, make final roster adjustments, and then start the next season. Needless to say, NFL 2K3's franchise mode is pretty deep, and it will undoubtedly keep you busy for hours on end.
Of course, NFL 2K3's gameplay isn't exactly a slouch either, as it offers some of the most balanced football gameplay to date. The running game in NFL 2K3 is excellent, and the running backs are easy to control and have a nice assortment of moves, including jukes and stiff-arms. In addition, when you're running the ball through the line, your running back will turn his torso slightly so he can slip past his blockers and the defensive line, which almost solves the problem of not being able to get by the linemen in most previous football games. Similarly, if a defender or a member of your team falls to the ground, your running back can leap over him and pick up a few additional yards. The run blocking is also excellent, as the fullback and guards will almost always pick up the linebackers or any linemen who happen to break through the line.
The introduction of the ESPN license gives the game a better overall presentation and feel.
Passing the ball in NFL 2K3 can be difficult at first because of the excellent defensive back AI, but you'll start to adjust once you learn how to read defenses and get the timing down. In fact, timing is a crucial aspect when the defense is playing zone, as you have to throw the ball when the defensive backs are switching up coverage. For example, when the cornerback lets his man go because he thinks the safety is coming over to help, you'll see a perfect opportunity to throw a midrange strike. Likewise, for shorter passes, the key is to throw the ball quickly before any of the defensive backs or linebackers pick your receiver up in the zone. The only annoying aspect about the passing game (and perhaps NFL 2K3's biggest problem) is the defensive backs' propensity to time tackles perfectly so your receiver can't hold on to the ball--just when you think you have a completion, a safety will come running in and hit the receiver the second the ball makes contact with his hands. Of course, this encourages you to look for receivers who are a little more open, but it happens so frequently that it seems a little unfair at times.
Otherwise, you'll find that the defensive game is almost as balanced as the offense. Linebackers will sit back in passing lanes and knock the ball down or make key interceptions, and as previously mentioned, the safeties will actually come over and help cover or assist in tackles, much as they do in the NFL. However, blitzes seem to be a little unbalanced. Obviously, a defense running a blitz should be punished if the quarterback can get a pass off to open receiver in time, but to have the offense burn you for a touchdown almost every time on a quick pass play seems a little unfair, especially considering that the blitz has become an integral part of quite a few defensive schemes in the NFL. Still, it's not as bad as it may seem, since you can call an audible if it looks like the offense has the potential to get the ball off on time, or you can shift the defense around to attack the line if it looks like a run play.
The Xbox version of NFL 2K3 is probably the best looking of the three versions. Everything looks incredibly sharp, and the special effects (such as the reflective surfaces on the helmets and the bump mapping) are especially pronounced. The player models are incredibly detailed and can be easily identified by their faces. Some really nice facial animations have also been added, and they give some much-needed life to the players. Generally, the animation in NFL 2K3 is great, but there are some elements, particularly the animations for player injuries, that could have used some more transitional animations. The stadiums look equally good and are accurate representations of their real-life counterparts.
There's very little, if anything, to really complain about in NFL 2K3.
NFL 2K3 also features incredibly high-quality commentary that sounds quite natural and flows really well. The commentators will even go so far as to talk about what's been happening in the game, and the only time commentary is consistently recycled is in the introductory sequences and the presentation of the defensive and offensive lineups at the start of each game. Both members of the commentary team provide nice insight into the game and generally seem to be enjoying themselves, which helps make the commentary seem more authentic. The stadium noise is pretty generic, with the usual chants and crowd noise, but there's some pretty good chatter between players.
There's very little, if anything, to really complain about in NFL 2K3. The graphics look great, the commentary is interesting and sounds natural, and, most importantly, the game features balanced offensive and defensive gameplay that does an excellent job of mimicking the nuances of the actual sport. In addition, the ESPN license has gone a long way toward giving the game some personality. You'll be treated to the ESPN-style presentation, complete with split-screen replays and music from ESPN programming, which simply tops off an incredible game that any football fan would do well to buy.