Sports-management simulations aren't exactly a hot item among North American audiences these days. Some of the more dedicated sports fans have taken to any of the assorted menu-based managers available for the PC, and in Europe, multiple publishers have turned their popular soccer franchises into successful management simulations on both the PC and consoles, but over here, most fans have been satisfied with a new franchise mode in Madden every year, and little else. Of course, hardcore fans aren't necessarily satiated by such casual fare, and now EA is out to prove it can play the management game, too, in NFL Head Coach, a deep, involving management sim that puts you in charge of practically every aspect of a team's operation. From the off-season to the Super Bowl, you'll be dictating everything from practice schedules to contract negotiations, and you can even call the plays in an on-field simulation using the Madden engine. While all of this sounds wonderful on paper, Head Coach isn't quite a smashing success. Too little freedom and too much busywork often combine to make the flow of the game overly sluggish, and the on-field action isn't nearly as exciting or enjoyable as you'd hope. Still, there's a good, solid foundation for a better future rooted in Head Coach's design, and as a first stab at the genre, it gets more right than it does wrong.
While it would have been easy for EA to simply take its existing franchise-mode model from Madden, beef up a few aspects, and shove it onto retail shelves, NFL Head Coach isn't that. This is a franchise mode on serious performance enhancers--the kinds that lead to a major step-up in athletic ability but also harbor a few ill side effects. One thing to make clear from the get-go is that this is not a game for casual Madden fans. If you're the kind of casual-minded player that prefers to skip through most of the menu-based tasks of a Madden franchise mode and doesn't have a ton of patience for busywork, then you're going to find yourself frequently frustrated and annoyed with Head Coach's slavish dedication toward micromanagement. But if you're the type that can't get enough of the management mindset and loves to be the brains behind the brawn, no matter how much micromanagement might be involved, then NFL Head Coach is the kind of game that should be right up your alley.
You begin the game's career mode by building your very own coach. The premise here is that you're either the offensive or defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers, and now you're a hot commodity on the head-coach market. You simply pick your favorite team, and you'll soon find yourself entertaining offers from that team, as well as several others. You'll also get to play dress-up with your coach, albeit in a somewhat limited fashion. There isn't a ton of difference in the physical and facial attributes available, but you can certainly dress him up in some snazzy, team-colored sweat suits or a Tom Landry hat.
The only "free" time you get in the game is during some brief office-hour periods each day. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do here. You can only sign players during a designated "sign players" appointment. The same goes for designing plays, calling up potential coach hires, and just about everything else that isn't checking your e-mail, reading brief news bits from around the league on NFL.com, or managing your depth chart. And even depth-chart management is too tightly regimented here. You only get time for two specific tasks during these free periods, and each single move on your depth chart counts as one of the tasks. So if you want to assign three players to the first team before the next day's practice, you aren't going to have enough time to move them all. How silly is that?
Inflexibility aside, the sheer amount of stuff you can do in Head Coach is enough to make your head spin--at least at first. As a coach, you don't just show up on game day and call the plays. Between every game, you'll schedule a myriad of practices, from simple one-on-one, noncontact drills, to full-on 11-on-11 contact runs. You get 10 reps per practice section, and you can send any combination of first-, second-, or third-string offensive and defensive squads onto the field. The more you practice up individual players, the higher their attributes will go. No player in the game stays at his max potential at all times, and only by giving players a healthy dose of practice-field time can you get them to where they should be. It's not an exact science, mind you. Sometimes, no matter how much you put a player on the practice field, his attribute ratings just won't rise much, and he'll inexplicably start stinking it up on the field. It is mentioned early on that some players just don't jibe as well in a specific offensive or defensive system, but there's no particularly great way to gauge that, and mostly, the attribute rises and falls seem more random than that.
On-the-field action is relegated to you calling the plays, and the artificial intelligence executing them for you (usually).
Another interesting, but even more unpredictable, component is strategy and motivation. During practices and games, you can talk to groups of players or individual players on the sidelines. If you feel a player is doing something specifically wrong, you can tell him to take on a different strategy. If your QB, for example, is too often tossing the ball wildly to avoid taking a sack, you can instruct him to protect the ball and not try and force plays that aren't there. The player artificial intelligence certainly takes this to heart, though sometimes almost to a fault. Fortunately, it's easy enough to cancel that advice when it's not benefiting your team.
Outside of strategy, you can try and motivate your players by saying one of two things to them. Each phrase has a different tone, either aggressive or passive. Different players respond differently to different styles of coaching--unfortunately, there's no predictability or measurement of which method ought to work, given the situation. Sometimes yelling at a QB that just threw an abysmal interception will get them on the right track, and sometimes doing the exact same thing at a different time to the same QB will provide a negative reaction. Likewise, there are some phrases that seem like they never should get a negative reaction but do. Why would a running back that just broke a 70-yard rush for a touchdown get pissed when you encourage him and tell him he's doing a great job on the field? In some respects, it's almost a surer bet to just not try and motivate your players, and that's certainly not the methodology of a successful real-life coach.