There are any number of colossally stupid things you can do with your 11 football players in EA Sports' Madden NFL series. I know. But what the Indianapolis Colts chose to do last night, however, is not one of them.
What is now being called the worst/dumbest/most ridiculous play in NFL history has no presence, to my knowledge, in any playbook in Madden's 27-year history. I'm not even sure you could build this with any of the create-a-play toolkits that have been included at various times over the series' three-decade run (they are not in the current edition of Madden NFL 16).
So what the hell were the Colts trying to accomplish?
As Indianapolis' coach explained last night, they were hoping the unorthodox formation and movement would bait the New England Patriots into committing a penalty before the snap. If the Patriots didn't do something dumb, the Colts were supposed to let the play clock expire and eat a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty, a trivial setback considering they were going to punt anyway.
The problem is the Colts fucked up and snapped the ball. The Patriots ran two defenders, unblocked, at the poor bastard who didn't expect to find the ball in his lap. Considering the Colts' outsmart-yourself theatrics preceding this play, the result was the NFL equivalent of Indiana Jones shooting the whirling dervish in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Still, I've been harassing Clint Oldenburg, a designer we profiled in early 2014, to put all sorts of obscure nonsense into the next Madden. So when this happened last night, naturally I was on his case this morning:
("MUT" is "Madden Ultimate Team" a mode in the game.)
Here's Clint's reply:
@owengood I can't let MUT steal the gameplay thunder. Putting that formation (and play) in Colts playbook ASAP— Clint Oldenburg (@ClintOldenburg) October 19, 2015
I ... don't think he's serious, folks.
EA Sports' American football division has been very responsive to trick plays and exciting moments in the game over the past decade. When the Wildcat formation fad hit in 2010, Madden NFL 11 made sure it had plays to reflect that. The statue-of-liberty handoff Boise State used to defeat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl was added into the next summer's NCAA Football 08, and the play put Boise quarterback Jared Zabransky on its cover.
But as Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said, last night's play is one where the ball should never even be snapped. So it literally has no gameplay value. It's designed to elicit an offsides penalty, before the snap. To pull that off, the AI and the user would need to be able to react to the drastic formation change despite themselves. There is currently no command in the pre-snap defensive controls that could realign that many players at once without audibling to a specifc play. And you can't audible to any special teams play in Madden NFL 16.
So, basically, last night we saw in real life a play so impossibly stupid you couldn't tell 11 lines of code to do it in video game. It was dumber than anything you've ever seen in Madden — dumbass online opponents, drunk frat brothers and glitch videos included.
It's worth noting that another freak play from the weekend — Michigan State's "Green Pile," which collapsed Michigan's punt coverage, forced a fumble and delivered a miracle victory in the game's final 10 seconds — also could not happen either in Madden or its dear departed NCAA Football sibling.
Michigan State had no punt returner on the field for that play, sending all 11 men after the punter in a last-ditch gamble. For more than 25 years, every punt return formation in EA Sports' football video games — NCAA and Madden — has at least one man back to catch the ball. Furthermore, the "shield" punt formation that Michigan used on that play, with three blocking backs to protect the punter, was "a nightmare" to reproduce with NCAA Football's AI, per longtime producer Ben Haumiller, and it never made it into that series either.
Sports Illustrated this morning presented the Colts' idiot special teams play within Tecmo Super Bowl for some fast laughs, but it's a fabrication. Even the Tecmo Super Bowl 2015 that modders released this year doesn't include something this dumb.
In all, it's proof that no matter how many millions of games we play on home consoles, every day turns up something in real life that sports video games cannot reproduce.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.