The best character in Longshot, Madden NFL 18’s risk-taking foray into a narrative mode, is Jack Ford, the coach who mentors Longshot’s hero, Devin Wade. A hotshot himself once, Ford’s bearing reflects the mistrust of someone washed out of a hard business by bad luck and regret.
But we wouldn’t have seen Jack Ford, and heard a heartfelt monologue about how the league treats young players, if not for the kind of difficult, unseen choices that coaches like Ford must make. Choices that can be made or rejected for sound reasons and still blow up in your face.
Early in the development of Longshot, its writer, Michael Young, an EA Sports veteran of more than 15 years, found himself sitting across a steakhouse table from Pat Kirwan, a former NFL coach and executive from whom Young had sought advice for his out-there project. Kirwan brought along Bill Cowher, the Super Bowl-winning head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Young is a Steelers fan.
“(Cowher) calls Pat the next morning and says, ‘I’d like to be a part of that,’” Young told me at Electronic Arts’ northern California home earlier this month. “It’s surreal to have a future hall of famer — from your favorite team — want to be a part of your thing.”
Yet ultimately, Young told him no thanks.
Not entirely. Cowher still cameos in Longshot (as does Kirwan). But Young’s original drafts had Cowher in the Jack Ford role, he said. And yet all of Young’s excitement of working with Cowher gave way to the reality that he just could not write him into it. Young was having enough trouble getting Devin into a sympathetic state. “Our first revision, maybe one out of three people couldn’t get on board,” Young recalled.
Longshot’s coach “needed to have his own reason to be there, to have his own story to make it interesting,” Young said. In Longshot, a reality-show competition is the vehicle to get Devin to the NFL Draft. It is as authentically crass as any reality show in, well, reality. The show “Longshot” is produced by a self-absorbed eel named Ross, the kind of person people don’t interact with unless they really need something from him. Mentally, Young couldn’t fit Cowher, who in real life could have his pick of any coaching vacancy but is happy to stay retired, into such a situation.
“What became obvious was, in good stories, all the characters reflect on the central theme, and they all have subplots,” Young said. “So how do you give Bill Cowher a motivation to be at Longshot? What’s his story? What character change will he go through, and there really just wasn’t one.”
That’s right. Young called the coach of his favorite team, and cut him.
“I called Bill and I said, ‘I have an idea for you down the road, but the story just didn’t work,’” Young said. Cowher took it well. “If we get to do more, he's got potential with other stories.”
Instead, we get Ford (portrayed by Rus Blackwell) a fictional character who is perfect for the task, and who does have dirt under his fingernails, and who reflects the need for redemption that is Longshot’s central theme.
The rest of this column discusses specific plot elements of Longshot.
Ford’s confession to Devin about how and why his career ended was remarkable. I have no idea of the tolerance level of EA Sports’ NFL minders, the ones who approve what goes out under the shield. (Young mentioned earlier that EA Sports created a trailer of Longshot especially for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to view.) But Ford strikingly uses the word “abuse” to characterize his treatment of a high draft pick. See for yourself:
That's some cold business.
“He's kind of inspired by Mike Martz,” Young said, “who was rough as far as the player management and connecting with players on a personal level, but a football genius.” Ford, like Martz, coached the St. Louis Rams, probably not a coincidence. Martz had better success (even reaching the Super Bowl in 2002).
The unnamed quarterback Ford references appears to be a mosaic of NFL tragedies rather than an individual homage. But I found it noteworthy that the league, especially a league fretting about its image as a brutalizer, gave a thumbs up to even the barest characterization of pro football as a chew-em-up-spit-em-out machine.
Lots of users will go through Longshot and wish it was darker, grittier, full of more authentic pain. It’s what we’re conditioned to expect in an age of prestige television that doesn’t have to play by the mainstream appeal of the networks. But Longshot couldn’t ever be that even if Young as a writer wanted it. “What you don’t want to create in a mainstream NFL video game is,” Young mused, “this isn’t Manchester by the Sea, where you just wallow in depression.”
Ford becomes the character who saves Longshot in a way that Cowher just could not. In the scene above, Ford’s revelation to Devin consolidates his commitment, and it’s to another player, not to himself or to a show. “Jack needed to change,” Young observed.
“Think of the scenes,” Young said. “In the first you have Jack, when Devin comes into his office his back is turned, he doesn’t even give the courtesy of turning around. The final scene he comes over and sits with him on the couch. He’s on the same level as Devin.”
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.