Football coaching’s ‘Madden’ generation

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They grew up playing ‘Madden NFL,’ the megahit video game. Now they’re using it to teach in college and the pros.

(Illustration by Michael Domine/The Washington Post;iStock)

He kept the title belt ready and the console juiced for whenever his little brother came home.

James Rowe III was older by three years but sometimes staying with Mom and Dad. His younger brother, David, was a freshman cornerback at Rutgers. It was only 2008; online gaming wasn’t a thing yet. So any time David returned to Florida, the brothers reconnected by playing the Madden NFL video game.

It was right before these games that something unusual happened. David would disappear.

Eventually “Coach Rowe” would emerge, wearing khaki pants, a golf shirt and a headset plugged into nothing. He carried a whiteboard scrawled with plays he’d designed and scripted in advance, and as the game fired up, he spoke into an invisible microphone to wish his imaginary assistant coaches luck. With the transformation complete, the game could begin. Sometimes a half dozen spectators from around the neighborhood had gathered.

“I wouldn’t say gambling on it,” James says now, but he wouldn’t say they weren’t gambling, either.

James liked playing with the Baltimore Ravens, their defense packed with Pro Bowlers. David preferred the Atlanta Falcons because quarterback Michael Vick was so fast, he could scramble away from Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs or Bart Scott.

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But while David was at school, James had been preparing. Tinkering with new coverages and blitzes, fine-tuning his two-minute offense and experimenting with player assignments. For instance, rather than dropping safety Ed Reed into coverage, James could make Reed a quarterback “spy,” his primary job to make sure Vick didn’t take off running. By the time David adjusted, here came Reed, speeding into the backfield on a blitz, forcing Vick to unload the ball and …

“Coach Rowe” might fling his whiteboard, scream into his microphone to chew out his assistants, stomp away into the locker room (his bedroom). James would hoist the WWE belt they’d bought specifically for these showdowns, parading around the house with it as the brothers talked trash.

It would devolve from there, with the pair almost coming to blows, and invariably their parents would step in and remind them that, for goodness sake, it’s just a dumb video game.

After practice a few weeks ago, a defensive back for the University of South Florida approached his position coach. The Bulls’ defensive playbook included a sub-package” — a specialized group of plays for specific situations — in which the player would become a “hash dropper.”

He had no idea what that meant.

Now 37, still youthful despite the flecks of gray in his beard, James Rowe is South Florida’s defensive passing game coordinator and safeties coach. And he had a hunch.

“You play Madden, right?”

Of course the player did.

Since its debut in 1988, Madden NFL has become a cultural phenomenon, selling more than 130 million copies to become one of the best-selling video games of all time. It’s now an inexorable part of the football hype machine, with dramatic rollouts of each year’s cover star (along with suggestions of a “Madden Curse”) and presentations to members of the exclusive “99 Club,” the handful of NFL players with the game’s highest rating. If John Madden wasn’t already a household name from his careers as a coach and broadcaster, attaching his endorsement to what initially was a rudimentary football simulation for the Apple II computer introduced him — and football — to a new generation of American kids.

Those kids are adults now, many in their 30s and 40s, and a few — maybe more than a few — got so into a video game about decoding football that they eventually found themselves on sidelines and practice fields, where they now coach actual football. The Rowe brothers are among them, with James in his first season at South Florida and David, 33, in his third year as the University of Houston’s secondary coach.

Their father, James Rowe Jr., was a longtime Florida high school basketball coach, so following him into the family business always had appeal. But though James had played high school football, his best sport was baseball. A former all-state pitcher, he earned a scholarship at South Florida and was an outfielder and reliever. Among the hobbies listed on his player bio were fishing, basketball and Madden.

Football bonded them. Its violence tore them apart.

Nearly two decades later, James III says the game is why it’s football he coaches.

“You just get a ton of reps and a lot of the language,” he says. “If a kid starts playing Madden at 5 years old, 6 years old, really the first playbook everybody sees is from Madden.”

It remains the clearest one in James’s mind. Even after a dozen years as a college and NFL coach, when he imagines Cover 2, he pictures the way Madden breaks the defensive side of the field into colorful zones: two safeties patrolling the deep blue, corners occupying the purple circles near the sideline in case of a quick pass, linebackers dropping into yellow territories to discourage short throws across the middle.

So when the defensive back asked what a “hash dropper” does, James didn’t explain it in football terms that the defender steps forward after the snap, guarding a zone in the underneath center of the field, traditionally a linebacker’s assignment. He just said the player’s responsibility was a “yellow” zone on Madden.

“He was like, ‘Oh, I got you,’ ” Rowe says. “Nothing else needed to be said.”

When Ryan McNamara was a business administration student at Florida, he took a summer job at EA Sports in Orlando. His almost too-good-to-be-true title: video game tester.

Among the developer’s most popular titles, and therefore one of its most high-pressure projects, is the annual release of Madden. Like Apple’s yearly iPhone release, EA Sports adds new features and details to its games meant to entice gamers to buy the updated version the “truck stick” in 2006 for ballcarriers to plow through defenders, a redesigned “Franchise Mode” in 2017. McNamara’s job was to play early versions of the software on his Nintendo GameCube, conducting stress tests to check for glitches or memory leaks. If Tom Brady got sacked and the sound effect was that of defenders clobbering Carson Palmer or Jake Delhomme, McNamara made a note.

He played so much that he learned to read the blitz or identify defensive fronts such as 3-4 “over” or the 3-3-5. He could select an offensive play to beat those defenses, then use presnap tells to exploit vulnerabilities in the coverage. If he read Cover 3, which usually keeps cornerbacks 10 yards away from receivers, he could send a receiver in motion to confirm his read, and then change a receiver’s route to a “hitch” to take advantage of the corner’s spacing.

Was football truly this simple? McNamara fantasized about experimenting on sidelines beyond the virtual. But how does a coach even become a coach? He scoured athletic department websites, firing off emails to coaches’ listed addresses, asking for advice and offering to work for free. One person responded, McNamara says, a graduate assistant at Florida State. Legendary Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden had encouraged the GA to give younger coaches a chance. In 2007, when the GA left Florida State for a position on David Dean’s staff at Valdosta State, he invited McNamara to join him in small-town Georgia.

When he arrived, the other coaches were … skeptical. He’s 5-foot-6 and bespectacled, a look typical on the Valdosta town council but not on the Blazers’ sidelines. McNamara wasn’t a coach, exactly, as his responsibilities included Burger King runs, running errands for superiors and driving to other campuses to swap DVDs of Valdosta State’s game film with that of opponents.

Colleagues and players weren’t convinced of McNamara’s bona fides when he wore cargo shorts to practices or discussed his old summer job. While he had never exactly played football, his experience gave him a profound, if nontraditional, lens into the game’s nuances.

“I’ve got to show them that I’m invested; that I care,” he says. “I’m short, yeah. I have glasses. But I can make you better.”

Valdosta State won the Division II national championship in his first season, and in 2009, McNamara was hired full-time as the school’s tight ends coach. He’d befriended Manny Diaz, then an up-and-coming coach whose own career had begun as an ESPN production assistant, and in 2010, Diaz became defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. He convinced Coach Dan Mullen to take a chance on the short kid from Valdosta.

“Here’s the Madden guy,” McNamara says Diaz told Mullen. “He’s a genius.”

It was around this time that probability charts began infiltrating football programs. Coaches who refused to punt on fourth down remained an oddity, a fringe addition to coaching staffs, as did those who consulted predictive analyses that suggest first downs are easier to come by with passes. Time passed, though, and those coaches gained more authority. Up went the value of NFL quarterbacks and pass rushers; off a cliff went that of running backs.

It wasn’t just that young coaches believed the old way was ineffective. They had evidence, and many head coaches empowered these coaches to chime in with ideas that ran counter to football’s conventional wisdom.

“This generation is different from the last,” says Dana Holgorsen, the head coach at Houston and David Rowe’s boss. “If you are not willing to adapt or try new perspectives or techniques, it could be difficult conveying your message.”

When the 2023 NFL season began, more than half of the franchises had a head coach born in 1975 or later. In 2011, NFL teams combined to attempt 430 fourth-down conversions. By 2021, the number had nearly doubled, and last season 42-year-old Philadelphia Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni elected to go for it on fourth down 32 times. His team converted more than two-thirds of the time and reached the Super Bowl.

“It’s all old-school-vs.-new-school thinking, and they had to come up with a fake word to basically accept the way Madden players play,” says A.J. Smith, a 34-year-old former college coach who’s now offensive coordinator of the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks. “On fourth-and-short, you go for it, and the glitch play is the quarterback sneak. Now that’s analytics. Analytics is Madden. We figured that out a long time ago.”

Still, these changes don’t always sit well in football culture, it being sports’ most insular and secretive sport. It’s especially true among older coaches.

That’s partly why McNamara sometimes kept his background to himself. At Mississippi State, though, he could watch Auburn film and notice tells for when the Tigers were preparing to run the “Power” concept with a run-pass option for a bubble screen.

“That’s in Madden!” McNamara says he’d realize, and the solution there was the same as here. He’d design a hybrid coverage with a zone base but with one defensive back assigned to man-to-man in case the wide receiver caught the screen. Rather than conduct a weekly call with a recruit, he’d challenge the prospect to an online game of Madden, then spend the four quarters speaking into a gaming headset about the upsides of signing with the Bulldogs.

Time passed, and he stopped being the “computer nerd over in the corner,” he says. He’d leveled up from inside the football universe, and when Diaz left Starkville in 2011 for a job at Texas, it was McNamara who young coaches turned to when they needed help understanding the defense. What does the Mike linebacker do? What does it mean to the nickel? Is he doing his job properly?

“I’m a football guy,” he says he realized. “I belong.”

In 2015, McNamara became a defensive backs assistant at Florida, one of several young coaches working for Mullen in his new job. Sitting catty-cornered was another young coach with an untraditional background. His name was James Rowe.

“He must be a genius,” James recalls thinking upon meeting McNamara. “Because they don’t usually hire football coaches that look like that.”

At Houston last year, the Cougars entered their bye week at 3-3. The defense couldn’t protect leads. The offense struggled with clock management late in halves.

The program’s 37-year-old general manager, Ryan Dorchester, approached Holgorsen, the coach, with an idea for some unusual homework to assign players during the break: Let them play Madden. Holgorsen, 52, knew nothing about gaming, but he appreciated the creativity and the idea of additional “mental reps.”

They play the game anyway, so what the heck?

“A video game,” Holgorsen says now, “as a teaching tool.”

The Cougars went 5-2 after the bye, defeating Louisiana in the Independence Bowl. Holgorsen’s secondary coach, David Rowe, needed no additional evidence that playing the game was worthwhile.

When David was a junior at Rutgers, NFL analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated him the school’s top pro prospect — even on a roster that included future NFL players Mohamed Sanu Sr. and Logan Ryan. But during David’s senior season, he hurt his back and decided he was probably done with football. Playing it, that is.

He wanted to get an early jump on his coaching career, and by then, James was calling plays at Division III Bethel University in Tennessee. David was invited to one rookie minicamp, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his old college coach, Greg Schiano. He didn’t make the team, but that same day, Schiano offered David a job as a defensive coaching assistant. The Bucs went 4-12 in 2013, Schiano got fired, David took a job at Western Michigan. Then he returned to Florida as a high school defensive coordinator, then to Valdosta State — where he missed McNamara by three years and his brother by one.

Upon starting each new position, David had to learn a new vocabulary. Many of Madden’s formations and plays are the same as in real football. They’re shrouded in code words to be confusing by design, supposedly one more layer of protection for a team’s competitive advantage.

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In Madden, the offensive set with a single running back and the quarterback under center is the “Ace” formation. At Rutgers, David says, it was “Uno.” At Houston, it’s “Deuce.” Everything else is the same, as it was when James Rowe was an NFL assistant and Cover 2 was “Blue” with one organization and “Wild” with another. “Stick,” a common offensive attack designed to get the ball out of a quarterback’s hand quickly, was “Bullets” or “Twigs,” and McNamara says Central Michigan’s Cover 1 call is “1-Invert,” despite that no players’ assignments are inverted.

David and James Rowe point out that opponents aren’t the only ones confounded by these terms. An unintended but frequent side effect is bewilderment within a team’s own locker room.

“Sometimes we think the CIA is after us,” James Rowe says. “There’s so much on the line, I guess.”

After all, how long did the South Florida player struggle to understand his “hash dropper” assignment or pretend he already did? How much time did the defense waste before he pulled his position coach aside? With college football’s transfer portal making it so players can come and go among programs without penalty, how many veterans needlessly feel like freshmen as they learn a new language?

“That’s probably the biggest thing to get from Madden: Just call them the same formations,” David Rowe says. “Change is hard in this profession.”

A dozen years after leaving Rutgers, David has become a sophisticated football technician and organized planner; a talented communicator, a skilled recruiter. He is therefore seen as a rising star in coaching. If the time comes for him to become a coordinator or even head coach, he has already decided to strip away one of football’s antiquated customs. “Ace” will be “Ace”; “Stick” will be “Stick.” The concepts and schemes are the same, so why not just refer to them as Madden does?

“Whatever the game calls it, that’s what it should be,” David says. “We spend so much time just on talking about terminology and what we’re calling stuff. This is this defense; this is that, and I really don’t know why.”

When new staffers joined Houston last offseason, a few sheepishly asked David why Cover 4 isn’t called Cover 4 or even “Quarters,” its widely accepted nickname. Under defensive coordinator Doug Belk, who started coaching at Alabama, it’s Cover 7.

“Cover 7” as a concept doesn’t exist. Is that what Saban calls Cover 4? Is there some logical reason? David has no idea.

“I’ve never asked,” he says. “The universal term is Quarters or Cover 4. That’s what (players) know because they play Madden.”

A moment later, he’s still trying to untangle this knot in his mind.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “Why do they call it 7? I might go in there and ask them today.”

The brothers used to check the future schedules of the programs that employ them, wondering if a rematch awaits. David and James say a real-life showdown would be just like their old Madden games, only that both would be wearing their coaching costumes. David’s headset would actually be plugged in.

Alas, the story of their careers so far has been elusion. After their near miss at Valdosta State, David nearly joined James on staff at Appalachian State in 2020, but he opted to stay at Central Michigan when his brother got an interview (and eventually a job) with the Washington Commanders. Early this year, James took the job at South Florida, his alma mater. Five months later, Houston departed the American Athletic Conference to join the Big 12.

In that way, it feels like the old days: Two competitors hoping for another showdown, the chance to claim the title belt once more, dancing around and away from each other as the hype builds.

“You were ready to give him your lunch money,” David says, “to just get him to play you again.”

When the brothers became coaches, they retired their Madden controllers. The college game is a 12-month grind, and when football becomes work, it becomes harder to view it as play. But with sports paused in 2020, James fired up the old game console.

A few months ago, he challenged a younger coach to a game of Madden. James used to be “one of the best in the world,” he boasts, albeit unofficially and in the days before online rankings. He tried to match personnel groupings, using basic coverage concepts on first and second downs, then sent blitzes or dialed up an exotic coverage on third. The plays were strikingly similar to those he learned in NFL coaching jobs in Washington, Indianapolis and Chicago, he says, and James tried to establish his team’s running game with the “Lead Stretch” concept out of 22-personnel. He made presnap checks in three-by-one shotgun.

The younger coach stomped him.

“I don’t have that touch anymore,” James says.

Still, he can’t help but feel that old pull. Maybe he’ll get a new console after the season and download the new Madden. Perhaps he’ll call his parents and see if the WWE belt is in storage. Then it may be time to challenge his archrival to that long-awaited rematch, one more game or two for all the Tostitos.

“The one thing that always scares me is that it takes a little while to get back used to it,” David says. “I know, as we get older, we want to be on the same side. But I wouldn’t mind whooping his ass one more time, I’ll tell you that.”

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