HEY, JOHN MADDEN, if I were you, I'd nail the doors of the Maddencruiser shut. You've got some NFL players who'd like to put your head in a vise until it goes Boom!
This is the week that the new edition of your insanely popular video game, Madden NFL 08, comes out, and the pros are racing their Bentleys to GameStop to snarf up a copy and see how you ranked their skills. Did you make a guy stronger, slower, meaner, or what? It's huge to these players, because so many of them play your game NonStop.
This year you ranked Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Urlacher, Champ Bailey and Ed Reed as the top five players in the league—a 99 overall rating out of 100. On the other hand, you ranked linebacker Isaiah Ekejiuba of the Raiders and receiver Mark Jones of the Bucs as the worst players—at 55. Out of 1,722 players in the game, they're at the bottom. I got an advance copy of the ratings, so I called Ekejiuba with the bad news.
"Really?" Ekejiuba asked, sounding like he'd just swallowed a bad clam.
"Yes, really," I said.
"Well, I don't think that's accurate," he said. "No way. I know my skills. I've played against a lot of guys that I'm better than, so that's definitely not accurate."
Jones wasn't exactly tickled to get the news, either. "Well, I don't think that's really fair," complained the wideout, who hasn't caught a pass in his three-year career. "Those people aren't here, seeing you in person, knowing what you can do. They're just going off their assumptions."
But you don't stop at overall ratings of a player, do you, Coach? You rate the best and worst in everything from speed to juke moves to arm accuracy—even of linemen. For what? Throwing their jocks in the hamper?
For instance, you say the two "most aware" players are Manning and Tom Brady (100 for both). Least aware? Courtney Brown, rookie cornerback for the Cowboys (34). Thirty-four? Is he in a coma? I called Brown. He said he wasn't aware of it.
Strongest? Niners guard Larry Allen (100), who can bench 650 pounds and was so happy with the news he was going straight home to tell his 11-year-old son. Weakest regular? Chiefs wideout Samie Parker (36). Allen could bench him.
The worst stamina? Cardinals tackle Qasim Mitchell (21). His wife is not going to be happy.
Best tackler? Zach Thomas, linebacker, Dolphins (98). Phillip Buchanon, corner, Bucs (42), ranked as low as many punters and quite a few cheerleaders. "Man, my little brother is going to be mad," Buchanon said. "He's going to be like, 'Dang, Phillip, they done fried you!'"
What really hurts is that the game is obsessively accurate—down to how a guy tapes his shoes—so when Madden says you suck, a small voice inside you whispers, "It's truuuuuuue!"
"That rating, that really upsets me," protests Ekejiuba, who hardly plays, and, apparently, with good reason. "They don't even know me. I don't know them. Would I go around ranking them? No!"
Actually, that's a great idea. Can't you see a bunch of hulking NFL players walking into the Orlando office of game maker EA Sports with clipboards and grading the pasty-skinned raters? Let's see, Mankiewicz, Fred. Posture: 14. Coding: 68. Lunch: 7.
But, Coach, if a player thinks a little complaining is going to change your ratings, then they don't know your raters, right? They're five guys who are all former jocks. Three of them played college football. When NFL players bitch about their ratings, the EA Sports guys don't blink.
"Edge [Cardinals running back Edgerrin James] calls all the time," says Sean Bailey, a 24-year-old game designer. "He gets mad about his 88 speed. We told him, 'Sorry, Edge, you're just not a home-run-hitting back, man. You're getting older.'" Cold.
They hear a lot from T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals' wideout, too. He thinks his 91 overall is criminal. "Hoosh is a huge complainer," Bailey says. "He thinks he should be ranked as a flat-out superstar." Jacksonville QB Byron Leftwich complains publicly every year about his 50 speed, which is about like spilled syrup. "All we're doing is watching him play," Bailey shrugs. "I mean, if he scrambled more than once a year...."
Of course, Coach, there's one guy they never hear a peep from—you. "Mr. Madden?" Bailey says. "I've never met the man. Never even spoken to him. I'm not sure he's even been in this building."
Let's see ... Madden, John ... Awareness: 1/2.
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to email@example.com
RIFFS OF REILLY
Watch exclusively on V CAST from Verizon Wireless and SI.com.
Out of 1,722 players in Madden NFL 08, Ekejiuba is rated one of the two worst. Given the news, he said, "No way. I've played against a lot of guys that I'm better than. That upsets me."
PETER READ MILLER