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The history of hidden talents in ‘Madden’ ratings

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Football players are passionate about making sure the public appreciates all their skills, whether these talents manifest on the field or not.

Richard Sherman playing wide receiver at Stanford.
Richard Sherman playing wide receiver at Stanford.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Players care about their Madden ratings, usually worrying most about their overall and speed. And when the ratings people at EA Sports don’t deliver what the real-life football players want, the responses sit along a spectrum.

Some don’t care much, like Daniel Jones, who responded with mild exasperation when EA told him at 2019’s NFLPA Rookie Premiere that he’d start his virtual career as a 63 overall.

Others are furious, like Odell Beckham Jr., who blocked ratings czar Dustin Smith on Twitter after rating as the #4 receiver one year. Beckham was incensed that Madden had put him behind A.J. Green, then jokingly — EA thinks, at least — threatened to leave the players’ association over the snub.

“I didn’t follow him, either,” Smith says. “I never tweeted him. He went out of his way to find me to block me on Twitter.”

Others opt for a proactive approach. During meetings with the Madden crew at offseason events, players (especially rookies) make personal appeals to the ratings staff.

But often, these conversations with players aren’t about how good their virtual avatars will be.

Instead, players want EA to know about obscure skills that have nothing to do with their NFL positions. They’re relatively obscure pride points. EA’s often already aware of guys who’ve played other positions before, but it’s important to the players that they get their due.

After consultation with the people who make the Madden ratings, I’ve built the all-time All-Obscure-Skill-Rating Madden team, made up exclusively of players who got credit for something that didn’t matter to their actual performance in real or virtual football.

I’m also noting each player’s college team, because that’s the entry point for each player and often the level at which they demonstrated exceptional versatility.

Quarterback

  • LB Chase Winovich, Michigan (51 throw power, 35 short accuracy in Madden 20)
  • WR Hunter Renfrow, Clemson (44 power, 41 short accuracy in M20)
  • DB Kerry Rhodes, Louisville (62 power, 35 accuracy in M11)
  • WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers (72 power, 58 accuracy in M14)
  • WR Freddie Mitchell, UCLA (44 power, 35 accuracy in M02)

At the combine, incoming rookies meet with EA to get their faces scanned and talk about their skills. Winovich, a pass rusher, insisted he could throw. Smith recalls:

“He started it by prefacing, like, ‘Are you guys gonna give me some quarterback stats? Is that unethical to give me, like someone who doesn’t play quarterback, quarterback stats?’”

“I can look into it,” Smith responded. “As long as you played it, we can look into that. If you didn’t play it, it would be unethical. But I need you to have actually proven that you can do this.”

Winovich pointed EA to a high school tape in which an announcer recommended Winovich’s team put the big man under center. Thus, Madden Winovich can chuck it.

While Renfrow was at Clemson, he threw two passes for a total of two yards. He wanted to be sure EA didn’t miss anything.

“Hey, did you see I played some special teams too?” Smith recalled Renfrow asking him. “I can tackle. I can punt,” he’d said, pointing to the 2018 Clemson-Wake Forest game, in which he booted a 42-yarder.

“Don’t worry,” the Madden ratings guy told the two-time national champ receiver. “You’re good on the kicking, the punting, the throw accuracy, the throw power.”

Jets safety Rhodes forced the issue in 2009, when EA gave him 21 throw power despite his past as a QB in high school and at Louisville. Even more galling, EA put teammate Nick Mangold, a center, a few points above him as a passer. After Rhodes released a video that showed him throwing the ball farther than Mangold, EA bumped the safety to a respectable 62 power.

Sanu — a WR who threw four touchdowns at Rutgers and can also punt and kick — has a sub-career as a trick-play QB. Madden noticed ahead of its release in 2013. Sanu went from a 35 throw power in Madden 13, his rookie year, to a 74 the next year. In Madden 20, Madden added a playbook package for the Falcons that featured Sanu as a passer.

Mitchell got his QB stats in part because the guy working on the ratings played youth sports with him in Florida. Donny Moore, who did ratings for EA for much of the 2000s and 2010s, was the QB on a Pop Warner team alongside Mitchell, the running back. Moore also saw Mitchell throw out baserunners from the outfield.

“He had just a cannon arm,” Moore knew.

Mitchell was also a passer on some trick plays at UCLA, validating Moore wasn’t just favoring someone he knew as a kid.

Running back

  • DT Vita Vea, Washington (81 acceleration, 69 speed, 73 agility, 55 ball carrier vision in M19)

The big man toted the rock as a high schooler, and he flashed nimble feet at Washington. A run through Maxpreps footage revealed to the EA team that Vea could boogie ...

... and he wound up with a higher trucking rating (68) than numerous quality running backs, including Duke Johnson, Kenyan Drake, Dion Lewis, and James White.

“You don’t turn him into a running back, but if he were to pick up a fumble or pick off a ball, he could still do some damage once he’s got the ball,” Smith said.

Receiver

  • DE Josh Allen, Kentucky (86 speed, 81 jumping, 74 catch, 60 spectacular catch in M20)
  • CB Richard Sherman, Stanford (75 catch in M12)
  • OT Alejandro Villanueva, Army (68 catch, 44 short route running in M20)
  • QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M (76 catch, 78 spectacular catch, 62 route running in M14)
  • QB Josh McCown, Sam Houston State (90 jump in M20)

Allen was a first-team all-state receiver as a junior in Alabama, with 1,100 yards and 11 TDs. He didn’t flash those skills at Kentucky, but Madden got wind of it, so he got solid enough stats that you could absolutely put him at wideout.

“He wasn’t just playing it. He balled at it,” Smith said. “The only reason we’re actually putting some real respect on it is: if you were top-level at it and then you changed positions — because a lot of these guys are like, dual athlete, played on offense and defense — then you go and look at some of their high school stats, and you’re like, ’17 tackles, one interception, nothing special,’ so we don’t really care about that. If you did something like this, that means you could’ve probably had an opportunity to play [this other position] in college.”

Sherman played receiver for much of his college career. So as a rookie, he only entered Madden as a 52 overall.

“When we’re creating a guy like that, we see, ‘Oh, wow, he played mainly receiver, so this is mainly a receiver trying to convert to corner,’” Moore said. “We’re gonna make him super raw in the cornerback skills, and we’re actually gonna bump up.”

Tannehill played some receiver at Texas A&M and was rewarded for it, to go along with decent punting stats (68 kick power, 72 accuracy) for his high school days.

Villanueva was a 6’9 receiver at Army (lol) and burnished his receiving credentials when he caught a TD on a fake field goal in 2018. (Sometimes this stuff actually does come up in the real game.)

McCown came out of retirement before the 2019 season to sign with the Eagles. EA gave the 40-year-old a vertical jump rating of 90, because they came across a video on Twitter of McCown getting aerial in a pickup basketball game.

Jets' Josh McCown Shows Off Basketball Skills

Who knew New York Jets' Josh McCown could ball like this⁉️ (via Instagram/thecheckdown)

Posted by theScore on Friday, March 23, 2018

Offensive line

Nobody in the world who is not an NFL offensive lineman can fake being an NFL offensive lineman. Next.

Defensive line

  • RB James Conner, Pitt (30 power moves in M20)
  • RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee (48 finesse moves, 31 power moves in M20)

Conner was genuinely good at DE in a handful of college games. Look at these finesse moves:

Yet Conner only got a 22 in Madden finesse. It’s a scandal.

EA notices even things that happen in the Pro Bowl. Kamara is an obscene athlete and played defensive end in the 2018 season’s edition, when he walked around a right tackle for a QB pressure.

Linebacker

  • P Chris Jones, Carson-Newman (62 hit power, 80 speed, 82 acceleration in M20)
  • K Randy Bullock, Texas A&M (35 block shedding, 61 strength in M20)
  • QB Sam Darnold, USC (54 block shedding, 84 agility, 57 tackle in M20)
  • QB Taysom Hill, BYU (54 block shedding, 84 agility, 57 tackle in M20)

Jones once leveled Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts, prompting a ratings bump:

And Bullock can’t be contained by blockers, due to his considerable frame: 5’9, 205.

“Thicker boy,” Smith said. “He’s gonna have a little more on him.”

Darnold used to play linebacker, and Hill is a quarterback who’s pretty good at a bunch of things that have little to do with playing quarterback.

Secondary

  • K Adam Vinatieri, South Dakota State (60 toughness, 32 block shedding, 27 play recognition, 65 swagger in M11)
  • QB Nathan Peterman, Pitt (37 pursuit in M20)

Vinatieri is relatively useful if you need to chase down a receiver in the open field. He’s enjoyed strong pursuit ratings over the years because he once chased down Herschel goddamn Walker in a real NFL game.

Peterman is rated as one of the best QBs at man coverage. He doesn’t have a history playing both sides of the ball, but he’s had ample practice at chasing players in live action. So in a roster pinch, I’m putting him here.

Kicker ...

  • WR Chad Johnson, Oregon State (73 power, 60 accuracy in M11)
  • RB Jay Ajayi, Boise State (47 power, 43 accuracy in M16)
  • LT Menelik Watson, Florida State (59 power, 53 accuracy in M15)

... and punter

  • QB Ryan Finley, NC State (65 power, 62 accuracy in M20)
  • DT Lawrence Okoye, London Whitgift High School (49 power, 44 accuracy in M16)

Noted soccer aficionado Johnson kicked an extra point and handled a kickoff in a preseason game in 2009, for no apparent reason other than he could. That earned him a bump in his kicking stats.

Ajayi, Watson, and Okoye are from England and also have experience at kicking stuff, having played sports in those countries.

Finley punted in high school, and EA noticed his punting stats were extremely serious: 35 career punts for a 42.3-yard average, with a long of 60 and nine winding up inside the 20. The average Finley punt in high school was only about three yards shy of the average NFL punt in 2018.

“We usually go out of our way to find it,” Smith said. “Often times, on a lot of the good scouting reports, they’ll mention something in there. But we do try and go out of our way to make sure we can find something in high school, to make sure we at least do our due diligence.

“If there’s no stats and we can’t find anything here, they usually don’t get it. It doesn’t mean they didn’t do it. We just can’t find it.”