by Marty Demarest & r & & r & NFL Head Coach, Rated Everyone, PC, PS2, Xbox & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are three important seasons in the year of an NFL coach. It begins during the off-season, in an empty office, where I listen to the team's owner blather on about how he wants the team to win and how he wants it done a certain way and whatever. I ignore him all the time and he hasn't fired me yet. Meanwhile, I do my own hiring and firing. This is where NFL Head Coach proves itself a genuine middle management simulation. By simply sitting and listening to the recommendations of my coaching staff, then agreeing with them, my score increases. The only thing missing is someone bringing in snacks during the "office hours" portions of my turns.

The drab coach's desk and conference table are fortunately replaced by the gridiron when training season arrives. Trundling across it like swaddled action figures, my players practice their plays repeatedly. I don't know if they hate the repetition, but I hate repeatedly pushing the buttons that do nothing but re-animate my digital boy-dolls. During all of this practice, even my most expensive marquee quarterback doesn't crash motorcycles or sexually assault anyone. Every player merely expresses their moods with small '+' and '-' signs popping into the air above their heads. Nobody says a word. Of course I can always get the real scoop by checking the Internet back at the coach's den. I'm sure this is how they occasionally need to do it in the NFL.

Then it's time for the regular playing season. I stand on the sidelines yelling out the same plays I can order my players to run in Madden. In Madden, however, I'm able to take over the game and influence the action myself. In NFL Head Coach, I spend most of my time sitting back and hoping my employment strategies and training pay off. I've essentially programmed a team of robots to defeat their foes with minimal help. It's idly amusing, but it's certainly not any sort of serious sports simulation. During one game, half a dozen players tumble into a snarl of bodies roiling over the field. Then they freeze. The mass of arms, legs, helmets, and pads snaps forward in space several inches and begins moving again. Another freeze. Another start. My beloved team -- a group of individuals I have hired, paid and encouraged--are glitching. No amount of coaching can work out bugs like that.

THE GOOD: The training season gives a limited sense of fine-tuning a computer-controlled football team. During hiring and recruiting, despite statistical differences, all of the team's players are just digital lumps. With enough diligent button pushing, it's possible to give them some identity as a team of artificial unintelligences.

THE BAD: The fun of football comes down to the game. But before the regular season begins in NFL Head Coach, there are two boring seasons of recruiting and training to slog through. After that, the games themselves come down to watching a videogame machine play with itself.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Expect the inept NFL Head Coach to be followed by NFL Referee and Beer Vendor as EA Sports finishes merchandising its most famous franchise.

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