He hasn’t coached in the NFL since 1978. He hasn’t called an NFL game from the broadcast booth since the end of the 2008 season. Yet his name is synonymous with pro football.
John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach for the Oakland Raiders, is 84 now. He has made his home in California since his retirement from the booth after Super Bowl XLIII as his name lives on through the game he had a hand in creating and lent his name to in 1988. Since then, it has spanned from computer game to video game. From single-player options to nationwide tournaments and in-depth modes helping to teach generations of future players and coaches parts of the game at an early age.
As the video game takes over the Pro Bowl this week — the NFL’s all-star game will be played virtually by NFL players and celebrities led by Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray — John Madden sat down to do an email interview about the evolution of the game, today’s NFL and how he consumes football in retirement.
What level of pride or excitement is there for you that your name has become synonymous with football on a broader scope than almost anything else having to do with the game? More people probably associate your name with football than almost anyone else in the history of the sport.
Madden: Well, that’s been my whole life. Football has been my whole life. I really think that I’m lucky that I never had a job, you know, I never worked. I played in high school. I played in college, and I played in the pros for a short time. And then I went into coaching and coached the rest of my time. And then I got out of coaching and went into broadcasting and then the video game … that’s been my life. It’s not something that just came about, or I jumped around doing different things. I did different things within the game of football. And one of the big ones, of course, is the Madden game.
Madden has been on multiple generations of consoles at this point. What do you remember the first versions of it being like?
Madden: The first memories that I have were with Trip Hawkins — when he came to me and he wanted to do a computer game. He impressed me by the fact that he graduated from Harvard and made up his own major, and the major was computer games. And I thought anyone who could use a computer in those days was a genius. You know, the word genius went with computer. And so, I said, I’ll give him a chance because I was looking for a type of computer thing that I could use for coaching.
And so, the first thing I said was that the only way I’ll do it is if we can get 11 on 11. Most games around then were one on one, two on two, three on three and six on six. It took like three years to make and on top of that, it was all done while traveling by train. Some of those guys would come along, and we had this butcher paper, and I would draw up plays and then they would, you know, take them and they would work on them and then come back. They created the game. And I was impressed that they could do that. And, you know, it really didn’t look like football.
I mean, at that time, we wanted it to look like the game, you know, and if it’s in the game, it’ll be in the game. That was what we were trying to do. And then we also came out with the video game when there were no video games yet — there were no video game consoles at that time. So, when the consoles came out, when the video games came out, we now had the software. So, we were ahead. We were able to take the software we had from the computer game and then adjusted it for video games. And I like the way we got ahead because of that computer game. And then we stayed ahead because the generations after that just kept it going and made it bigger and bigger to what it is today.
When did you really start to see the game evolve and what really pushed that?
Madden: When we were able to get all 22 players on the field — 11 on offense and 11 on defense. Now, they really didn’t look like players. I mean, the linemen were all kind of the same size and, you know, they didn’t block anyone or anything. But once we were able to get 11 on 11, I knew we had something.
What’s your favorite memory from the game, the first few years when it was still building and gaming was just starting to grow?
Madden: I think the biggest memory was that we took what we created for a computer game and turned it into a video game. Once that happened, it was a different experience. It was a big step up. We were in the big leagues now, and we had to grow and adjust after that.
What do you think of the evolution of the game? Obviously, technology helped from where it was to what it is now.
Madden: If it’s in the game of pro football, we wanted it to be in the video game. When I was first involved, it was drawing up plays and players. I let them have my playbook and gave them an understanding of what a playbook is. Then it became a thing where we would pick up players, their words and stuff like that as we went along. But I think the biggest thing was when we received the film from the NFL. Until then we had to go get the plays and the offense and the nomenclature from different cultures. And sometimes it was a college coach and we got discombobulated there sometimes.
Now you can take and copy the real play. Now, we don’t have to draw them up and think what they are, especially with Next Gen Stats now in Madden NFL 21. And I think as close as you can stay to what the game looks like and the players look like, I think the better the game will be because these players and plays now are so sophisticated.
What is the feature that got put in that you enjoyed the most over the years? Was there something you wanted to put in the game that just was not possible?
Madden: You know, I’m a big line guy — offensive and defensive line. And I think that, every game, you’re going to have a quarterback and you’re going to have the receivers and a running back. But we’re doing a lot better job with the linemen. Linemen look like linemen now. And we can run, we can pull them and run them, and they play. The tackles are bigger than the guards and taller than the guards and so on. We’re doing a good job there. And I think they need to keep it that way and then continue to work on the speed. When you watch an NFL game, they have guys running all over the field on these patterns. And I think that it’s important that we continue to get it, the speed of the players. The assignments are getting better with the linemen and the speed of the game is getting better, but I still think we can work on that.
How much involvement do you have with the game now and various concepts that have been introduced?
The most involvement that I have now is in conjunction with my current role with the NFL. I am able to provide insight to the EA team as to what the league’s rules are and then check everything to make sure that the rules of the game are the same in the video game. That’s my biggest contribution now.
At what point did you realize, wow, this game is getting bigger? This is becoming a cultural thing. Did you ever think you would get to the point it is now?
Madden: When I realized it had really gotten big was when the players would make a team in the NFL. They were happy about a lot of things, but one of those things was that they would be in the game. They played the game in grammar school, high school, college, and now they are in it.
In 2012, you did an interview in which you said you hoped the game was a way for people to learn the game and participate in the game at a pretty sophisticated level. Do you feel like that has been accomplished? Where do you want to see it go next?
Madden: Yes, that’s how they learn the game. And so many players and kids will say that. I mean, at one time, we used to be able to go out and play on the school playground or just a park or something. And those days are over. So, they have to find different ways of playing. I think the video game gave them that. And that’s the way they learn the game and then they can play the game.
I also know in talking to my grandson and his friends that they really enjoy the general manager component. Some of these guys like to build their own teams and they’re more interested in being professional general managers than being the pro players. I think that we’re also developing that guy, and I think the more that we can go in that direction, the better off we’re going to be.
I’ve talked with coaches and players who grew up with the game and told me aspects of it either helped them learn or advanced their knowledge of football at a much younger age. Lions corner Jeff Okudah told me last year that he learned, and got hooked, on football playing Madden as a kid before he ever actually played football. When you hear something like that, what goes through your head?
Madden: Well, you know, that gives you the satisfaction that you’re doing something worthwhile. You and everyone involved are putting in the time, and it works and influences people to not only enjoy the game but to be able to play the game. It helps them become better players. And I think that’s true of high school, college and the pros. There’s a real satisfaction that you see when someone brings it up. And not only do players mention that they first were introduced to football through the Madden game but also coaches. They say that they became interested in coaching through the modern game.
What would you want to see placed in the game in the future that isn’t there now?
Madden: You know, again, talking to my grandsons and their friends, what they like to do is control players, and I like the feature where they can control the pass-rusher. That is a big feature for them. And then I think that the more control over the more players that they have, the more fun it’s going to be. And so, I think that if I were looking for anything again, and this is what the players are looking for, it would be to control more players.
This might be an out-there question a little, but if the Madden game had been around when you were a coach, what would you have thought of it? Would you have tried to use it in some way?
Madden: You know what I would do? I would kind of do the same thing that I thought when we first started this — I would have a couple of young guys that are good, good Madden players, and hire them and put them on my staff. And each week I would have them play our opponent. If the Raiders are playing Kansas City, I’d have one of them be the Raiders and one of them be Kansas City. And then I would run our players against their defenses and their defenses against our players. And I’d have them just check that out and then write up — this was good, this was bad, had trouble here and trouble there. I don’t know how much I would use it, but that’s what I would do.
What do you think the game and its growth did for you personally?
Madden: Well, it just makes me so proud that I’ve been part of it for so long. I mean, other guys, they just put their name on a game. This has been part of what I’ve done since I got out of coaching. And it’s one of the things that I’m known for and one of the things I’m very proud of.
On a personal level, when you’re approached by younger people, do they usually want to talk more about the video game, your coaching or your broadcasting career?
Madden: You know, it’s funny when you can tell how people know you. The people that know me as a coach will call me Coach. And that’s getting fewer and fewer. Now, as you know, it’s been a long time since I coached. The ones that know me through the video game just call me Madden. “Hey, Madden. Madden, how ya doing?” And an interesting thing — just in the last two weeks, I’ve given scholarships to my elementary school, and they wanted to name it the John Madden Scholarship. And I said, no, don’t put John in there. Just call it the Madden Scholarship, because I think there will be an association with the Madden game.
How do you think Madden changed the television viewing experience?
Madden: By playing the game, you learn to watch the whole play. When you play the video game, you see the whole play and what everyone does. By seeing this, you can enjoy watching the game more.
What has been the most memorable interaction you’ve had with someone when it came to Madden? What’s your favorite overall story about the game?
Madden: One of the most memorable interactions and my favorite overall story about the game is when I was at Fox. We had a meeting, an annual meeting before the season. And one thing to remember is that our goal for the video game was to always make it look like the real game. You know, if it’s in the game, it’s in the game. So anyway, David Hill is the president of Fox at that time and he’s giving a talk to all the announcers, producers and directors. And he says what we want to do is we want to make our game look like the video game.
And I said, we’ve gone full circle here, you know, we wanted to make our game look like the real game and now the real game wanted to make their game look like our game. I thought that was the biggest thing that I had heard. And at what point do you think you really made it? And that was the point that I thought the Madden game really made it.
When you watch the NFL today, are there certain teams or players you’re watching more closely than others?
Madden: There is one player that I enjoy watching more than anyone, and that’s Patrick Mahomes. And I was proud that we put him on the cover a year ago. It was just the right person. I think Lamar Jackson is awfully good. But Patrick Mahomes just kind of fit who we are. If I could choose any team, it would be the Kansas City Chiefs and the things that they do. I think the things that they do offensively have been copied by a lot of people. And if you said, you know what, what should we have the offense look like today in the video game? I think offensively it would look like the Kansas City Chiefs. And then the other thing, you can’t forget those young quarterbacks. I mean, they’re amazing. Tua [Tagovailoa], Josh Allen and [Justin] Herbert in L.A. — I mean, they’re all so good. And what happens is, which is also part of the video game — high schools, colleges and pros all play the same offense now.
When a player comes in as a rookie, it’s not like the old days where you had to learn how to be a pro quarterback. They’ve been running that same offense for four years in high school, four years of college. So, when they come in, they have eight years’ experience already. I enjoy just watching these young quarterbacks and the things that they’re doing. And then you say, well, how about the older quarterbacks? Well, they are not bad either. You think of Aaron Rodgers. I mean, probably the two best quarterbacks right now would be, to me, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. You believe in the offense and I think those two are your Super Bowl quarterbacks. But anyway, I mean, there are so many good ones and so many players out there that you enjoy watching.
Is there a player who stands out most in today’s NFL and makes you think, “Man, I wish I could coach him”?
Madden: “If there is anyone I would love to coach” is Patrick Mahomes. I’ve met him. I’ve talked to him. The kid is a first-class kid and a first-class player. I have talked to Andy Reid about him. There are a lot of guys out there I’d like to coach, but Patrick Mahomes would be the guy.
How much football are you taking in now on a given weekend?
Madden: I watch a lot of football each week. I watch every game on my soundstage. I have 10 screens — one movie theater type of screen in the middle, then I have nine screens around it — four screens on either side and then one screen down below — and they’re all numbered. So, we could switch from one game to another game, so we don’t watch any commercials. I’ve been doing this since I retired. It’s kind of a complicated thing, but it’s a system that works for us. And so, it’s a perfect thing. So that’s why I set it up, and I do that every Sunday. I also get game films from the NFL, so if I wanted to look at a game, the coaches’ version of a game, I have that also. I have plenty of ways to watch.
How did you come up with your system in your soundstage? Did that evolve once you got done? Who is in charge of the movement of games from the big screen to the other screens?
Madden: I never watched football as a fan because I was either playing, coaching or broadcasting. I would watch a ton of film, but never games. When I retired, I really didn’t know how I was going to watch them. Eric Shanks, who worked with me on the All-Madden Team, who is now the CEO of Fox Sports, arranged the setup. I review the schedule of games that week, and I put in where I want them — the top game in my mind being the No. 1 screen. My grandson Jesse, who knows more about football than anyone I know, handles the switching of the games. I had to learn how to multitask in watching them all — has taken me years. Plus, there are no commercials, which is a huge advantage.
Initially, it started out as a Sunday hangout. Everyone would come by. We had our own food festival too, mostly BBQ. My only rule — if you want to come by to just eat and drink, you need to sit in the back, and if you want to sit up front, you cannot talk, just watch. With COVID, it’s just family now watching. The TV setup has been a big part of my happiness since I retired.
Football on TV has changed a lot. When you were calling games, RedZone had just gotten started. How do you think that changed the game? What do you think of RedZone versus a traditional broadcast?
Madden: No, I wouldn’t use RedZone. With my TV setup, I have my own RedZone. When you just have RedZone, you just get portions of games and just scoring, and you really don’t get a feel for the game, the teams or what’s going on.
What is the best and your favorite call from your broadcasting career?
Madden: I did so many games for so many years that there is not one that would be obvious to say, like one of those Super Bowl games. The big ones to me were always the rivalry games, when both teams were good. Like the 49ers and the Cowboys, Washington and Dallas, the Raiders and Kansas City, and then going back to my favorite team, the one year was the ’85 Bears. If you say what was your favorite game, it had to have been one of theirs. We did most of their games, and we never saw them lose. And their defense was just overpowering, just took over the game.
And their offense with Jim McMahon and Walter Payton, they were just fun. They were just great players, at a fun time, embraced by the city of Chicago. And you just would go in there and sort of feel like, this is really what it’s all about.
You mention the ’85 Bears as your favorite team. Is there a team in recent memory that you think was close to that on the field? Could a team built like they were have success in the NFL today?
Madden: That was a different era. They were a great team and a fun team. A team like that cannot be built like that now, especially with today’s salary cap.