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How a 'Madden' player won its biggest tournament using a punter and the worst version of Eli Manning

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It all sounds like something you do when taking pity on your younger brother: playing “Madden 20” without throwing a pass.

Every offensive snap, the only question is which gap the running back is hitting.

It’s a philosophy that completely flouts the pass-happy nature of today’s NFL, where “Madden 20” cover athlete Patrick Mahomes just won a Super Bowl by throwing bomb after bomb. And yet, it’s apparently a strategy that can win “Madden’s” own Super Bowl, the Madden Bowl.

Last Saturday, Raidel “Joke” Brito won the 2020 Madden Bowl, the final event of EA Sports’ “Madden 20” Championship Series with a $65,000 grand prize. He did it without ever putting the ball in the air. Each offensive play started with a hand-off to Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, one of the former players available in the game.

It seems like a nonsensical thing to do in competitive play with thousands of dollars on the line, and yet, as Brito explained to Yahoo Sports, the game’s mechanics turned that run-only strategy into a winning one. As well as plenty of homework and practice.

Why the Madden run-only strategy works

Brito’s strategy is built on the trade-offs of “Madden” roster construction, as well as “Madden 20’s” shift toward being friendly to the run. Each team has a salary cap, and needs to pick where it spends big.

Often, players will spend big on quarterbacks. Brito went the opposite route. He alternated between two QBs, Washington Redskins punter Tress Way and former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

While Manning is a quarterback, Brito said he used pretty much the worst — and therefore, cheapest — version available.

“He didn’t have any stats where he could honestly complete passes. He was a 68 overall,” Brito said. “If other people did use Eli, they had higher versions of him. So even though I had Eli Manning, I did not have a quarterback who could actually throw the ball.”

Way was selected as the cheapest left-handed punter available, because running backs apparently move differently depending on which hand is used in the hand-off.

With the money usually earmarked for a quarterback available, Brito splurged on his offensive linemen and defense, and the result was a 17-0 shutout win in the Madden Bowl final.

As Brito pointed out, he wasn’t the only person to use this strategy. It was a known possibility in the competitive “Madden” community. He counted five other players following a similar playbook in the tournament, but he was the only one who made it work after a recent shift in the metagame toward passing plays.

“Going into the last tournament, nobody thought this was a valuable option anymore,” Brito said. “I remember when ... EA sent all the competitors in the tournament everyone’s team. A lot of the people who saw my team actually kinda laughed at it and said I had one of the worst teams.

“I remember one of my good friends said, ‘I can’t believe you did that, it’s terrible.’ I was telling him, I’m going to score enough and I’m obviously going to be able to play defense.”

When you see Brito’s defense, that boast makes plenty of sense.

His worst defensive player: Jadeveon Clowney

To get a sense of the roster construction we’re dealing with here, consider the worst player Brito used on defense.

“My lowest-rated player was a 93 overall version of Jadeveon Clowney,” Brito said. “Anyone who was passing the ball, I would say Clowney was much better than the linemen they had.”

Brito considered his best defensive player to be a special version of Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowler Frank Clark, with the “Power Specialist” ability. The trait allowed Clark to line up as a defensive tackle, break through the interior and wreak havoc with his 90 speed. The virtual Clark averaged around four sacks per game, which featured five-minute quarters.

Offensively, the roster was akin to an extreme version of those formations you see only at Wisconsin and Stanford these days.

On paper, the offense is your simple 22 formation ( two running backs, two tight ends), already a very run-heavy look. But then you look at who plays the receiving positions. The tight ends: Cleveland Browns offensive tackle legend Joe Thomas and Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. The wide receiver: New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead.

Take those blocking monsters, plus a fullback and what Brito calls the five best offensive linemen you can get in the game, and you have a problem.

Eli Manning: two-time Super Bowl winner, and now a Madden Bowl winner. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Eli Manning: two-time Super Bowl winner, and now a Madden Bowl winner. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

‘Madden’ works as a simulation in one way

Brito’s strategy completely breaks the game’s intent to simulate an actual NFL game, where passing is king and quarterback play defines teams. However, the strategy reflects one key aspect of the league: the value of a QB on a cheap deal.

As we just watched with Mahomes and the Chiefs, the ability to supplement a roster thanks to savings at the game’s most expensive position is the league’s own real-life, perfectly legal cheat code.

Mahomes’ relatively low $4.5 million salary cap hit in 2019 allowed the Chiefs to sign Clark and first-team All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu, taking a defense that ranked 24th in points allowed the previous season to seventh. Lamar Jackson’s even cheaper salary meant the Baltimore Ravens could sign Earl Thomas last year and pay the likes of Marcus Peters and Calais Campbell while still loading up on draft picks. The Houston Texans’ recent moves have become all the more perplexing with the clock ticking on Deshaun Watson’s rookie deal.

The run-only strategy is an extreme reflection of that dynamic, though the difference with “Madden” was poor quarterback play could be hidden, unlike the real-life league.

Does ‘Madden’ need to be fixed?

Of course, reflecting salary cap dynamics doesn’t absolve “Madden NFL” — ostensibly a simulation game — of the fact that someone won its biggest tournament without passing.

Brito says changes are on the way with “Madden 21,” which will feature Jackson on the cover.

“I think EA’s definitely going to try to make it where next year you can’t run the ball every single play. Probably not how EA wants us to win, especially with how pass-heavy the NFL is,” Brito said. “At least make it so where you have to have a quarterback who can actually pass the ball, so maybe they make run commit better or maybe they just make it so stats matter a little more.”

Brito didn’t win only because of the strategy, and it could be hard for others to replicate his success. As mentioned before, other players were using the run-only strategy in the tournament, and it took years of experience and extensive preparation to win with the plan. He even mentioned a spreadsheet created by a friend of every run that is effective against every popular defense in the game.

“People who think anyone can pick up the game and do this, it’s not the case at all,” Brito said. “I’ve spent hours and hours of practicing. There was in one game of practice before the final eight, where I ran the ball 88 times in a single game against one of my good buddies just practicing what kind of different runs I could do. It’s a lot of preparation.”

Brito estimated he brings in around $50,000 per year as a “Madden” pro, but this was his first, long-awaited Madden Bowl win. He has seen plenty of players use the strategy in more casual games in the week since the tournament, with varying success.

The win has at least bolstered Brito’s other job, teaching other “Madden” players at his site EliteMadden.com. As you can imagine, he has seen a spike in coaching requests since the win, and they’re not asking about passing plays.

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