A traditional start to ‘Madden Season’

“The First Game” is good for clutch moments like this Albert Wilson touchdown grab in the fourth quarter.

The game needs a name

OK, so it’s not capitalized or in quotes, meaning that it doesn’t hold the weight that some longtime college rivalry games known as “The Game” would. Heck, even rappers and pro wrestlers have more of a claim to the title of “The Game.” 

And this is only a pairing that means something to me – and whatever console and television that happens to require my attention. It’s hardly a rivalry, since it’s human vs. CPU if you ask that console in use. 

So, maybe not “the game” but “a game.” 

Maybe “the first game.” 

Let’s go with that. Maybe even capitalize it.

“The First Game.”

Yeah, I’m OK with this.  

See … Every time that I purchase a new-to-me NFL or pro football title on whatever video game system I own, there’s only one pairing that will get first-game privileges until one or both teams cease to be: Dolphins vs. Titans. 

OK, so it used to be Dolphins-Oilers (or Miami-Houston/Tennessee if the game lacked an NFL license), but there was that whole mess with the Oilers relocating to Tennessee and eventually switching monikers. That’s just the tradition. Two teams that I don’t have much of an attachment to or rooting interest in. Two fairly bland brands in today’s NFL landscape. 

Still, once I’m playing the first game – now whatever Madden NFL version is current – it will always be Titans at Dolphins. 

I’ll always use the Dolphins; and if I can throw back the uniforms, I’ll use the team’s 1984 threads while putting the Titans in Oilers garb. 

Blame the part of me that holds on to weird traditions, I suppose. 

Only 90s kids remember … 

When thinking back, the tradition took root when I got “Play Action Football” for my Game Boy in 1992. The game had eight teams. No NFL license, and unlike it’s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) counterpart, no NFLPA license. Everyone on the field was as generic as government cheese. I took Miami, because the wavy M looking logo was cool in my 12-year-old eyes and Dan Marino (Pitt guy!) was the quarterback for the NFL version of Miami. Good enough for my imagination, I suppose. 

I chose Houston because the Oilers – if you were imagining really hard – were a rival to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A fairly intense rival in the 1980s and early 90s. But they were incredibly exciting to watch if rooting interests weren’t in play. As a young’un, the venom was much more potent toward the Oilers than the Browns or Bengals. (So, yes. A part of me feels a loss when realizing that the Houston Oilers are no longer a division rival and that the milquetoast replacement of the Tennessee Titans retain that history while playing the part of one of the NFL’s most forgettable teams – outside of its market) 

Again, this game had no difference in the teams as much as games got more difficult as you progressed to the Power Bowl. 

Regardless, that first game was fairly rough for me. I don’t recall the exact score, but I’d be comfortable in saying that the final score was something like Houston 55, Miami 0, give or take a Houston field goal. 

It got better, not only in Play Action Football, but in general for subsequent editions of “The First Game.” 

The 16-bit era and the end of the millennium 

So, my first true licks at the Madden NFL series came when I had a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Before I started playing Madden, there were all sorts of NFL-licensed games on the SNES. Most were fairly bad, but they were still there. For whatever reason – maybe dumb pride showing itself after the two-tone beatdown that I received on my Game Boy in 1992 – I remembered enough to try to get that win back on a used copy of Capcom’s MVP Football. 

Having no idea what worked on said game when I had the ball for about the first two weeks that I owned it, the rematch was a twinge rough. I managed points. I managed stops. But the Oilers ran the record to 2-0 in The First Game. Tecmo Super Bowl was next. Another Oilers win. 

It wasn’t until I snagged NFL Quarterback Club that I slain the mighty Oilers beast. Then I started snagging copies of various Madden titles. The wins started to pile up. It helped that Electronic Arts (EA) held Marino in exceptionally high value. At the time that I had Madden NFL 96 in my SNES, Dolphins-Oilers was a full-fledged tradition. Even if it was only me observing it. Even when the Oilers relocated to Tennessee, the franchise remained the Oilers for two seasons before adopting the identity and uniforms that we’re bored by to this day. 

When the tradition was at a crossroads in 1999 (Madden NFL 2000), the most exciting entry to that date in “The First Game.” A three-touchdown rally by the Titans as I was helpless to stop Eddie George was for naught as the yet-to-retire Marino engineered a game-winning field goal drive. 

Yes, “The First Game” details are recalled from 1998-on because spreadsheets and notebooks are kept. The building blocks of my eventual foray into a career of journalism were established thanks to video games. 

Thankfully the Miami defense came to play at times during this year’s “The First Game.”

Something to look forward to … 

While the release dates aren’t static – sometimes Madden is a late-August release; other years, it comes before a down has been played in a preseason game – Madden has firmly entrenched itself as a beacon toward fall. 

Now, more than ever thanks to the lack of new NCAA Football titles, Madden is a gateway to autumn. Just firing up a game with a 4:15 kickoff with the setting sun midway through the game and the lights firing up in the second half makes a balmy July day feel like October. 

It can also provide a slight bit of relief/distraction when the impending dates on the calendar will provide monumental stress. I cannot speak for the experiences of others, but having that game to look forward to makes the impending doom and gloom of what August brings professionally a touch sweeter. Instead of waging wars in my head about how awful the upcoming workload is going to be, I can fire up Madden and let my brain try to figure out how I need to attack a defense that has stopped me on consecutive possessions or just trying to dial up anything that will get my defense a stop. 

Then comes the daydreams about what team to use in Franchise mode. If not the Steelers, who gets the nod? Oftentimes, a non-Steelers selection just springs up in my head without much warning. Just anyone but the Ravens is fair game.

2K and Madden dominance 

Even with the Titans coming out of the box as a higher-rated team on most 2000s NFL titles, the Dolphins only fell twice in “The First Game” … Madden NFL 2004 and ESPN NFL 2K5. 

While ESPN NFL 2K5 holds the honor of being maybe the best NFL football game in existence, that 27-12 Titans win also serves as the last Tennessee win in “The First Game.” 

It may also be the Titans’ last achievement of any sort. But I’m not here to judge. 

I mean, it’s not like the actual Dolphins have been a whole lot better in that time. 

Breaking it down, Miami has one division title (2008), two playoff appearances (2008, 2016) and zero playoff wins to go with a 103-137 record in that 2004-present span. 

Tennessee? Three playoff appearances and a win (over Kansas City in 2017, because the Chiefs can never truly have nice things, even with an appearance in the AFC championship game this past January) with a division title (2008) and a 108-132 record. 

OK, so the Titans have been slightly better in the real world, but the Dolphins are 6-4 in in real-life meetings since 2004. 

So, it’s kind of a wash. 

So, Dolphins fans … You need me – someone with zero emotional attachment to this team – to maintain franchise pride. This game in August, happening in a house that’s 1,176 miles north of Hard Rock Stadium is your Super Bowl. 

Titans fans. I guess this is where I apologize. My gaming systems have turned this rivalry that only exists in the universes that appear on my television(s) firmly in Miami control.  

But “The First Game” streak sat at 15 (Maddens 2005-19) before Madden NFL 20 found its way into my house on Tuesday (Superstar Edition, yo). 

2019’s “The First Game” 

Recent meetings have been fairly competitive. The widest margin in the PlayStation 4 era was the 37-27 Miami win on Madden NFL 18. Usually new Madden titles take me about 10-12 games to really find my groove, thus making “The First Game” all the more exciting, now that it’s a thing. There are a few friends who know of “The First Game” who get the updates as I play them out. Now this year, since most friends have day jobs and such, spamming them with updates about a silly little game of Madden on Tuesday afternoon seems cruel.

But I’ve never gone full public about it all. Consider yourself privileged. 

With the 1984 Dolphins-logo New Era Fitted that I’ve taken to sporting when playing “The First Game,” a couple turnovers and the glory of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Miami was able to build a 21-7 halftime lead. It was a good time. 

Then the EA Sports robo-QB made quite the impact in the second half. Tennessee bled out two long touchdown drives where I was powerless to do anything beyond choose a play and hope that I wasn’t going to get torched. 

Two touchdowns – one just as the fourth quarter started – tied it at 21. While my offensive efficiency sputtered, Tennessee’s was purring. 

It was time for “Fitz Magic.” 

Sending Kenyan Drake into the Titans’ line repeatedly since the passing game was a complete non-factor in the third quarter got me across midfield and put me in position to at least get three points, hopefully turning the fourth quarter into a rock fight. 

Then I got the aerial attack rolling, because Kenny Stills is good at being a Madden receiver, as I’ve learned in the PlayStation 4 era. 

Regardless, with the ball in the red zone, I opted for a play-action dive with crossing slants about 10 yards past the line. It should have been a disaster. Three white jerseys were not buying the fake and were chasing Fitzpatrick down. Thinking I was about to lose 10 yards and settle for three points, “Fitz Magic” happened. Somehow, the virtual Harvard grad escaped the pressure and throws a rainbow to the back corner of the end zone, with Albert Wilson getting above almost everyone on the Titans payroll before crashing down – with the ball – in the end zone. 

It’s rare to get actual emotion from me, but there it was. Me, wide-eyed and taking a deep breath. Even if Tennessee scored 20 points in the remaining time, I had that wonderful moment in my first Madden NFL 20 experience. (No, I will not count the Pro Bowl courtesy game during the data dump as my “The First Game.”)

Then Xavien Howard picks off Marcus Mariota on a home run try. A little bit of 4-minute offense and a Drake scoring run later, and I put up what became a 35-21 win. 

A turnover on downs with the Titans at their own 17 gave me a shot at more points, but “The First Game” isn’t about running up the score; no matter what the two fades to the end zone that were broken up would tell you. On third down, a QB kneel was called and that keeps the streak alive across two generations of PlayStation consoles, as well as the second half of the PlayStation 2’s lifespan. 

Sixteen is pretty sweet.  

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