By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Two weeks ago, the good people at EA Sports were kind enough to send me an advance copy of "Madden 2003" ... or, as I like to call it, "The most important video game ever released." Yes, you heard me.

The most important video game ever released.

Madden 2003
"Madden 2003" will connect players in different locations, a landmark achievement in video-game history.

Before we tackle that "most important" stuff, I'm here to report that this year's version of "Madden" is better than ever: superb graphics, realistic play, beefed-up playbooks, enhanced commentary, quicker loading, more Madden Cards, the addition of sideline reporter Melissa Stark (sadly, we never get to see Virtual Melissa), even a "Training Camp" feature in which you run through "drills" (although they forgot to add a feature where you pass out when it's hotter than 95 degrees).

Is there enough new stuff to justify dropping $50 on the game when it hits stores this week? Absolutely. I'm not saying you should choose the game over feeding your kids or anything, but if you have a little extra cash and no conscience whatsoever, it's perfect.

My favorite wrinkle is the newly-added exhibition season, where you can jack up ratings for rookies and second/third-year players during games. I spent four preseason games playing as my beloved Patriots, throwing on every down to rookies Deion Branch and Daniel Graham (knocking up their ratings by 12 points combined). Of course, Tom Brady ended up blowing out his knee in the final preseason game, prompting me to hit the olllllllld RESET button (don't you wish we had those in real life?). But the whole "beefing up everyone's rating" thing is really more fun than humans should be allowed, especially when you're walking uphill on your treadmill at 3.8 mph.

(Important note: I play all video games while walking on my treadmill. No exceptions. I'm too damned old to be playing these games under any circumstances ... well, unless I'm drunk. Then all bets are off. And in two-plus years of playing on the treadmill, I haven't fallen off yet; strangely enough, the one time I fell off the 'mill happened when I was standing on the side, sipping water ... I inadvertently leaned backward, brushed my left heel against the running track, went sprawling and sprained my wrist. Try explaining that to a doctor. So that's pretty good -- 25 months and only one wipeout, which wasn't even caused by the video game. I'll take those numbers. Back to the column.)

Five other wrinkles with this year's "Madden" game:

1. On the heels of Pat Summerall's retirement and John Madden's defection to ABC, Al Michaels debuts on "Madden 2003," and it takes a while to get used to his play-by-play. No, not because they neglected to add Video Al making veiled references to the gambling line in the final two minutes, always my favorite part of any "Monday Night Football" broadcast (the "And there's a small percentage of people who are very interested to see what happens on fourth-and-goal here" routine). Al's fine. I just loved Video Summerall in these games, only because it was impossible to tell where Video Pat left off and Real Pat began:

    Flag on the play!
    BONE-yoll, to kick off.
    Uh-oh ... there's a man down! Ah-WAY-za-kay, back for the kickoff.
    Touchdown, Broncos!
    Looks like he's short.

I'm still convinced that Fox used the "Madden" version of Summerall as their play-by-play guy for his last two seasons ... it was that realistic. When everything is said and done, I think Pat Summerall will be remembered as the greatest video game broadcaster of all-time. And you think I'm kidding. Anyway, I miss him.

Madden 2003
The graphics of today's video games are a vast improvement from the red dots of Mattel football.

2. They made it more difficult to convert on fourth downs in this version, thanks to Madden's contention that the game should reflect success rates for fourth downs in the real NFL (around 21-22 percent). Ummmmm ...

Hey, John ...?

Who the hell asked you?????? I loved going for ridiculous fourth downs!!!!!! Either you made the improbable first down and kept your drive alive, or Video John upbraided you after the failed attempt with something goofy like, "Geez, I don't know what they're thinking there," or "Sometimes you reach a point where you're looking towards next week ... maybe they're at that point." You couldn't lose. Now you have a one-in-five chance in a close game ... you have better luck buying scratch cards. Very upsetting. A borderline outrage.

(And speaking of outrages, "Madden's" spruced-up soundtrack includes a number of Top 40 hits appearing throughout every game, including "Everyday" by Bon Jovi, "Party Hard" by Andrew W.K., and an infectiously grating song called "Get Over It" by OK GO. I found myself singing that last one in the shower this morning before turning on the hair dryer to electrocute myself. Didn't work.)

3. One more outrage: In the continuing quest of non-New Englanders to pretend that Super Bowl XXXVI never actually happened, "Madden" screwed over the defending champs with their player ratings. None of the New England starting linebackers top 74. The defensive line averages out to 76. The secondary averages out to 85. Troy Brown is the only offensive starter above 85, and the offensive line averages out in the high-70s.

Good Lord, didn't these guys win the Super Bowl? This might have been even more egregious then the Pats getting shafted on the "Best Team ESPY." On the bright side, I didn't feel half as guilty when I turned off the "Computer can reject trades that aren't fair" button, then made trades like "Steve Martin for Warren Sapp" and "Adrian Klemm for Leonard Davis." Take that, EA Sports.

The Pantheon
Here are The Sports Guy's rankings for the "Video Football Player Pantheon," from No. 25 to No. 6. For the top five, see the box below:

25. Desmond Howard (mid-'90s)

24. Mike Alstott (late-'90s)

23. Isaac Bruce (early-'00s)

22. Tony Gonzalez (early-'00s)

21. Steve Atwater ('90s)

20. Cap Bozo (late-'80s)

19. The Generic Intellivision TE (early-'80s)

18. Brett Favre ('90s)

17. Willie Gault ('80s)

16. Joe Montana ('80's)

15. Michael Strahan (early-'00s)

14. Derrick Thomas ('90s)

13. Walter Payton ('80s)

12. Jerome Brown (late-'80s)

11. Steve Largent ('80s)

10. Tim Brown ('90s)

9. Shannon Sharpe ('90s)

8. Reggie White ('90s)

7. Ronnie Lott ('80s-'90s)

6. Mike Singletary ('80s)

4. The new "Create-a-Playbook" feature is especially neat. Who doesn't enjoy creating their own plays? I designed 20 different plays where the tight end sneaks across the middle to the other side, a play that has never failed to work in the history of video football games under any circumstances, even back in the days of Intellivision. Does it get any better than throwing to the tight end, especially when they improved the stiff-arming capabilities this year? I think not.

(Note: I'll never forget the "Madden '98" season, when Ben Coates caught 246 passes for me in a 16-game season, which ranks right along A.) using the behind-the-net move with Adam Oates for an astonishing 19 goals in one NHL '95 game, and B.) my 52 on River Highlands in PGA Tour '95, as "The dumb video game moment I'm most proud of accomplishing in my mid-20s." Am I sharing too much here?)

5. And here's the biggie ... EA Sports added an "ONLINE" component to "Madden 2003."

I'll repeat that one: They added an "ONLINE" component to the game.

Let's phrase that another way: You can play "Madden 2003" against other people online.

To reiterate: "Madden 2003" is online compatible.

(Let's take a break for a dramatic pause.)

***** ***** *****

Here's how the online adapter works: If you own a PlayStation 2 system, you can purchase a $40 modem adapter that attaches to your PS2 (available in late-August). Needing only an open phone line and phone cord, you can connect to PS2's "Madden 2003" network, where you can play Madden 2003 against anyone else online.

This was how it was explained to me ... I'm a little hazy on the details, because I blacked out at one point. From what I've been told, it doesn't even cost anything. And the network keeps track of wins, losses and overall rankings, which should surely derail the lives of hundreds of thousands of high school and college students everywhere this fall. It almost seems too good to be true. How could anything this life-altering cost $40?

When I told my buddy Gus about it, there was dead silence on the other end of the phone, like I had just told him that the Mets traded Armando Benitez straight-up for Trevor Hoffman. Our football video game history spans our entire friendship, in its 20th year, and this was the most major development yet.

Here's a quick recap of the Video Football Era:

Madden 2003
"Madden" no longer allows you to intentionally injure players.

Late-'70s: Mattel releases its hand-held football game, which quickly becomes more addictive than crack. Just red dots moving back and forth ... somehow this passed for a good time back in 1981. Gus and I haven't met yet.

1982: Gus and I meet. He's two years older than me, so, by rule, we can't be friends. Eventually, we find out that we're both Intellivision addicts ... that leads to an improbable "I know there's an age difference here, but you're one of the only people I know who plays Intellivision" friendship that eventually branches out into us becoming real friends. We spend hours and hours playing Intellivision football and baseball together, including a ritual where Gus would beat me in the last minute on a fluke play, followed by me storming out of his house without saying goodbye.

One more Intellivision note: This was the first football game that involved graphics with generic players, as well as punching in plays and formations. Seems primitive now ... lemme tell you, it was watershed stuff back in 1983.

Mid-'80s: A dead time for the Video Football Era. Gus and I waste most of our time playing "Dr. J vs. Larry Bird" and "Microleague Baseball" (two computer games). Needless to say, there are no girlfriends to be seen. Not a one.

Late-'80s: Intellivision's out; Nintendo's in. It takes Nintendo a few years to release a decent football game, but they finally oblige with Tecmo Bowl (advanced graphics, real NFL players, not as many plays). The original version of Tecmo Bowl had just four offensive plays -- as amazing as it sounds, just two run plays and two pass plays -- so on defense, you tried to guess which play the offense was running. If you guessed right, your defense swallowed up the play, meaning that every play had a 25 percent chance of immediate failure. It was like football crossed with chess, and just about as intense.

Madden 2003
The video Rod Smith looks just like the real thing in "Madden 2002."

(Note: Since Gus and I attended college in different regions of the country, most of my memorable Tecmo battles took place in the room of Al Sablone, a college friend of mine who doubled as the king of Smack Talk. Whenever Al knew that he had guessed my play -- those one-in-four odds -- he waited until my offense lined up, then muttered something dopey like "I'm reading this like the Boston Globe." Eventually that evolved to, "Billy, your Globe's here" or "Did anyone order a Globe?" And he would start giggling like a little kid. I can still hear him giggling, even now. That's right, college ... $21,000 a year at the time.)

Early-'90s: We evolve to Sega Genesis and the "Madden" series, the first games that kept mock seasons, stats, league leaders and even ambulances coming out on the field for injured players (taking it to the next level). Some glitches early on here, especially when season stats inexplicably disappeared in "X-Files" fashion ... still, an amazing leap at the time, one that nearly floored me and Gus. While visiting him in Florida in '93, I end up playing "Madden" with him for 36 consecutive hours, as his disgusted wife looks on with an "Is it too late to annul the marriage?" look.

Mid-'90s: Sega Genesis 2 comes out ... better graphics, more memory ... and the "Madden" series keeps improving. Now you can trade players, and they even include "secret codes" where you can access great teams from the '70s and '80s (setting off wide-scale pandemonium as everyone tries to figure out the codes). This era also witnesses the dawning of the "No Bleeping Way Game," where you are playing out a "season" against the computer and doing a little too well, so the computer gets ticked and make sure there is no bleeping way you are winning the next game -- dropped passes, improbable kick returns, random fumbles and so on. God, I hate the No Bleeping Way Game.

Best of the best
The Sports Guy's top five:

5. Ben Coates ('90s): When my buddy Gus and I were figuring out the Top 25, I mentioned how I wanted to put Coates in the Top Five, just as a personal "thank you" for all the great years he gave me. So Gus said, "Of course you do ... you and Video Ben spent more time together than you and all your girlfriends combined." And it's true. What would I have done without The Bencoates?

4. Lawrence Taylor ('80s & early-'90s): Destructive, unstoppable and utterly terrifying. You simply did not roll out towards LT's side in a video game. Period. Plus, they didn't have drug rehab stints in video games back then, so he was always on the field.

3. Randall Cunningham (late-'80s, early-'90s): The best video game QB of all-time. You could roll him out to either side, scramble for first downs, throw 70 yards with him, avoid sacks ... and he never self-destructed like he did in real life. Regardless of how his NFL career turned out, he'll always have his video game career to fall back on.

2. Jerry Rice ('80s and '90s): The king of the "I'm beating the 49ers by four with one minute left, and I'm bringing my safety over to double-team Rice, and he's still going to catch a deep bomb, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it" play. Just as unstoppable in video games as he was in real life.

1. Bo Jackson (late-'80s): Anyone who played video games in the late-'80s discusses Bo Jackson reverentially, in hushed tones ... you can't even understand unless you were there. If ESPN ever decided to run a "SportsCentury and Beyond: Video Bo Jackson" episode, they could easily fill the hour just with people telling Tecmo Bowl stories about Bo. Nobody else was even close.

On the bright side, Madden and Summerall are announcing at this point, and there's one season (maybe '96?) where you could hit players after the whistle, sometimes followed by a sickening snap (their knees getting blown out), then the player dropping in a heap as Summerall says, "Uh-oh, there's a man down." In other words, it's open season on opposing players, prompting Gus to take out Ben Coates during the end of one head-to-head loss, nearly causing us to come to blows. We eventually declare a moritorium on intentionally injuring players. And yes, Gus still has a legally sanctioned marriage at this point.

(One more note on this: Nothing -- repeat, nothing -- in the history of video games was as fun as that one season where you could intentionally injure players in "Madden," with no repurcussions. If I had a dollar for every time I blew out Dan Marino's knee, I'd be a millionaire. The following year, they made it a 15-yard penalty, but you could still do it if you were frustrated at the end of a losing game. Now they've eliminated it completely. Couldn't they at least have a feature in "Madden 2003" where you could turn on the "I can intentionally injure other players" button? Is that too much to ask?)

Late-'90s: The PlayStation emerges with superior "Madden" versions, which feature enhanced play-by-play, hundreds of plays, the "franchise" format, realistic player movements, dozens of old-time teams and players, player ratings and everything else we've come to know and love today. They even figured out how to successfully stage a successful championship celebration, a five-minute video of guys jumping around.

During the summer of '99, Gus comes up to Boston for a day of "Madden," which has become an annual thing at this point. The Sports Gal returns home from a night of drinking, sees us sitting in the same seats we were sitting in 12 hours before (still holding our controllers), slowly realizes that we haven't left the house all day, then makes a crucial decision: "I just realized that I'm dating an absolute dork, but I'm going to stay with him."

Early-'00s: PlayStation 2, XBox and everything else comes out. Nowadays, you can play a season in the "Franchise" mode for up to 30 years, hold drafts, fire coaches, make up plays ... it's just like real life. To be honest, it's hard to tell where the NFL ends and "Madden" begins. Maybe Gus and I can't play as often, because we live in separate states, but we still find excuses to dust off the controllers once a year. Again, I'm willing to accept these things. I always thought we would be playing "Madden 2060" in a nursing home together some day, and frankly, there's still time. But now, we might not even have to be in the same nursing home.

That brings us back to "Madden 2003," the most important video game ever released. Once we buy those online adapters for "Madden 2003," you will probably see a few phone calls like this:

    (Phone rings)
    Me: Hello?
    Gus: Madden?
    Me: OK, twist my arm.

The biggest potential drawback: It's an Internet connection, so there could be occasional Internet glitches where somebody gets knocked offline before the end of a game. What would stop someone who falls behind from "accidentally" knocking the telephone wire out of the modem, prematurely ending the game, then claiming it was a technical problem? Is this more or less evil than sneaking peeks at offensive formations during a head-to-head game with both guys in the room? And while we're here, would it be as fun playing without constant trash-talking?

One other roadblock: The Sports Gal gets rightfully horrified any time I'm playing video games and a treadmill isn't involved (the "I'm 30, and I'm dating a guy who still plays video games" routine, which really can't be combatted or answered in any way that doesn't involve the words, "You're right ... I'm an enormous loser"). And since Gus has a wife, kid and another baby on the way, there's probably going to be some sneaking around, lying, fibbing and general deceit, as well as some strictly followed rules and regulations. Like "Only one game per night ... er, week." That kind of stuff.

But it's going to be worth it. Some day this summer, the call will be made, the challenge will be issued, and Gus and I will battle it out ... even though we won't be playing in the same city, much less the same room.

Just like old times. But not really.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. He's currently on a mini-hiatus of one column per week ... he returns to his old three-columns-per-week column schedule next week.