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The conversations actually first began on April 26, 2018 — the night the Baltimore Ravens selected Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from the University of Louisville, with the 32nd overall pick in the NFL draft.
At the NFL combine nearly two months prior, Jackson opted out of running the 40-yard dash because of skepticism about his ability to be a pro quarterback, as well as nudges from scouts to work out as a wide receiver. “I would’ve run a 4.3,” Jackson proclaimed the day of the combine. At Louisville’s pro day a few weeks later, he declined to run the 40 again. Jackson wanted to be a quarterback at the next level — not a wideout or running back.
Before he played a single down of football in the NFL, Jackson’s speed became somewhat of football folklore. Everyone knew he was fast — but how fast exactly? Developers and “ratings adjusters” at EA Sports, who work on football’s most popular video game, Madden NFL, asked themselves this question, while also posing another: Should Jackson surpass Michael Vick as the fastest quarterback in the history of the game?
“We’ve been talking about it since the day Lamar Jackson was drafted, believe it or not,” Clint Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman turned gameplay producer at EA, told The Undefeated. After retiring from football, he joined the company as a design intern in 2012 and has worked there ever since. “There were strong debates about giving Lamar the highest-ever speed rating in the game straight out of college. That was an internal struggle between the development team and the ratings team. Really what it came down to was, ‘We know this guy has unreal speed. We know eventually he’s going to be electric. Let’s not just give away this rating that’s potentially going to unbalance the game. Let’s see what he has and make sure he earns it.’ ”
Jackson has certainly proven his case this season, while changing the perception of the makeup of a successful NFL quarterback. He’s led the Ravens to a 9-2 record as the league leader in total QBR (81.9) and the front-runner for MVP. He’s rushed for 60 or more yards in nine out of 11 games. And he’s on pace to break Vick’s record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season.
Soon, he’ll achieve Madden immortality as the fastest quarterback ever in the game. On Nov. 25, Vick served as an honorary Madden ratings adjuster, attending Baltimore’s 45-6 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football — during which Jackson posted a 99.7 QBR after tying a career-high with five passing touchdowns and rushing for 95 yards. The day after the game, Vick delivered the news that as of Madden‘s next weekly roster update on Thursday, Jackson will now possess a speed rating of 96 — one point higher than the retired quarterback’s 95 speed rating from the timeless Madden 2004. Vick also revealed a custom pair of Nike Vapor Untouchable cleats — featuring both Jackson’s new speed rating and his trademark quote from the beginning of the season, “Not bad for a running back” — which were gifted to Ravens quarterback to celebrate Madden milestone.
From one Madden legend to the next. @Lj_era8 takes the crown as the fastest QB in Madden history!
— Madden NFL 20 (@EAMaddenNFL) November 27, 2019
“I’ll always be legendary on the game,” Vick, who was a big proponent of passing the torch to Jackson, told The Undefeated. “But right now, it’s a different time. It’s something special for Madden. And it’s special for Lamar. So why not?”
On Aug. 12, 2003, Vick’s life and the world of video gaming forever changed. That day marked the release of Madden 04, featuring the Atlanta Falcons’ then-23-year-old star quarterback as the cover athlete.
“I couldn’t believe I was on the cover of a video game,” Vick told The Undefeated. “When I first started playing Madden 92 when I was 12 years old, the game made me dream about playing in the NFL. Making it on the cover showed how much effort I put into being the best quarterback I could be. … It exemplified my opportunity in life and couldn’t have come at a better time. I was young and being on that cover made me more determined. It made me want to accomplish more.”
Vick in Madden 04 was an absolute cheat code. With a 97 arm strength rating, 95 agility rating and 95 speed rating, he became the best player in the history of Madden, perhaps even the greatest video game character of all time.
“Michael Vick literally broke the game in Madden 04,” Oldenburg told The Undefeated. “He was such a dual-threat quarterback. He was the meta. Everybody used Vick online, because his speed was unstoppable, plus he had a cannon. He could throw the ball really far. So, on defense, you had to commit to taking away one or the other — you couldn’t take away both.
“When I came to join the Madden team years later, the stories I heard about the things they had to do in Madden 05 and Madden 06 to balance the game for Michael Vick were pretty amazing. That’s when some of the mechanics for QB Spy and QB Contain were invented — things like that we had to build into the game to balance mobile quarterbacks.”
After Madden 04 released, Vick had one rule — he didn’t play the game against anyone using himself. It quite simply wouldn’t have been fair.
“I could never play with myself because I used to always just try to take off and run around the edge,” Vick recalled. “Running is instinctive, even on a video game … I was like, ‘I’d just beat everybody with speed.’ ”
Vick’s unprecedented speed rating of 95 (“I think I could’ve been faster, honestly,” he jokes) was unstoppable. So much so that he remembers players from across the league approaching him with some form of the same message: “Look … I play with you when I’m playing against somebody and I wanna win some money,” Vick’s NFL counterparts would tell him. Yet to this day, he takes pride in covering Madden 04 — and the legend of his avatar’s abilities in the game — for another reason.
“I saw how that game affected kids all across the world,” Vick told The Undefeated, “how they idolized me, and wanted to be like me.”
One of those kids who idolized Vick was a young Lamar Jackson, who was 6 years old when Madden 04 dropped. “I love Michael Vick,” Jackson said at the combine in 2018. “That’s my favorite player of all time.”
After his NFL career ended in 2015, Vick tuned in to a Louisville game one weekend and saw Jackson play for the first time. “The similarities between us were there,” Vick recalled. “I reached out to him on Instagram. We exchanged numbers and became good friends. … I told Lamar what the game was gonna be like at the next level. I told him it