If you watched Thursday's Bears-Packers game, you may have noticed John Madden's classic 1981 Miller Lite ad played during a commercial break. The spot was brought back from the dead to promote Miller Lite’s “new” Steinie bottle. I caught up with Madden by phone to discuss the ad, the Raiders potential move to Las Vegas and his choice in the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate.
SI.com: There's a lot of talk about the Raiders potential move to Las Vegas. You have a long history with the Raiders. What do you think of the Vegas talk?
Madden: They don't have an alternative. I mean, that's the problem. They can't continue to play in that stadium. They need a new stadium. And they can't get one put together in Oakland. The L.A. thing didn't work out, which, I'm kind of glad about. I don't think they belonged in L.A. But [Stan] Kroenke got that and, even though there was a chance they may go in with him, I don't think that'll happen. So then, Las Vegas stepped up and offered that they would build a stadium. So that's where they had to go.If it were a decision - Do you want to play in Oakland or do you want to play in Las Vegas - we would all say "we want you to play in Oakland." And Mark Davis, who's making the decision, would say he'd wants to play in Oakland. But there is no Oakland here.
SI.com: Do you think Mark Davis is getting a bad rap? I know people like to use him as a punching bag almost because he's not his dad, but it seems like there's not much he can do about this one.
Madden: Yeah, he's getting a bad rap in that the people that say that he ought to stay don't have the answer to "stay where." But when they gave the A's an extended lease on the stadium, they have to share it with the A's so they have to play on an infield part of the thing, and the stadium is just not up to NFL standards. So, they have to get that stadium. So the people that say they want them to stay, I think if you're going to say that,you have to say, "Okay, this is how we're gonna get a new stadium built were they can play if they stay." And do that. I mean, it's easy to say "they shouldn't leave." Hell no, they shouldn't leave. But if they stay, where do they play?
SI.com: Switching gears, as an ex-coach, how would you handle someone like Odell Beckham Jr., Vontaze Burfict or some of these guys who tend to get in trouble even though they're great players?
Madden: With some of these guys, if you don't get them when they're young, when they first start out, and if you don't correct some things, then they think it's okay to do. And it's hard to change. When you let them get away with something, then that becomes part of who and what you are. And then, if they've gotten away with whatever they're doing for too doggone long, then it's impossible to change. But, I think that that has to be the thing. I think that some of these guys, you know probably after, you have to get to them before they come in the league or when they come in the league. The first time ... it's easier to talk to them when they're rookies than it is when they're five-year vets. So, I mean, that's it. The answer to your question is that in my era, it was a lot easier to coach, I'll tell you that. But it's a lot easier to get them the first time they do something than to let it go, let it go, let it go and become a way of life.
SI.com: When you say it was easier to coach back in your day, does that make you appreciate someone like Bill Belichick that much more?
Madden:Yeah, I really do respect Bill Belichick and anyone who can do it over a long period of time, because it was easier back when I had the same players every year. And there was no free agency. Vince Lombardi had the same players. Don Shula basically had the same players. Chuck Noll had the same players. We all kind of had the same guys where you would just go one year to the next and replace an older guy with a middle-aged guy and the middle-aged guy, you'd replace him with a young guy, and the whole thing worked that way. Now, you have team and the next year you have a totally different team. So you have to coach them in a totally different way and do different things. And the way Bill Belichick does it, I mean, to me, the job that he does and other coaches that can kind of keep it on a low, it's amazing because it's a lot harder than their predecessors had to do it.
SI.com: I know you're on the Safety Committee now. Did you ever think about head injuries when you coached? Was that something you were cognizant of during the game?
Madden: No. I didn't but no one did. Back then it was just a ding. I remember guys would say, "Oh, great. It's not his knee, it's just his head." And we didn't call it ... we called it a "ding." You give them some smelling salt and he'd be okay and you'd put him back in. But that was the way everyone did it. I mean, it wasn't like "You knew and did it anyway." We didn't know. We didn't know.
SI.com: Are there any rule changes that you think would work now? People are talking about changing the kickoffs again and things like that to sort of make the league safer. Or is it just is what it is?
Madden: Well, no no. You're always trying to make the game safer. I mean, that's the thing. I mean, it's still football, and stuff's going to happen. And we know that. And we know that we're still going to have concussions and we do and we're trying to eliminate as many as we can. And under the rules now, we're trying to make it as safe as we can. And then, if we see something that isn't safe, then we make a rule to change it. So we are doing that, that's going on. But pro football, or football is never going to be completely safe. I mean, you can't have big, strong, fast guys running into each other and say it's safe. It's not. Guys are going to get hurt. It's not only heads, but it's knees and ankles and everything else that goes with it. I mean, it's a tough game, it's a tough job and you don't eliminate everything. You just try to make it as safe as you can make it.
SI.com: You are best known right now for the Madden video games, but 35 years ago, it was the Miller Lite ads. What was it like working with Miller Lite back then?
John Madden: That Miller Lite campaign was one of the most fun things I ever did. And it was the brand, it was the people, it was the guys that you worked with. And any time you did a Miller Lite commercial, you were going to have a fun time. And then, the longer it took, the more fun you had. The more people they had in it, you know when they had those reunion ones, the more fun it was. And I think that kind of came through, you know what I mean? When we started out 40 years ago, no one knew what light beer was. And we brought out light beer and all these ex-players and stuff talking about it, and I think it came to be a thing that... "This is what it is" and "Oh yeah,it's pretty good, and you can drink it. The big guys drink it, the sports guys drink it, and anyone can drink it." But it was a fun thing, it wasn't a hard sell, it was just a bunch of guys sitting around, talking with Miller Lite, having fun.
SI.com: Back then, did you get recognized more for the commercials than football?
Madden: That was the first thing they told me: "You'll be recognized more than you ever have been." I said, "Now wait a minute." I was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. I said, "I've coached in championship games, I've coached in playoff games, I've coached in Super Bowl games, I've coached in Pro Bowl games, and you're telling me in a commercial more people are gonna know me?" And he said "Yeah, they will." I said, "There's no damn way." Well, there was a way. There was a big way. I mean, I became known as the guy that broke through the wall in the Miller Lite ... And everyone, at that time it was "Tastes Great, Less Filling." And you're either a "Tastes Great" guy or "Less Filling" guy.
SI.com: Couple more really quick questions. If you were still coaching and you could start any quarterback in the league for one game, who would you choose?
Madden: Tom Brady. That would be, for me, a relatively easy choice. I mean, we're not talking about over a long period of time. If I just had a game now or year from now, I would want Tom Brady. Now before this year, it would've been tough for me to decide between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
SI.com: If you had to pick between Brady and Manning, who would you would go with?
Madden: I don't know. I don't know. I don't want to have to pick one. Peyton Manning did so many things on the field. And I used to go and watch him practice. I knew how hard he worked. And boy, his games made me appreciate what he did. So, probably Peyton would've had a little edge there. But that was just my mind, had nothing to do witht he way they played. I mean, they're both all-time great NFL quarterbacks.
SI.com: You've probably driven across the country hundreds of times. What city has the best food?
Madden: There's different foods in different places. Like, for example, you go to New York and you can get great pizza there. Go to L.A., or California and you can't get pizza worth a damn but you can get great Mexican food. In New York, you can't get good Mexican food. So, it changes that way. And if you want meat, it's the Midwest. It's Nebraska, Chicago. Chicago was always one of my favorite cities. I think it depends on what you are in the mood for. If you want a Bratwurst, it's Green Bay. So I had all these places in all these towns across the country that were my favorite places. But they were all different cause they were really good at different things.
SI.com: Do you ever do interviews where people don't ask you about the "Madden" video game?
Madden: No. That's the thing, there was time where I was known as"Coach Madden." Then, there was a time where I was known as the guy that does the Miller Lite commercials. And then the video game. And then... I mean, there's a whole generation of people that played the video game somewhere in their life. And I can usually tell who they are. They call me "Madden." There's no "Coach Madden," "John Madden," anything. It's just, "Hey, there's Madden." For the people who were around in the 1970's watching, I'm still "Coach."