In the National Football League, being selected to be on the cover of ‘Madden NFL’, a popular football themed video game named after hall of fame coach and broadcaster John Madden, is a big deal. Since the practice was started in 1999 with Garrison Hearst, there have only been 15 players to ever grace the cover of ‘Madden NFL’. With the exception of Peyton Hillis, who last season won a fan vote to earn the right to grace the cover of ‘Madden’, most players were chosen because they were considered the top players at their position or somehow changed the way the game was played.
Yet as big of an honor that such a selection would seem, there are just as many people who see it as a ‘curse’—that bad things happen to the players who appear on the cover of ‘Madden NFL.’ The question then remains, is there such a thing as ‘The Madden Curse’—or is it a myth invented by fans and the media to explain why certain players may have had seasons that are consistent with their career production? A further examination of all 15 players is necessary to determine what is ‘fact’ and what is ‘myth’ with regard to this theory*:
Cover Athlete: Garrison Hearst, RB, San Francisco 49ers
1997 Stats: Games Played: 13, Games Started: 13, 234 rushing attempts, 1,019 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry average, 4 rushing TDs; 21 receptions, 194 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
1998 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 310 rushing attempts, 1,570 rushing yards, 5.1 ypc average 7 rushing TDs; 39 receptions 535 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs,
After being the first NFL player to grace the cover of ‘Madden,’ Garrison Hearst would go on to set a San Francisco 49ers rushing record of 1,570 yards, eclipsing the old mark of 1,506 set by Roger Craig. Hearst would help lead the 49ers to a Wild Card playoff win versus the Green Bay Packers and a divisional round appearance against the Atlanta Falcons.
During the game against the Falcons, Hearst would unfortunately break his leg. In the offseason he would have surgery; complications would ensue that caused him to miss both the 1999 and 2000 seasons. Hearst would return to the 49ers in 2001, and his 1206 rushing yards would earn him the AP Comeback Player of the Year Award. Hearst would retire in 2004, having amassed 7,966 career rushing yards.
Cover Athlete: Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions
1998 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 343 rushing attempts, 1,491 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry average, 4 rushing TDs; 37 receptions, 289 receiving yards.
1999 Stats: Retired
While Madden himself would feature prominently on this cover, Barry Sanders can be seen in the upper right hand corner. Although 1998 was not his best season, it should be noted that his 1,491 rushing yards and 4.3 ypc average were nothing to sneeze at, either. Following the ’98 season Sanders would finally hang up his cleats, and his 15,269 career rushing yards are still good for third on the all time list, behind only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.
Cover Athlete: Dorsey Levens, RB, Green Bay Packers
1998 Stats: Games Played: 7, Games Started: 4, 115 rushing attempts, 378 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD; 27 receptions, 162 receiving yards
1999 Stats: Games Played: 14, Games Started: 14, 279 rushing attempts, 1034 rushing yards, 3.7 ypc average, 9 rushing TDs; 71 receptions, 573 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
2000 Stats Games Played: 5, Games Started: 5, 77 rushing attempts, 224 rushing yards, 2.9 ypc average, 3 rushing TDs; 16 receptions, 146 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs
After being selected to the cover of Madden, Levens would have one of the better seasons of his career, rushing for 1,034 yards on 279 carries. A year later, Levens would miss the majority of the 2000 season due to a knee injury. He was later released by the Packers, and he would retire following the 2004 season.
Cover Athlete: Eddie George, RB, Tennessee Titans
1999 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 320 rushing attempts, 1.304 yards rushing, 4.1 ypc average, 9 rushing TDs; 47 receptions, 458 receiving yards, 4 receiving TDs
2000 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 403 rushing attempts, 1,509 yards, 3.7 ypc average, 14 rushing TDs; 50 receptions, 453 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
2001 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 315 rushing attempts, 939 yards, 3.0 ypc average, 5 rushing TDs; 37 receptions, 279 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs
Following an MVP caliber season in 2000 that saw George help lead his team within inches of its first Super Bowl, George saw his 2001 numbers drop significantly in every category: attempts, rushing yards, and yards per carry. George would play 3 more seasons for the Titans, rushing for over 1000 yards in two of them, and finished with over 10,000 yards for his career.
Cover Athlete: Daunte Culpepper, QB, Minnesota Vikings
2000 Stats: Games Played: 16, Games Started: 16, 474 passing attempts, 297 passing completions, completion percentage: 62.7%, 3937 passing yards, 33 passing TDs, 16 interceptions, 8.3 yards per attempt, 98.0 passer rating.
2001 Stats: Games Played: 11, Games Started: 11, passing attempts: 366, passing completions: 235, completion percentage: 64.2%, 2612 passing yards, 14 passing TDs, 13 Interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt, 83.3 passer rating
2000 was a banner year for Culpepper, one that saw him lead the Vikings to an NFC Championship appearance. Unfortunately 2001 was not as kind to Culpepper, as a knee injury would end his season early. The next two seasons saw Culpepper struggle, but, during the 2003-2004 seasons, Culpepper would enjoy a bit of a resurgence, passing for over 8200 yards and 64 touchdowns, including a league high 4,717 yards and a Minnesota record 39 touchdowns in 2004.
2005 marked the end of Daunte's career in Minnesota-in addition to having his season cut short due to injury, off the field issues related to a team cruise also hurt his credibility there. Culpepper subsequently asked from his release from the Vikings, and would play for several teams, including the Dolphins, Lions, and Raiders, but he would never again enjoy the success he had in Minnesota.
Cover Athlete: Marshall Faulk, RB, St. Louis Rams
2001 Stats: Games Played: 14, Games Started: 14, 260 rushing attempts, 1,382 rushing yards, 5.3 ypc average, 12 rushing TDs; 83 receptions, 765 receiving yards, 9 receiving TDs
2002 Stats: Games Played: 14, Games Started: 10, 212 rushing attempts, 953 rushing yards, 4.5 ypc average, 8 rushing TDs; 80 receptions, 537 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs
After a 2001 season that saw Faulk win his third straight Offensive Player of the Year award (helping lead the Rams to their second straight Super Bowl appearance), Faulk would see a significant decline in his production in 2002
He would retire a few seasons later, after ending a 12 year career with the Rams and the Indianapolis Colts with over 12,000 career rushing yards. Last season Faulk was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cover Athlete: Mike Vick, QB, Atlanta Falcons
2002 Stats: Games Played: 15, Games Started: 15, 421 passing attempts, 231 passing completions, 54.9% completion ratio, 2,936 passing yards, 16 passing TDs, 8 interceptions, 7.0 yards per attempt, 81.6 passer rating
2003 Stats: Games Played: 5, Games Started: 4, passing attempts: 100, passing completions: 50, completion percentage: 50%, 585 passing yards, 4 passing TDs, 3 interceptions, 69.0 passer rating
2004 Stats: Games Played: 15, Games Started: 15, 321 passing completions, 181 passing attempts, completion percentage: 56.4%, 2,313 passing yards, 14 passing TDs, 12 interceptions, 78.2 passer rating.
After a disappointing 2003 season that was cut short by a broken leg, Mike Vick sought to break the trend of his fellow ‘Madden’ cover alums with a breakout performance in 2004. To that end, Vick posted some of the better numbers in his career, and led the Falcons to 11 wins and a playoff berth. A year later he would lead them to the playoffs again, and it seemed all the talk of a curse had ended.
Between 2006 and 2007, however, off the field issues would catch up to Vick, as he was finally sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2007 for helping to coordinate a dog fighting ring. In 2009, Vick was allowed to return to the league, following a six game suspension, and he found a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles roster as the backup QB.
Today Vick is the starting QB for the Eagles, where he led them to a divisional round appearance in 2010.
Cover Athlete: Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens
2003 Stats: 16 Games Played, 16 Games Started, 6 interceptions, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 121 total tackles
2004 Stats: 15 games played, 15 games started, 1 sack, 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 101 total tackles
2005 Stats: 6 games played, 6 games started, 1 sack, 1 interception, 2 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 39 total tackles
Lewis’ followed a dominant 2003 performance with an equally impressive ’04 campaign, and it appeared the curse was just a myth. Yet one year later, Lewis would only play six games following a torn hamstring suffered in late October versus the Chicago Bears, and so the myth of the curse lived on.
Cover Athlete: Donovan McNabb, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
2005 Stats: 9 games played, 9 games started, 357 attempts, 211 completions, 59.1 completion percentage, 2,507 passing yards, 16 passing TDs, 9 interceptions, 85.0 passer rating
2006 Stats: 10 games played, 10 games started, 316 attempts, 180 completions, 57.0 completion percentage, 2,647 passing yards, 18 passing touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 95.5 passer rating
Following a 2005 campaign that was cut short due to injury, Donovan McNabb looked primed to have an MVP season in 2006, starting out fast from the gates, leading the Eagles to a 4-1 start. However, the injury bug would bite McNabb again that season, as a torn ACL suffered in week 11 against the Tennessee Titans would sideline Donovan for the second straight season.
Cover Athlete: Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Alexander was named the 2007 representative for the ‘Madden’ cover after posting MVP numbers of 1880 yards rushing and 27 TDs in 2005. Unfortunately for Alexander, the next two seasons weren’t as kind, as a broken foot would limit him to around 1600 total yards rushing and 11 rushing TDs from 2006-2007.
Madden ‘ 08
Cover Athlete: Vince Young, QB, Tennessee Titans
2006 Stats: 15 Games Played, 13 Games Started, 357 pass attempts, 184 pass completions, 51.5 completion percentage, 2,199 yards passing, 12 passing TDs, 13 interceptions, 6.2 yards per attempt
2007 Stats: 15 Games Played, 15 Games Started, 382 passing attempts, 238 passing completions, 62.3 completion percentage, 9 passing TDs, 17 interceptions, 71.1 passer rating.
After a breakout rookie season, Young followed it up with an equally impressive sophomore campaign for the Titans. Unfortunately for Young, a series of on and off the field issues would shake his confidence, and then head coach Jeff Fisher would bench Young in 2008. A couple of seasons later, the Titans would cut Young, and he was picked up by the Eagles, where he now serves as the backup to Mike Vick.
Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers/New York Jets
2007 Stats: 16 games played, 16 games started, 535 passing attempts, 356 completions, 66.5 completion percentage, 4,155 passing yards, 28 passing TDs, 15 interceptions, 7.8 yards per attempt, 95.7 passer rating
2008 Stats: 16 games played, 16 games started, 522 passing attempts, 343 completions, 65.7 completion percentage, 22 passing TDs, 22 interceptions, 6.7 yards per attempt 81.0 passer rating.
Madden chose to honor Favre, who was believed to be retiring after the ’07 season, by putting him on their cover. Favre wouldn’t retire, however, and would join the New York Jets after the start of training camp. Favre and the ultra conservative Eric Mangini would clash on many occasions, and the subsequently his production would suffer because of it.
After the 2008 season, Favre would be traded to the Minnesota Vikings. While a member of the Vikings, the public was made aware that Favre had been sending inappropriate photos to Jenn Sterger, a member of the Jets’ public relations team. Favre would lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship in ’09, but, after a disappointing 2010 season, he would retire again, this time presumably for good.
Cover Athlete: Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
2008 Stats: 16 games started, 7 interceptions, 17 passes defended, 54 tackles
2009 Stats: 5 games started, 3 interceptions, 7 passes defended, 18 tackles
Polamalu was one of two players chosen for the cover of ‘Madden 2010’ along with his Super Bowl XLIII counterpart, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. Polamalu would suffer a knee injury in the season and NFL opener against Tennessee in 2009; while he would return to play in four more games, he was never 100%, and the Steelers would finish the season 9-7, second in the AFC North and out of the playoff race.
Cover Athlete: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
2008 Stats: 96 receptions, 1,431 receiving yards, 12 receiving TDs
2009 Stats: 97 receptions, 1092 receiving yards, 13 receiving TDs
Unlike his Steeler counterpart, Fitz did not seem to suffer from a Super Bowl letdown in 2009, even though the Cardinals failed to make it back to the big game. Larry Fitzgerald has been the epitome of consistency among wide receivers, as he has six 1000+ receiving yard seasons, and his lowest output of his career was when he entered the league in 2004.
Cover Athlete: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: 514 attempts, 364 completions, 70.6 completion percentage, 4,388 passing yards, 34 passing TDs, 11 interceptions, 109.6 passer rating
2010 Stats: 658 attempts, 448 completions, 68.1 completion percentage, 4,620 passing yards, 33 TDs, 22 interceptions 90.9 passer rating.
Coming off a season that saw Brees lead the Saints to the organization’s first ever Super Bowl victory, big things were expected, as there was even talk of New Orleans being the first team since Dallas to repeat as Champions. Despite a valiant effort from Brees, the Saints would fall short in 2010, losing to Seattle in the Wild Card round.
Cover Athlete: Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns
2010 Stats: 270 rushing attempts, 1,177 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry average, 11 rushing TDs
2011 Stats: 161 rushing attempts, 587 rushing yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 3 rushing TDs
Hillis was the first NFL player to be voted on the cover of Madden. After a breakout 2010 campaign, Hillis never got it going in 2011, hampered by injuries, illness, and a contract dispute that would boil over into the offseason. The Browns would not re-sign Hillis and he will be playing for the Kansas City Chiefs this season.
So, after review all 15 players featured on the cover of Madden, is there actually a curse? It would appear so, at least to the casual observer, as the only players who continued to play at a high level after being selected to be on the cover of ‘Madden’ were Larry Fitzgerald and Drew Brees. Everyone else either saw their production fall off, fell victim to injury or off the field issues, or a combination of the both.
*Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com