Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Does ‘Madden NFL’ cover curse still exist? A look back at 25 years of covers after Christian McCaffrey nod

If you’re a football fan, there’s hardly a chance you haven’t heard of the “Madden” curse. 

The apparent and infamous jinx goes like this: The player featured on the cover of EA Sports’ annual NFL video game is doomed to encounter something vile: a decline in play, usually, or maybe even a serious injury. Superstition at its finest. The San Francisco 49ers are one team that surely hopes the curse isn’t real, with reigning Offensive Player of the Year Christian McCaffrey tabbed as this year’s cover star.

EA itself has publicly denied the existence of the curse, which tells you everything you need to know about its popularity. Others, like cover athletes themselves, have panned the annual hullabaloo as a myth. And yet, whether you genuinely fear your favorite team suffering at the hands of “Madden” or find it all ridiculously silly, the curse has never quite gone away. Or has it?

Let’s review the fate of all 25 of the cover athletes since 2000, using the years from the “Madden” titles (2024’s game is “Madden 25”), to find a verdict:

2001: Tennessee Titans RB Eddie George

George went on to rush for more than 1,500 yards in his cover season, but he also lost a career-high number of fumbles, coughed up the ball in the Titans’ season-ending playoff game and never averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry for the rest of his career.

Verdict: Cursed

2002: Minnesota Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper

After throwing 33 touchdowns and going 11-5 as a first-time starter in 2000, Culpepper took a nosedive during his cover season. Injuries cost him six games, he fumbled 16 times, threw just 14 touchowns compared to 13 picks and went 4-7 in his starts.

Verdict: Cursed

2003: Rams RB Marshall Faulk

The Hall of Famer entered his cover season having logged five straight 1,000-yard seasons and three straight 1,300-yard campaigns. But in 2002, Faulk broke down, missing almost a half-dozen starts. He never topped 1,000 yards again.

Verdict: Cursed

2004: Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick

In the game, Vick was unstoppable thanks to his unmatched speed. On the field, despite exploding onto the scene as a No. 1 pick, a fractured fibula less than a week after the game’s release sidelined him for all but five games. Four years later, he was in jail.

Verdict: Cursed

2005: Baltimore Ravens LB Ray Lewis

His interception total dropped from six to zero in 2004, his cover year, and the Ravens also missed the playoffs. But that’s nitpicking. He still logged 147 tackles. If we were talking about the following year, there might be a case to be made, as he missed 10 games.

Verdict: Not cursed

2006: Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb

McNabb hit his peak in 2004, throwing 31 touchdowns and leading the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX. But 2005 was rock bottom. He scuffled with Terrell Owens and missed almost half of a 6-10 season. He went on to miss eight games over the next two years, too.

Verdict: Cursed

2007: Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander

Like Faulk, he entered his cover year with five straight 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. And his dominance also came to a halt. In 2006, his rushing total dropped from 1,880 to 896, and two years later, he was out of the NFL, a Washington Redskins washout.

Verdict: Cursed

2008: Titans QB Vince Young

He was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2006. For his cover year, though, Young threw just nine touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions, missed a game and earned a seat on the bench for 2008, never fully regaining Jeff Fisher’s trust.

Verdict: Cursed

2009: Packers/Jets QB Brett Favre

EA began by making Favre the cover athlete as a tribute to his Packers career, which had just ended. But then Favre forced his way out and into New York. All he did there was throw an NFL-high 22 picks and hurt his shoulder before moving to Minnesota.

Verdict: Cursed

2010: Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, Steelers S Troy Polamalu

Fitz had one of his standard Pro Bowl seasons with more than 1,000 yards, but Polamalu missed a career-high 11 games in 2009 thanks to an MCL injury, recording a career-low 20 tackles.

Verdict: Half-cursed

2011: New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees

Throwing 33 scores and earning another Pro Bowl selection is good stuff, but Brees had what constitutes as an off year the season he graced the cover, throwing a career-high and franchise-record 22 picks. His Saints also lost to the 7-9 Seahawks in the playoffs.

Verdict: Cursed

2012: Cleveland Browns RB Peyton Hillis

A “Madden” cult hero, Hillis grunted his way to 1,000 yards as a surprise lead back in 2010, but during his cover year, he missed a half-dozen games with an injury, averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and ran his way into a journeyman backup career.

Verdict: Cursed

2013: Lions WR Calvin Johnson

If anyone conquered the curse, it was Johnson, who had both a career and historic season the year he was on the cover. Like Barry Sanders before him in Detroit, he retired relatively early a few years later, but 2012 saw him post a whopping 1,964 receiving yards.

Verdict: Not cursed

2014: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson

If Johnson shattered the curse, Peterson may have reignited it in 2013. Fresh off his sixth 1,000-yard season and two years removed from a historic 2,000-yard campaign, he missed all but one game after being indicted on child abuse charges.

Verdict: Cursed

2015: Seahawks CB Richard Sherman

His interception total dropped, and his Seahawks failed to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but otherwise, Sherman was still at the top of his game during his cover year. It was only after the season he had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Verdict: Not cursed

2016: New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr.

There’s a case to be made that 2015, Beckham’s cover year, is when the flamboyant wideout fell into a mercurial trajectory, including a one-game suspension for his fight with Josh Norman. But he still dominated on the field with 1,400 yards.

Verdict: Not cursed

2017: New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski

The five-time Pro Bowler was coming off another double-digit touchdown season in 2016, but he missed virtually all of the Patriots’ first four games with a hamstring injury, then finished with just six starts due to a herniated disk and other injury issues.

Verdict: Cursed

2018: Patriots QB Tom Brady

With a chance to win a sixth Lombardi Trophy, Brady was bested by Eagles backup Nick Foles in Super Bowl LII. But he still threw for more than 500 yards in that game after winning yet another MVP award — all at age 40. He proved immune to the curse.

Verdict: Not cursed

2019: Steelers WR Antonio Brown

One of the game’s most gifted route-runners, Brown scored a career-high 15 touchdowns during his cover year, but it proved to be a tumultuous one in the Steelers’ locker room, resulting in his trade to the Raiders after the season. He only played another 16 games in the NFL, bouncing between three different teams amid a flurry of on- and off-field controversies.

Verdict: Cursed

2020: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes

Rightly honored after a historic debut as Kansas City’s full-time starter, Mahomes didn’t slow down as a result of his video-game fame. An injury cost him two starts and made his numbers look more good than great in 2020, but he still won his first Super Bowl at 24.

Verdict: Not cursed

2021: Ravens QB Lamar Jackson

Fresh off an MVP season as an electric dual threat, Jackson would experience a downturn in passing efficiency and durability a few years later, but his cover season, 2020, was still a star-studded affair, marking his second straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign.

Verdict: Not cursed

2022: Buccaneers QB Tom Brady, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes

Sharing the cover as the past and present faces of the NFL, both Brady and Mahomes enjoyed their typical unmatched success after gracing “Madden” again. The former threw an NFL-high 5,300 yards and 43 touchdowns at 44 while taking Tampa Bay back to the playoffs, while Mahomes casually tossed 37 touchdowns in a 12-5 season that ended in the AFC title game.

Verdict: Not cursed

2023: John Madden

The Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster died at 85 in late 2021, and he returned to the cover of his famous series as part of a tribute for the 2022 season.

Verdict: N/A

2024: Bills QB Josh Allen

Allen was the first Bills player to ever grace the cover. While he couldn’t end Buffalo’s streak of disappointing postseason finishes and maintained a penchant for turnovers, the big-bodied dual threat scored 40-plus total touchdowns for the fourth straight year, serving as the chief reason for the Bills’ late-season turnaround. He remains the centerpiece of their title hopes.

Verdict: Not cursed

Final verdict

What does history tell us, then? Using our year-by-year decisions, 13.5 of the 24 cover athletes (or 56%) from 2000-2024 have been cursed, but just 3 of the 10 cover athletes (or 30%) from the last 10 years, 2014-2024, have been cursed. There also haven’t been back-to-back “curses” since 2011-2012.

So is the “Madden” curse alive? Maybe. But it may well be losing its power.

Or, you know, it could just be made up.

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