Originally published in 2007, we’ve just updated this feature – on why there’s no such thing as the “Madden Curse” – to reflect some of the game’s more contemporary “victims”.
Since 1998, when Garrison Hearst became the first person besides John Madden himself to appear on the cover of EA’s monster franchise, fifteen NFL players (including the most recent “victim”, Drew Brees) have graced the series’ box. And, as we’ll see in a minute, yes, bad things have happened to some of them, giving rise to the idea that there’s a “curse” associated with appearing on the game’s cover. But you know what? Bad things happen to a lot of people in the NFL. We’ll see that in a minute, too.
“Look, some of the things that happen to guys on the cover, they’re legitimate,” says EA Sports’ Chris Erb, who I had a chat with to discuss the curse. “Vinnie Young, for example. We put him on the cover, he missed a game, and he’d never missed a game in his life.” The same is true, he says, of Madden 06 star Donovan McNabb. “He’d never had surgery in his life, ever, but the year he was on the cover, he went under the knife. So these kind of things get into people’s minds”.
“But none of us truly believe in it,” Erb is quick to add. “The media tends to play this sort of thing up, but… I mean, the chances of a player being injured in the NFL are so high that we laugh it all off, because it’s unfounded.” So the curse doesn’t put players off appearing on the cover, then?
“No way. We’ve spoken to plenty of guys from within the league, and they don’t think it’s a jinx. The players, who we work closely with, they definitely don’t think it’s a jinx, because they know better than anyone how easy it is to get injured, or to have a bad season.”
So rather than players fearing the curse, Erb says they’ve instead got athletes beating down their door. “Every year, we get 100 guys calling us, begging to appear on the cover. It’s a big deal”, he says. “Shaun Alexander told us, after he got hurt [he was injured during the 2006 season, after appearing on the cover of Madden 07] , that he’d rather be on the cover and injured than not be on the cover and stay healthy all year.” I ask why. “This generation of guys in the league now grew up playing Madden. To them, it’s the Wheaties Box of the 21st century.”
So… the NFL doesn’t believe in the curse. The players don’t believe in it. EA Sports don’t believe in it. And you shouldn’t, either, because when you look at two key factors – the NFL’s injury rate and the actual performance of all fifteen cover stars in the year they appeared on the box – you’ll see the curse is nothing of the sort.
First, let’s look at the injury rate in the NFL. The National Football League prides itself on its big men and big hits. As you’d expect it would, football being a sport based around the concept of 22 large, heavily-armoured men crashing into each other for a few hours every Sunday. But when the average size of an NFL player is 6’1.5″ and 245 lbs, that crashing doesn’t come consequence free. Because between athletes hitting, being hit or trying to avoid being hit, NFL players get hurt. A lot.
A few years back, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review conducted an exhaustive study on the injury rates of the NFL, based on the league’s injury statistics and interviews with players, officials, team doctors and coaches. Their findings? That around half the players in the NFL are injured every year (spiking in 2003 to an absurd 68.5% of players in the league). That 2003 figure was eight times higher than any other US national sporting league. And that includes the NHL and motorsports.
In other words, you don’t need to be appearing on the cover of an EA Sports game to get yourself hurt in the NFL. Just suiting up will take care of that. Especially if you’re a QB or a RB, the two most common positions a cover star will play. On average, 40% of QBs will get hurt badly enough that they miss at least one game during any given season, while for RBs the figures are even worse, with less than half the league’s starters destined to make it through an entire season unscathed.
Let’s now look at all fifteen players to have appeared on the cover of Madden. Some things to consider: the curse applies to only the year they appear on the cover (Daunte Culpepper and Eddie George rebounded later in their careers, for exaample). Also, Madden is always dated a year later than the actual year it appears. Madden 2002, for example, was released in 2001. Which means the season in which the player appears on the cover is a year earlier than that on the cover of the game (ie the Madden 2002 cover star appeared for the 2001 season). Got that? Wonderful.
GARRISON HEARST – Madden 99
THE MYTH: The 49ers’ RB Garrison Hearst was the first player to appear on the cover. He proceeded to break his ankle in the playoffs, and broke it so bad he wouldn’t play again until the 2001 season.
THE REALITY: Good luck finding a copy of Madden 99 with Hearst on the cover. The vast majority still had John Madden himself, alone, on the front. And yeah, it was a bad break, but he also rushed for 1570 yards (2105 total yards) for the year, and was named to both the NFC Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.
BARRY SANDERS – Madden 2000
THE MYTH: On the verge of breaking Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, out of nowhere Sanders retires from the NFL.
THE REALITY: For starters, he’s not the cover star. Madden is. Sanders only appears in a small background shot behind the game’s logo. Secondly, while his announcement came just before the season in which he appeared on the cover, Sanders would later admit that it was the Detroit Lion’s propensity for continual suckage that caused him to call it quits, something which had been building up long before he appeared on the cover.
DORSEY LEVENS – Madden 2000 (PAL Territories)
THE MYTH: There is none. Levens had a great year.
THE REALITY: Like I said, Levens had a great year. 1999 was the second-best year of his eleven-year career, and he not only rushed for 1034 yards (second-best season), he caught 71 passes for 573 yards, both career highs.
EDDIE GEORGE: Madden 2001
THE MYTH: A costly fumble in the playoffs in 2000, the year he was on the cover, lost the Titans the game. But curse advocates mainly point to his 2001 season, the year after he appeared on the cover, when a niggling toe injury contributed to career-lows in yards rushing (939 yards) and yards per carry (3).
THE REALITY: Uh, you can’t pick and choose which year a player sucks. It’s got to be the year they appear on the cover. And in 2000, George posted career highs in rushing yards (1509) and rushing TDs (14). As a result, he made the AFC Pro Bowl team and was also named an All-Pro.
DAUNTE CULPEPPER: Madden 2002
THE MYTH: Had a fantastic 2000 season, throwing for nearly 4000 yards. In 2001, however, a back injury meant he only appeared in eleven games, and even taking this into account his productivity dropped off.
THE REALITY: All that’s true. For what it’s worth, he threw for over 3400 yards in each of his next three seasons.
MARSHALL FAULK – Madden 2003
THE MYTH: A versatile back, Faulk amassed 2147 combined yards (both rushing and receiving) in the 2001 season. In 2002, however, this dropped off substantially. The St Louis Rams, after going 14-2 and appearing in the Super Bowl, crashed to 7-9.
THE REALITY: The Rams of 2002 were decimated by injuries, not only to Faulk’s QB Kurt Warner but key linemen Orlando Pace and Tom Nutten as well. Those three injuries would impact the production of any RB, especially one as reliant on receiving yards as Faulk. Regardless, at 29 (approaching old age for a RB) he still amassed 1490 combined yards.
MICHAEL VICK – Madden 2004
THE MYTH: The league’s brightest star coming into the 2003 season, Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game. The week after appearing on the cover. His career, once promising, has never been the same since.
THE REALITY: That is the reality. Vick had a bad 2003, and things only got worse.
RAY LEWIS – Madden 2005
THE MYTH: The Ravens, division champions the previous year, failed to make the playoffs. He also missed the last two games of the year due to injury. Oh, and after tallying six interceptions in 2003, didn’t get a single one in 2004.
THE REALITY: That’s statistical cherry-picking at its best. The facts are, Ray Lewis – the first defensive player to appear on the cover – enjoyed one of his best seasons ever, and was named to both the AFC Pro Bowl team and a first-team All-Pro.
DONOVAN McNABB – Madden 2006
THE MYTH: McNabb, who led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 2004, played hurt for a lot of the 2005 season. His stats were down, and the Eagles finished 6-10.
THE REALITY: He did hurt himself, and missed the last five games of the season when he finally decided to have surgery. He still cobbled together 2507 passing yards at an average of 278 yards per game, though, and earned a respectable QB rating of 85.
SHAUN ALEXANDER – Madden 2007
THE MYTH: Had one of the best years ever for a running back in 2005, rushing for 1880 yards and setting an NFL record for TDs with 28. But in 2006, he broke his foot, missed six games then saw his TD record broken by the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson.
THE REALITY: No hiding it, it was a bad year for Alexander. He rushed for nearly 1000 yards less than his 2005 season, and hasn’t been the same player since.
VINCE YOUNG – Madden 2008
THE MYTH: Having never missed a game in his life, he missed one during the 2007 regular season.
THE REALITY: So what? Young continued his NFL apprenticeship, increasing his yardage, completion rate and QB rating while leading the Titans to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2003.
BRETT FAVRE – Madden 2009
THE MYTH: Favre retires a Packer, lands on the cover, then returns as a Jet. This would be bad karma for the future Hall-of-Famer.
THE REALITY: Favre’s retirement charade dated all the way back to 2005, and has been a constant of the NFL off-season since, meaning his cover appearance has nothing to do with it. He didn’t have a bad 2008 season, either; injuries marred it towards the end, but he still managed to throw for 3400 yards with a QB rating of 81; not amazing numbers, but hardly a “curse”, either.
TROY POLAMALU & LARRY FITZGERALD – Madden 10
THE MYTH: Polamalu & Fitzgerald, the stars of the previous season’s Super Bowl, enjoyed mixed fortunes as the first co-stars on a Madden cover since 2000. While Fitzgerald had another great year, Polamalu’s season was wrecked by not one injuries, but two.
THE REALITY: Yup, mixed fortunes. Fitzgerald started all 16 games for the Cardinals in 2009, catching 97 passes for 1092 yards. Great numbers. So great he was made an All-Pro for the second year running. Polamalu, however, sprained ligaments in his knee in the first game of the season, then after a spell on the sidelines re-injured himself in week 10, meaning he only played in five of the Steeler’s 16 games. One injury is unfortunate, two in a season is definitely curse-like behaviour.
DREW BREES – Madden 11
THE MYTH: That not only will Drew Brees suffer great misfortune as the game’s cover star, but that since the city of New Orleans itself also features, it’s in line for some bad times as well.
THE REALITY: Let’s check back next year! Though it’s hard trying to imagine any more bad luck heading New Orleans’ way so soon after Katrina.
So in total, and I’m discounting Sanders since he didn’t play the season he appeared on the cover (and Brees, since the 2010 season is yet to get started), we’re left with thirteen guys. One, Vick, had a straight-up disaster of a year and has been “cursed” ever since (though you could say that, now back in the NFL, he’s on the road to recovery/redemption). We have five players with “disappointing” seasons, four due to injury (Culpepper, McNabb, Alexander & Polamalu) and one due to injuries in key positions around him (Faulk). And we have one who did nothing but come out of retirement and change teams.
Of those five “disappointers”, Daunte Culpepper (who threw for 3853 yards in 2002 and 4717 in 2004) and Donovan McNabb (who after another injury-plagued year in 2006 returned in 2007 to throw for over 3300 yards) would rebound in later years. These strong performances in a players’ post-Madden career rule out any notions that the curse affects the remainder of a player’s career (though curse believers can point to Shawn Alexander’s career slide since appearing on the cover).
We’re then left with six guys who had good years. Great years, even. We have two who, while missing out on top-shelf accolades, still had a successful season (Levens & Young). And then we have four players who had standout seasons, and were named to both Pro Bowl and All-Pro squads (Hearst, George, Lewis & Fitzgerald). Which dispels the idea that it’s only the year a player appears on the cover that they’re affected.
That’s a 50% success rate! Throw in the fact over half the league’s players are injured every season anyway – the major factor in a “cursed” players cover-year performance – and what looked like a curse from the safety of a messageboard and/or armchair suddenly looks more like, well, what life in the NFL looks like when you start putting individual players (especially injury-prone ones like QBs and RBs) under the microscope for a season.