It’s Time to Put the Madden Curse to Rest


The second round of voting to determine who will appear on the cover of Madden 13 continues until April 4. When it was announced that Calvin Johnson had advanced to the second round, Lions fans started expressing a variety of opinions on whether or not they wanted him to receive such an honor because of the “Madden curse”.

The Madden video game started featuring players on the cover of US versions with Madden 2001. Since that time, some feel a trend has developed in which bad things happen to the players whose images appear on the game’s cover. The Madden curse theory is now so ingrained in the landscape of NFL fandom that 66% of Lions fans in a recent poll said they don’t want to see Calvin Johnson on the cover of Madden 13.

Is the Madden curse really something to be concerned with? As it turns out, not surprisingly, no.

At this point you have two choices as a Lions fan. One, just go vote for Calvin Johnson over Arian Foster to move on in the cover tournament. Two, read through whatever portion of the next 2,000 words you need to come to your senses and conquer your irrational fears of the Madden curse and then go vote for Calvin Johnson.

Here’s the real story behind all 12 Madden covers.

Madden 2001 Cover: Eddie George

The Curse Says: The defending AFC Champion Tennessee Titans were upset by the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs in part because of a bobbled pass by Eddie George that ended up as an interception by Ray Lewis. While George would go on to play four more seasons, he wouldn’t ever again play at the level he had made routine through his first five seasons.

The Truth: Eddie George had the best statistical season of his career while store shelves were stocked with Madden video games bearing his photo. He set career-highs in carries, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards while leading the Titans to a division title. History tells us that the “upset” at the hands of the Ravens wasn’t particularly surprising considering the decade of success that followed – not to mention the fact that the Ravens had also beaten the Titans in the regular season and would go on to win Super Bowl XXXV. As for the drop off in George’s play post-Madden cover, such is life as an NFL running back.

Madden 2002 Cover: Daunte Culpepper

The Curse Says: Daunte Culpepper appeared on the Madden cover after breaking out as one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL. However, he took a sharp decline during the 2002 season when he threw 23 interceptions and fumbled the ball 23 times.

The Truth: A classic case of confirmation bias. Proponents of the curse point to Culpepper’s 23 interceptions in 2002-03, ingoring the fact that Madden 2002 was released for the 2001-02. Culpepper couldn’t live up to the ridiculous standard he set in 2000-01 that earned him the Madden cover but a look at Culpepper’s career shows that the player we during his cover season was more likely the “real” Culpepper. Still, Culpepper was able to have a fantastic season in 2004-05 before ultimately having his career by a devastating knee injury – another piece of evidence some will stretch to use as support for the curse. A much more reasonable explanation exists. Part of what made Daunte Culpepper so special was his combination of a huge arm and mobility. Culpepper was able to make plays with his feet and was a beast to bring down. His size meant it was bad idea to tackle him high if you wanted to bring him down. It was Chris Gamble’s low tackle of Culpepper that brought him down after an 18-yard run and tore ligaments in Culpepper’s knee.

Madden 2003 Cover: Marshall Faulk

The Curse Says: The St. Louis Rams offenses of the late 90s and early 2000s were among the most prolific in NFL history and Marshall Faulk had a lot to do with that. He appeared on the cover of Madden 2003 and never ran for 1,000 yards again. His production in the passing game also fell off and the St. Louis Rams lost their spot among the NFC’s elite.

The Truth: Even the most durable NFL running backs start to break down around their 30th birthday and Faulk is no exception. He had an incredible stretch of season in his mid to late-20s but succumbed to the same phenomenon seen so many times. Look at the career of LaDanian Tomlinson. He never appeared on the Madden cover (although he reportedly turned down the chance to appear on the cover of Madden 08) and has faced a nearly identical career arc as Faulk. He put up big numbers and was a sure-bet first or second pick in fantasy leagues throughout his career until Tomlinson’s age 29 season in 2009 when he was good but not great and it only went downhill from there. Faulk faced the added dimension of deteriorating knees and the arrival of Stephen Jackson in 2004. If the end of Faulk’s career is the result of a curse, then all NFL running backs are cursed.

Madden 2004 Cover: Michael Vick

The Curse Says: Madden 2004 was released on August 11, 2003 and Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens just five days later. Vick would later be found to have been involved in a dog fighting operation and missed the 2007 and 2008 seasons while he served his prison sentence.

The Truth: Like Daunte Culpepper a couple years earlier, Michael Vick, another highly mobile quarterback, suffered a leg injury while scrambling out of the pocket – just the sort of injury a quarterback like Vick leaves himself susceptible to. The lost games due to injury were unfortunate but Vick returned later in the season to lead the Falcons to a 3-1 record in his four starts. Any fears of lingering effects of the leg injury were put to rest when Vick ran for 141 yards against the Carolina Panthers in his first start of the season.

Michael Vick’s legal problems resulting from dog fighting came about as a result of his own actions, linking his downfall to the Madden curse only absolves Vick of some responsibility and diminishes the severity of his actions.

Madden 2005 Cover: Ray Lewis

The Curse Says: A wrist injury put an early end to the season for Ray Lewis. It was the first season in which Ray Lewis failed to record an interception in his career.

The Truth: It’s a huge stretch to blame a Madden curse for a perceived dip in performance for the season in which Ray Lewis appeared on the Madden cover. His injury only cost him the final game of the season and the lack of an interception is hardly a troubling statistic, even for a playmaker like Lewis. The Ravens ended up winning that final game without Lewis and still missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Forget the curse, this is a Madden cover the team at EA Sports got absolutely correct. Madden 2005 sought to bring back the defensive side of football to the game play with new features like the hit stick and improved gang tackling. The Baltimore Ravens are the prime example of a successful defensive-minded team and Ray Lewis is the public face of that effort.

Madden 06 Cover: Donovan McNabb

The Curse Says: A sports hernia bothered McNabb through much of the season while he graced the Madden cover and wound up on injured reserve after injuring his groin in November. McNabb faced more injury problems a year later, landing on injured reserve after blowing out his knee.

The Truth: While it is true that McNabb had his season cut short in the two years that followed being named Madden’s cover athlete, there was a trend that actually precedes the supposed Madden curse. The early finishes to the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons made for three of the last five for McNabb. He also played in just ten games during the 2002-03 season. That made for three years out of five that McNabb’s season ended at least six games early.

Neither of McNabb’s “cursed” years lived up to his standards statistically but they weren’t horrible either. Any attempts to blame the Madden curse for the troubles McNabb had as a Redskin or Viking is simply an excuse for the decline of an aging quarterback.

Madden 07 Cover: Shaun Alexander

The Curse Says: Shaun Alexander suffered a foot injury that forced the reigning league MVP to miss six games. He never returned to form and didn’t play after the 2008 season.

The Truth: Shaun Alexander doesn’t believe in the curse and neither should you. Alexander was credited with saying, “Do you want to be hurt and on the cover (of Madden), or just hurt”? Injuries happen and it just so happened that Alexander’s came when he was on the cover of Madden.

By this point in the article you should be quite familiar with the natural difficulties NFL running backs face as they approach their 30th birthday. How old was Shaun Alexander when he was on the cover of Madden and suffered his foot injury? 29. Alexander was working against more than just an injury as he tried to get back to action. It’s quite possible that Alexander’s career would have ended at the same time as it did even if he hadn’t suffered that foot injury. The only reason anyone gives it any thought is because he appeared on the Madden cover. There really isn’t anything remarkable about the way Alexander’s career ended outside of that.

Madden 08 Cover: Vince Young

The Curse Says: Not all that much. Vince Young missed one game during the 2007 (the season for which Madden 08 was released) but made slight statistical improvements over his rookie season. Young did have injury problems beginning the following year and eventually lost his starting job to Kerry Collins.

The Truth: What happens when a one-hit wonder graces the cover of a Madden video game? You get a perfect opportunity to create a narrative around the Madden curse.

Young got a lot of publicity for leading the Titans to six wins in their final seven games of the 2006 season. That buzz combined with the recent memories of Vince Young’s dazzling performances as a Texas Longhorn made him a convenient cover man from a marketing perspective. As it turns out, Vince Young just never became a very good NFL quarterback and part of what landed him on the Madden cover was an inaccurate projection of what he might become, not what he was. We shouldn’t feel too bad for him, though. Vince is part of the dream team now.

Madden 09 Cover: Brett Favre

The Curse Says: Brett Favre was lined up to be on the Madden cover as a retired football hero but he came back to play for the New York Jets and endured a not-so-good season. Favre had off-field problems as a result of a sexual harassment charges from a former Jets employee.

The Truth: Does this seriously need an explanation? What went down post-Madden cover was a direct continuation of everything NFL fans had watched unfold with Favre before he appeared on the cover. His move to New York was a recipe for disaster from the beginning as he simply wasn’t a good fit.

Even if one points to the sending of sexual-charged text messages as a change of character somehow relating to the Madden curse, it is a situation he brought upon himself. It’s not like he was some sort of unlucky bystander. It’s more likely that Favre cursed Madden than the other way around.

Madden 10 Cover: Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald

The Curse Says: Troy Polamalu battled various knee injuries throughout the season.

The Truth: The 2009 does represent a low point for Polamalu in terms of his ability to stay on the field but that is an issue that has plagued him his entire career and did not start with his appearance on the cover of Madden 10. He failed to play in all 16 regular season games twice before the cover’s unveiling. It should also be pointed out as a piece of anti-curse evidence that Polamalu did play in all 16 games last season.

The claims of the Madden curse are quite quiet on the Fitzgerald front and for good reason. Not even the believers in the curse appear willing to stretch a sub-1,100 yard receiving yardage year by Fitzgerald into the category of curse-worthy. Larry Fitzgerald’s career high for receiving touchdowns came during the season he appeared on the Madden cover.

Madden 11 Cover: Drew Brees

The Curse Says: Brees threw twice as many interceptions as the season before and saw his quarterback rating drop by nearly 20 points. His season ended in the Wild Card round of the playoffs when the Saints were defeated by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks.

The Truth: The drop in quarterback rating is not much of a second piece of “curse” evidence considering the drop is almost entirely accounted for by the increase in interceptions. The number of interceptions did double compared to the previous season but he threw 144 more passes. It was the fourth season in which Drew Brees had an interception rate of at least 3% and the 3.3% rate wasn’t the highest of his career. Brees threw interceptions on 4.3% of his passes during the 2003-04 season. Was the season up to typical Drew Brees standards? No, but calling it a cursed season is plain silly – especially in light of the historic season Brees put together in 2011-12.

The playoff upset at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks came through no fault of Drew Brees. The interception problems that plagued him in the regular season were not a factor in the defeat as he was not picked off in that game. Brees completed 39 of 60 passes and threw for 404 yards. The Saints’ downfall was their defense, not Brees or the offense.

Madden 12 Cover: Peyton Hillis

The Curse Says: Hillis missed six games due to a variety of injuries that took a toll on his performance just one year after enjoying a breakout season in 2010.

The Truth: Let’s play a little game of “one of these things is not like other”. Can you guess which cover athlete doesn’t fit with the rest of the group examined here? It’s Peyton Hillis. Vince Young at least had the aura of a college star when he landed on the Madden cover after generating just one season of NFL buzz. Hillis was a novelty as the first white running back to run for 1,000 yards in over two decades and it was enough to earn him the fan vote that determined the cover athlete for Madden 12. Hillis had a very good season in 2010 but that might be as good as it gets for the former seventh-round draft pick. He’ll play for his third team in five years now that he has signed with the Kansas City Chiefs so while his good season was enough to win a fan vote, it wasn’t enough to earn a long term contract from the Cleveland Browns. Hillis isn’t cursed, he just isn’t that good.