Making the cover of Madden is an honor. It’s also a curse – quite literally. Since NFL stars have been gracing the front of the video game's packaging, they’ve also been hit with injuries, poor seasons and inexplicable reasons for their play declining. It happened to players like Shaun Alexander and Michael Vick, and most recently, Rob Gronkowski.
While some players have been able to avoid the curse, it’s still a very real phenomenon. Patriots fans have to be hopeful that it doesn’t hit their team for a second straight season, even if New England was able to overcome Gronk’s absence to win the Super Bowl. Losing Tom Brady won’t be quite as forgiving.
We’ve gone through every Madden cover to prominently feature an NFL star since 2001 and ranked them based on how much the curse impacted their subsequent season.
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Johnson was seen as the “curse-buster” in 2012 when he put up historic numbers. He came just 36 yards shy of 2,000 yards receiving, which would have made him the first player in NFL history to surpass that mark. He led the league in both receptions and yards despite catching only five touchdown passes.
The Madden curse didn’t hit George, the first player to fly solo on the cover, until 2001, when he averaged a paltry 3.0 yards per carry. In 2000, though, the season immediately following the release of the game, he was one of the best backs in the NFL. He led the league with 403 carries, making his fourth straight Pro Bowl and first All-Pro team.
Lewis became the first defensive player to grace the cover of Madden, and boy did he deserve it. In Madden 2005, he was one of the most dominant players in the game’s history. That’s probably because he was the league’s best linebacker and continued to be exactly that on the real field in 2004. He was named a first-team All-Pro for the fifth time that season with a dominant campaign.
Sherman was the game’s best cornerback in the season after he was selected to be on the cover, recording four picks despite rarely being targeted in coverage. He didn’t match the eight interceptions he had in 2013, but his coverage ability remained elite. There was no “curse” for the Seahawks corner.
Beckham was a household name after just one season, but it was a bit surprising to see him already on the cover in 2015. The curse stayed far away from him, though, as he made his second straight Pro Bowl behind a career-high 1,450 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
Brees is and always has been a volume passer, and that was certainly the case in 2010. He led the league with a completion rate of 68.1 percent and threw for more than 4,600 yards. It’s not that Brees was affected by the curse, but his 22 interceptions were a career-high.
Peterson was the secondary cover athlete to Barry Sanders, making it on the newly released Xbox One and PS4 versions in November 2013. That season, he rushed for 1,266 yards in just 14 games, racking up 10 touchdowns on the ground. He did miss two games due to groin and foot injuries.
Faulk went into the 2002 season with five straight years of 1,000-plus rushing yards, and three straight first-team All-Pro selections. He also had an inflated bank account after signing a seven-year, $43.95 million deal. The 2003 season ended both streaks as he declined a bit, which he would continue to do for the next three years.
Favre was selected to be on the cover in April 2008, but he would both retire and be traded to the Jets between that point and the game’s release. EA Sports still debuted the game with Favre in a Packers uniform, but an alternate Jets version was available in August. Favre played decent that season, but he led the league with 22 interceptions on a 9-7 team.
The first-ever dual-star cover had very different results for Polamalu and Fitzgerald. The Steelers safety missed seven games due to injury but played extremely well in the nine that he did start. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was as consistent as he always is, making a Pro Bowl and leading the NFL with 13 touchdown catches.
Young graced the cover after a great rookie season, but the sophomore slump and Madden curse were very real in 2007. He played 15 games but struggled mightily with just nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. Strangely enough, the Titans still finished above .500 with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Not surprisingly, Young played poorly in his lone postseason game, throwing one interception and no touchdown passes.
What a disaster the 2001 season was for Culpepper, who was coming off of a Pro Bowl year in which he led the Vikings to an 11-5 record. The year he was on the cover, though, he played just 11 games before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. He had just 14 touchdown passes and won only four of his 11 starts. He continued to struggle in 2002, going 6-10 with a league-high 23 interceptions.
Madden 12: Peyton Hillis
10 games: 161 carries, 587 yards, 3 TDs
It’s not so much that the Madden curse destroyed Hillis’ season, considering he was never very good in the first place. However, he did suffer multiple hamstring injuries in 2011, forcing him to miss six games. He finished the year with just 587 rushing yards and three touchdowns. This was a good example of why fans shouldn’t vote for Madden cover athletes because this was seemingly all a big joke from the start.
Madden 07: Shaun Alexander
10 games: 252 carries, 896 yards, 7 TDs
Alexander had one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history in 2005, leading the league in carries (370), yards (1,880), and touchdowns (27 – NFL record at the time). He followed that up with a terrible campaign in which he played just 10 games. Alexander broke his foot in Week 3 before returning in November. He wasn’t the same after that injury, though, and understandably so. The curse hit him hard.
Madden 06: Donovan McNabb
9 games: 2,507 yards, 16 TDs, 9 INTs (4-5 record)
McNabb had the worst season of his career in 2005 after he was named the Madden cover star, beginning with trouble in “paradise” between he and Terrell Owens. His season ended in Week 9 when he suffered a groin injury that landed him on injured reserve. He was having a solid year before the injury, but that’s the way the Madden curse works.
Madden 17: Rob Gronkowski
8 games: 25 catches, 540 yards, 3 TDs
The Madden curse bit Gronk right out of the gate. He missed the season's first two games due to a hamstring injury and simply wasn’t himself in the next two weeks, either. Once he finally got healthy and was playing at a high level (averaging 21.6 yards per catch), the injury bug bit again. He suffered a back injury later in the season that required surgery and landed him on injured reserve.
Madden 2004: Michael Vick
5 games: 585 yards (255 rushing), 4 TDs, 3 INTs
Vick couldn’t even reach the regular season in 2003 before the Madden curse hit him in a big way. He suffered a fractured fibula in the preseason, forcing him to miss the first 11 games of the year. He would return in Week 13, but his play was lackluster. Vick finished with just 585 passing yards and four TD throws with three interceptions. This was the first real sign of the Madden curse as we know it.