By: Taylor Hall
Just as famous as one of 2014’s best-selling video games, the curse associated with being on the cover of Madden has led many of the NFL superstars to be weary of being poster child for this game which too often has led to the upending of a star’s career. Coincidence or not, very few players have ever been able to escape the curse; while receivers have been able to elude it, quarterbacks and running backs have not been as fortunate in avoiding the curse.
The Madden Curse traces its lineage back to the release of a Madden NFL game in 1999, with Garrison Hearst appearing on the cover. In the season prior to the 1999 season, Hearst set a franchise record of 2,105 total yards for the San Francisco 49ers, Having three straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons, Hearst cemented himself as one of the league’s top backs. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Reeves quoted Hearst as being one of the best players he has had to coach against:
After being named the first-ever athlete to be featured on the cover of Madden NFL, Hearst went on to lead his 49ers to the playoffs, where he suffered a horrifying broken ankle in the team’s second round game against the Atlanta Falcons. Complications with the initial surgery, causing the bone and cartilage around his ankle to die, Hearst had to undergo a second ankle surgery. After a two year hiatus and several ankle surgeries later, Hearst once again returned to the field. Hearst would go on to have only one more 1,000 yard rushing season the rest of his NFL career.
Three receivers have graced the cover of Madden NFL: Larry Fitzgerald (2010), Calvin Johnson (2013), and most recently Odell Beckham Jr. (2016). Unlike most of the running backs and quarterbacks, the Madden curse was the one thing this group of receivers did not catch following their feature on the cover.
Larry Fitzgerald had a break out season in 2008, as he became one of the leagues premiere receivers with 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns. Then in the next season, following his feature had another impressive season, with 1,092 yards and career high 13 touchdowns. Fitzgerald never slowed down to allow the curse to catch him.
Calvin Johnson, arguably one of the best receivers to play in the NFL, had one of the single best receiving seasons in the history of the NFL following his Madden feature. In 2012, Johnson set the NFL record for receiving yards, surpassing Jerry Rice, with 1,964 yards. Calvin Johnson’s season will go down as one of the greatest and still leaves many questioning the reality of the Madden curse.
After coming off an all-pro rookie season with one of the greatest single catches in NFL history, Odell Beckham Jr. set out to show critics that he was the real deal and not just some one hit wonder. Beckham used the Madden curse as motivation. Shortly after being announced as the cover, Beckham tweeted a picture of the definition of “curse” with the caption: “I believe in God and his divine plan not something that is wished upon of others! #WalkinByFaith”. In 2015, Beckham had an even better season than his breakout season, with 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns.
There have been six quarterbacks who have been featured on the cover of Madden: Daunte Culpepper (2002), Michael Vick (2004), Donovan McNabb (2006), Vince Young (2008), Brett Favre (2009), and Drew Brees (2011). Of the five, two, Brett Favre and Drew Brees were narrowly able to escape the curse, even though both saw deteriorations from their previous season’s performances. The other quarterbacks were not as lucky to escape the curse.
Just a few months after being named the cover feature, Culpepper suffered a knee injury during a game against the Steelers, causing him to have to miss the rest of the 2001 season. In the following season, Culpepper’s performance declined as he threw 23 interceptions to only 18 touchdowns and recorded his lowest QBR of his career up to that point.
Michael Vick was one of the most electrifying athletes to ever play quarterback in the NFL. During a broadcast, Gary Danielson, a college football analyst went so far as to call Vick the “Holy Grail of a quarterback for the next century”. Vick picked up his NFL career right where he left off at Virginia Tech. In only his second year in a Falcons jersey, Vick threw for almost 3,000 yards in addition to rushing for nearly 800 yards as well. At the time, Vick was being groomed to become the next face of the NFL. Immediately following the release of the 2004 Madden game, Vick fractured his fibula in a preseason game that would cause him to sit out the first 11 games of the regular season. The Vick injury is what first brought the Madden curse into popular discussion rather than just mere coincidence:
Another quarterback that was on the upcoming of the NFL was Donovan McNabb, who also found himself subjected to the Madden curse. McNabb was coming off an all-star year with 34 touchdowns and a Super Bowl appearance with eagles, where he was the primary catalyst of their offense. In 2005, the year of the cover feature, McNabb was on track for another huge season, throwing for over 2,500 yards and 16 touchdowns in the first nine games. It was beginning to look like he was going to break the curse. Then lightning struck, McNabb tore his ACL and meniscus and was placed on injured reserve the rest of the season. McNabb was never the same; the remainder of his time in the NFL was marked inconsistent performance and turmoil.
Running backs in particular that have been featured on the cover of Madden have not fared well. Since Garrison Hearst, five other running backs have been featured on the cover of Madden: Dorsey Levens (2000), Eddie George (2001), Marshall Faulk (2003), Shaun Alexander (2007), and Peyton Hillis (2012). Coincidence or not, none of these running backs had much to celebrate after their cover shoots. After being featured on the cover, Dorsey Levens went on and only recorded 389 yards rushing over the next two seasons as a Packer. Marshall Faulk did not have another 1,000 yard rushing season after appearing on the cover in 2002.
Perhaps the worst and most notorious case of the Madden curse lies with Shaun Alexander. The Seattle Seahawk running back had a career season before being selected to be on the cover of Madden. Alexander led Seattle to the Super Bowl while rushing for 1,880 yards and becoming league MVP. Then the ‘curse’ hit, just after being featured on the cover, Alexander broke his foot in week 3 or the regular season, and his career was never the same, never rushing for 1,000 yards again in a season.
Another infamous case of the Madden curse lies with Cleveland Browns running back, Peyton Hillis. In the year before his cover debut, Hillis came out of nowhere, coming off of the bench and rushing for 1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns and 477 yards receiving. Hillis was one of the rising stars in the league and was even being compared to one of the great dual-threat rushers, Marshall Faulk, who was able to haunt defenses with his receiving and rushing abilities out of the backfield. In the season after appearing on the cover, Hillis started his season off decently, but through injury ended the season off poorly only rushing for only 587 yards. Since, Hillis has not recorded a season with more then 400 yards rushing.
Out of the 17 players featured, 14 have had underachieving seasons or suffered serious injuries in the year the game is released. Even though many do not believe in the curse, it still serves as scapegoat for their favorite player or teams underachieving season. Far from receiving any of the repercussions of the curse, the receivers prospered by receiving positive publicity from the cover. While for most of the running backs and quarterbacks the cover serves as a tombstone for their career, for receivers it has merely been a milestone. The strongest case against the curse is that many of the players that have been featured on the cover have been coming off of career seasons, which does not mean that they are due for that same progression in the next season and that they are due for a down year.