The Curse That Never Was

By Mark Delaney, 11 months ago
Athletes have long been famously superstitious. One needs only to look at the batting rituals of players like Nomar Garciaparra or "The Human Rain Delay" Mike Hargrove to see evidence of this truth. Players will hop over boundary lines like schoolchildren avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, they'll say the same things to the same teammates on game days, some may never shave during certain parts of the season. The list of routines to which athletes commit is long and often humorous from an outsider's perspective. They think it helps them, and I suppose if they've made it to a professional level where they're making millions annually, a bit of confirmation bias sets in. "If I don't adjust my gloves, tap my toes on home plate, readjust my gloves, grab my helmet, and practice swinging after every pitch, I'm doing a disservice to myself," one pro ballplayer might say. It seems that baseball is the most superstitious of all of the major sports, but no sport is without its rituals.

The idea of superstition comes into play most famously with curses. Appearing on Sports Illustrated before a big game has been considered a death knell for decades. The Boston Red Sox wiped away the 86 year "Curse of the Bambino" when they won the World Series in 2004, while the Chicago Cubs still look to erase their nearly century-old curse as well. Cleveland as a city has been thought to be cursed due to no team having won a major sports championship since 1964, with countless famous collapses along the way to keep the streak alive. Its football stadium, home to the Browns, is teasingly called "The Factory of Sadness". That "curse" was "broken" just this summer when the Cavaliers hoisted the NBA's championship trophy.

Perhaps the most famous of all sports curses, however, is one that has long been a part of the gamer lexicon -- the Madden Curse. Since Madden NFL 1999, when EA began featuring standout players on the cover of their football franchise, gamers, athletes, and even bookmakers have pondered how the dreaded curse will physically harm the cover stars. It's a fun, albeit somewhat dark, mini-game to play as gamers and football fans, but upon close inspection, it's quite evident that the case for a curse is weak at best, and it only remains in the dialogue of fans today because we, as fans, keep moving our own goalposts and EA subscribes to the "no bad press" policy.

Although star players weren't regularly featured until Eddie George graced the cover of Madden 2001, some regional variants of the 1999 and 2000 editions of Madden both featured cover stars. To follow the full chronology of events, we'll start there at the end of the millennium. It's important to keep in mind that the year on the box is actually when the upcoming season ends, not begins. For example, if we are to inspect how being on the cover of Madden 2001 affected Eddie George, we will need to look at his year 2000 production.

1999
Garrison HearstGarrison Hearst
Hearst made it through the season unscathed, piling on an impressive 1570 rushing yards at 5.1 yards per carry, while adding another 500+ yards receiving. It was a great season, but ended painfully in the playoffs that year when he broke his ankle so terribly that he missed the next two seasons. He would return in 2001 to play just four more years, only ever amassing more than 1000 yards on the ground once more. It's the first instance of a cover star and the first instance of said cover star getting injured in the now infamous history of the Madden curse.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2000
Dorsey Levens and Barry SandersDorsey Levens and Barry Sanders
The turn of the century brought two variant covers to Madden. Two different runningbacks were featured: league-leading Barry Sanders and rising star Dorsey Levens. Sanders announced his retirement shortly after the cover was announced, and many people point to this moment as being another sign of the curse. Here we have the first example of people figuratively moving the goalposts to fit their bias. They want to buy into the idea of a curse, so in years to follow, plenty look back on this decision of Sanders' as more evidence. But the curse was meant to indicate certain injury, while Sanders was never hurt, never carted off the field, and missed no games due to injury. In just the second year, Sanders' exit was already causing believers to rework their definitions to fit their story. It's true that Levens, Sanders' replacement, was never at 100% on the field that year, but his spot on the cover that year was pretty questionable in itself. Previous to his cover season, he had broken 1000 rushing yards only once and he was already 29 years old when he made the cover. Football fans will tell you that after reaching age 30 and beyond, runningbacks lose a lot of production and he did still manage to surpass 1000 yards that season anyway. He was released by the Packers after the following season and people, like with Sanders, point to this being a case for the curse. It's a poor case, though.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2001
Eddie GeorgeEddie George
Marking the first official worldwide cover star, Titans runningback Eddie George made the cover heading into his year 2000 season. Just a year removed from losing the Super Bowl by one yard, the bruiser was primed for more feature-back production. He did just that. A statline of 1900 total yards and 16 touchdowns led Tennessee to the playoffs. Curse believers once again bent their own logic this season by pointing to George's costly drop in a postseason game against Baltimore as evidence for a curse. Really? So now, not only is the curse, which was once meant to guarantee injury, now making players retire while they're on top but its causing otherwise stellar players to drop a single pass? It's also worth noting that, thus far in the cover's history, only runningbacks have been featured. You know, the position that is one of the most injury-plagued in the league year after year. After three seasons the curse is looking nonexistent, yet it doesn't fade away.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2002
Daunte CulpepperDaunte Culpepper
Here we have the first really compelling evidence for a curse, if you're among those looking for that sort of thing. You don't need to bend your definitions or move any goalposts. Culpepper played in just 11 games in the 2001 season, missing the final five due to a knee injury. He returned the following year and played poorly too; further evidence, some say, for the curse. However, he went on to have a decent career with his two best seasons to follow in 2003 and 2004. Still, if you want to adhere to the curse's original intent of injury prognosticator, Culpepper's cover season fits the theory.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2003
Marshall FaulkMarshall Faulk
Rams runningback Marshall Faulk appeared on the cover of Madden NFL 2002 after being a prime reason why the Rams had appeared in the Super Bowl in two of the previous three seasons. However, the 2002 season would prove to be the beginning of his decline and people again point to the Madden curse as the cause for this. Faulk had a slow year, which could be attributed to EA deciding to cover their game's box art with another age 30 runningback, but he did also suffer an ankle injury midway through the season. He ultimately started just ten games, playing in parts of another four, and missing two entirely. Faulk was about due for a decline after a great season, so being a skeptic of the curse, I don't see it as the cause of his woes but I'll play along with believers here.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2004
Michael VickMichael Vick
Madden 2004 was probably the most prolific year for the Madden curse. Falcons quarterback and electric superstar Mike Vick graced the cover but he had his season shortened considerably when he broke his leg in the preseason and missed 11 games. His final five were quite pedestrian, too. In years to come, he would bounce back to have more great seasons, though some devout curse believers point to his stint in prison, for dogfighting, as more evidence of a curse. That's just laughable logic, really, and more evidence of those who want to believe in finding signs where none exist, but his injury really put the curse on the map in a way no previous Madden cover star had done. It's especially memorable because Vick's video game counterpart in that year's iteration is, to this day, perhaps the most overpowered, dominant weapon in Madden history, yet the real Vick hardly hit the field.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2005

Ray LewisRay Lewis
Ray Lewis became the first defensive player to hit the cover of Madden in 2005. That year's iteration was famous for introducing the Hit Stick, and curse believers may want to forget it for anything but that. Lewis' season played out just fine. He had just one sack and no interceptions, but also notched 146 tackles and five passes defended. The Ravens missed the playoffs that season; with that, curse believers once again moved the goalposts. "Oh, the team struggled? That was the curse, too!" The "rules" of this voodoo seem very flexible.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2006
Donovan McNabbDonovan McNabb
The debut of Madden on the Xbox 360 also reignited the talks of a curse surrounding its cover. Eagles QB McNabb was riddled by injuries that year, playing in barely half of the games and accruing a mere 16 touchdowns. By almost all accounts, McNabb's 2005 season stands as a stronger case for the curse, but it's definitely worth mentioning that in his 13 year career, he played a full season just four times while playing in 12 or fewer in six seasons. Is it a curse for an oft-injured player to also suffer injury when he happens to be on the cover of a video game? That seems illogical. Still, I'll continue to play along.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2007
Shaun AlexanderShaun Alexander
Alexander was up next and became the next player to help the case for those who point to a hex. He missed six games due to injury that season, while posting a career low for yards per carry to that point in his career. However, he was also a poster child for the idea of regression to the mean. His 2005 season was remarkable, one of the best in league history, wherein he posted nearly 1900 rushing yards and a new NFL record of 27 rushing touchdowns. His follow-up to that season had nowhere to go but down, as in closer to his league averages. 2005 was an amazing outlier in Alexander's career and, once again, history of the league indicates that heavily used runningbacks one season become injured or poorly performing runningbacks a year later. But sure, if you want to ignore other data, let's call it the curse again.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2008
Vince YoungVince Young
The young Titans QB followed up an exciting rookie season with a very poor showing where he netted just nine touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions, while his rushing stats plummeted too. Some point to this as yet another case for the curse, but I ask again, what about the original stipulation of "curse = injury"? He missed one game with a pulled hamstring. If that's the best that the curse can do, it seems awfully inconsistent. Garrison Hearst misses two years and Vince Young simply sits out a single Sunday? If that's the best that your curse can do, I'm not impressed.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2009
Brett FavreBrett Favre
EA Sports originally chose the recently retired Favre to grace the cover in his Packers jersey, but when he un-retired months later, they offered an alt-cover featuring him in his Jets uniform too. Either way, a nearly 40 year old QB with a history of injuries was on the cover that season. For some reason, people still point to his shoulder issues as the curse taking effect yet again. His season to that point wasn't awful, but that injury did derail his final few years in the league where he later jumped to Minnesota too. Generous even in the face of simple logic, I'll again grant this one to curse believers simply because they need all of the stats that they can get on their side.

Evidence for a curse? ...Sure.

2010
Troy Polamalu and Larry FitzgeraldTroy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald
Following their Super Bowl matchup, Steelers safety Polamalu and Cardinals wideout Fitzgerald shared the cover of Madden NFL 10. Curse supporters point to the curse as having hit its mark only half the time in this season. Larry Fitzgerald had an excellent year, posting 1000 yards for the fourth time in six years and setting his own personal record with 13 touchdowns. However, Polamalu was plagued by injuries all season and ended up playing in just five games. Both players would go on to continue their illustrious careers and Fitzgerald is even still playing today.

Evidence for a curse? Yes and No.

2011
 Drew Brees Drew Brees
New Orleans' savior, Drew Brees, posted a career high for interceptions in his cover season. Like so many others to this point and beyond, he escaped the curse unharmed. He managed 33 touchdowns and over 4600 yards too. This is all following the seasons where Brees was unsure if he'd ever play again. Was that the curse getting a head start? The logic is so fluid and so adaptable to fit the narrative of curse believers that I wouldn't be surprised if someone, somewhere said that. Brees' cover season showed once again, if you want to claim that a curse is in effect, that you have to admit that its punishments are often weak and inconsistent.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2012
Peyton HillisPeyton Hillis
After a social media-driven campaign got the undeserving Peyton Hillis on the cover of Madden NFL 12 via a fan vote, Hillis followed his outlier season (1100 yards, 11 touchdowns) with a regression to the mean (560 yards, three touchdowns). The former fullback was released after an injured and sickly 2011 season and has since bounced around the league while performing backup duties. Hillis' cover spot eventually led EA to alter the way that fan votes are counted, because it was apparent that they didn't love the idea of having a relative unknown on the cover of their game that year. This year is also famous for the Chargers fans vehemently voting against getting their star runningback, LaDainian Tomlinson, on the cover in order to "save him" from imminent doom.

Evidence for a curse? Yes.

2013
Calvin JohnsonCalvin Johnson
If you really want to still believe in an inconsistent, often whimsical curse to this point, you really have to give it up now. Calvin Johnson hit the cover of Madden NFL 13 and then went on to have one of the greatest seasons in the history of the sport. He played in every game despite being somewhat injury prone to that point in his career. He managed to rack up a new NFL record of 1964 receiving yards, surpassing the previous mark held by the all-time great Jerry Rice. Some curse believers laughably stated that the curse still struck when he fell just 36 yards shy of achieving the first 2000 yard receiving season. Really?

Evidence for a curse? No.

2014
Adrian Peterson and Barry SandersAdrian Peterson and Barry Sanders
While the 360 version of Madden 25 (for the 25th anniversary) featured a fan-voted Detroit Lion for two years in a row -- this time the retired Barry Sanders, again -- the Xbox One version featured a current day runningback, Adrian Peterson. Peterson would play in all but two games that season. A foot injury did nag him, but coming off his previous year of nearly 350 carries and over 2000 yards, another regression to the mean was due as it has been for all 2000 yard rushers throughout league history. On top of that, the curse didn't stop him from accruing another 1200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Once again, the curse seemed to be pretty pathetic.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2015
Richard ShermanRichard Sherman
Sherman led the "Legion of Boom" and Seattle Seahawks to a repeat Super Bowl appearance and had a great season along the way. His interceptions were down, but that's what happens to elite corners in the NFL; players simply don't throw to them. However, he did sustain an injury in the postseason that nearly kept him out of the Super Bowl, but he ended up playing albeit likely at less than 100%. Point to that as another sign of the increasingly inconsistent curse, but don't do what many have done and say that the Seahawks losing the game has anything to do with his cover appearance. That's more to do with a goofy play call by Pete Carroll.

Evidence for a curse? No.

2016
Odell Beckham Jr.Odell Beckham Jr.
ODB, OBJ, he goes by many names. By whichever initials you choose to call him, he was the MVP of the New York Giants in his rookie season. He followed that up with his cover appearance on last year's Madden NFL 16. He had an even better season than the one before, overall, although his yards per game was down slightly due to the fact that his monstrous stats in his rookie season came in just 12 games. Still, with 1400 yards, 13 touchdowns, and nearly 100 catches, there's no case for a curse here.

Evidence for a curse? No.




All of this history brings us to August's next iteration. We don't know what new features Madden NFL 17 will bring with it, but we do know who the cover will feature: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. The young tight end is arguably already the best player in the history of his position and he's played just six seasons. He also has a somewhat extensive injury history, missing five games in 2012 and then more than half of the games in 2013. He's played while hurt in others, too, and hasn't played a full season since 2011. Sadly, it's likely that Gronkowski will suffer an injury this year. He plays fiercely, often seeking contact, and that play style just leads to injuries as he's shown so far. If and when it happens again, some may point to a curse. But is that fair?

17

The idea of a curse is stupid. It's antiquated, a relic from uneducated centuries past when people had less understanding of how the world behaves. When it thunders, it isn't the gods expressing anger. When you seem to have bad luck, you aren't cursed by a vengeful neighbor. We can't keep going around drowning women to prove that they're witches. I think a lot of people that talk about the curse do so with some lightheartedness. They don't truly believe in a curse. Nonetheless, they still think that there is a compelling history of unfortunate coincidences but even to this point, I disagree vehemently. The "evidence" is inconsistent. NFL players are often injured and it happens league-wide season after season. You could put any player on the cover and the likelihood that they'd get injured is pretty high. Few escape a season unscathed. Almost none go a whole career without getting hurt and missing time.

Approaching this season's upcoming release, 21 players have been featured on the cover of Madden. Nine of them have been injured and missed significant playing time during their cover season. That's less than half of the time. Is that a curse? Is that even statistically anomalous? Runningbacks are most often the cover stars and they're one of the most injured positions in any given season. Recent studies even show that injuries are on the rise in the NFL thanks to advances in training (and banned substances) that are making players elite specimens of fitness like never before. The fact that the dreaded "curse" has struck at a clip of less than one out of two over the past decade and beyond, and has resulted in no major injuries in several years now, is actually impressive.

Every new Madden cover announcement and ensuing promo period comes with this dialogue among gamers and football fans about the doomed player on the box art, but the reality is that the curse has never been anything but a fun topic based on half-truths and redefined meanings of what the supposed curse actually guarantees. The curse has struck less than half of the time. When it has, it's very often the result of something much more logical like older, more weary players and expected statistical regression. Ultimately, the whole idea of a Madden curse is free word of mouth advertising that EA will gladly accept, and that's about it. If the hex was a video game all in itself, it'd be vaporware -- mentioned often, speculated about and highly anticipated, but ultimately never coming to fruition.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancé and son. He almost never writes in the third person.