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A retrospective of the misfortunes befalling Madden cover athletes

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With Antonio Brown securing the latest Madden cover, we dig through some previous iterations of the series to see who fell victim to the infamous curse.

NFL: Antonio Brown-Madden 19 Cover Athlete Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

If you subscribe to the notion that Madden is a harbinger of doom and ruination, a cursed talisman that precipitates immediate—and, in some cases, long-lasting—misfortune upon whoever is unlucky enough to grace its facade, then you probably felt deep pangs of despair when it was announced the Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown would be the cover-boy of the latest title of EA Sports’s powerhouse franchise.

Beginning in 2000 (confusingly, with Madden 2001), more than a dozen years following its inception, Madden begun putting NFL stars on its cover, that year substituting Tennessee Titans’ running back Eddie George for the titular John Madden, a Hall of Fame coach whose memory will endure long after he leaves this earth, thanks in no smart part to the omnipresence of each iteration of the Madden franchise. In the nearly two decades that have followed, a sizable majority of Madden cover athletes have suffered major injuries, experienced stunning and often permanent decreases in productivity, or bore witness to hilarious and sometimes self-inflicted failures in critical moments of important games. It’s true that Brown is still in his prime and among the most consistent superstars ever (he’s currently in the midst of an impossibly-productive 5-year stretch that’s quite literally unmatched by any professional receiver in the league’s history), but Madden has wrecked careers, thrown wrenches into the gears of championship seasons, and laid waste to a bevy of players who, like Brown, were and are at the league’s pinnacle.

Personally, I’m terrified by the prospect of Antonio Brown, my favorite NFL player, being featured on this cursed title. A number of players are said to have “broken” the Madden curse, but have they actually? I contend they have not, and my reasoning follows:

Madden 18

Cover athlete: Tom Brady (they called it the “GOAT edition” *groan*)

Season synopsis: Brady took a blowtorch to the NFL, guiding the Patriots to a 13-3 record and winning MVP honors in his age-40 season. New England destroyed the Titans in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs before narrowly defeating Jacksonville in the AFC Championship game on the strength of a Brady-engineered comeback. Then, against Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, Brady hilariously dropped a wide-open pass on a nifty gadget play and meme-ified himself for eternity. Later, with the Patriots trailing the Eagles 38-33, Brady, whose metronomic ability to deliver in clutch moments is perhaps his greatest hallmark, fumbled (in his defense, after getting pulverized by the meaty Brandon Graham), which allowed the Eagles to ice the game.

Curse result: I think it endures!

Madden 17

Cover athlete: Rob Gronkowski

Season synopsis: Gronk’s back (which I suspect will be responsible for his eventual retirement) flared up and cost him the season, including all of New England’s Super Bowl run.

Curse result: It absolutely endures.

Madden 16

Cover athlete: Odell Beckham Jr.

Season synopsis: Beckham was excellent, finishing in top-10 in the league in receptions (96), touchdowns (13), and receiving yards (1,450) in 2015, but the Giants were butt, losing five of their final six games after heading into their bye week with a respectable 5-5 record.

Curse result: Pragmatically speaking, yeah, Beckham probably got the better of the Madden curse, but it’s hard to ignore just how bad the Giants were in 2015.

Madden 15

Cover athlete: Richard Sherman

Season synopsis: Sherman, serving as the primary bastion of Seattle’s fabled Legion of Boom secondary, was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL during the 2014-15 season. Because Sherman routinely relegated some of the best pass catchers in the league to the football equivalent of solitary confinement, opposing quarterbacks up and decided to stop throwing the ball in his direction altogether. He even guided the Seahawks to their second-straight Super Bowl berth!

Curse result: Much like Beckham, Sherman’s performance was sufficient in and of itself to qualify as a curse-breaker. But, thanks to a now-infamous Super Bowl atrocity, Sherman was thrust into eternal memehood:

Put this image in the Smithsonian.

Yeah, Sherman didn’t tell Pete Carroll to call a doomed passing play on second-and-goal from, like, inside the one-yard line and he certainly didn’t tell Russell Wilson force a terrible throw to a blanketed receiver instead of airmailing it five rows into the seats, but it isn’t a stretch to say that he was cursed-by-association.

*We’re excluding Madden 25 (which is actually Madden 14) because it featured two cover athletes, one of whom (Barry Sanders) retired five years prior to its release.

Madden 13

Cover athlete: Calvin Johnson

Season synopsis: Johnson very nearly posted the first 2,000-yard receiving season in NFL history. Frustratingly, though, he only scored five touchdowns, and the Lions posted a 4-12 record despite making a run at the playoffs during the season prior.

Curse result: Eh, probably not. Kinda like Odell and the Giants, Detroit’s inability to, you know, win football games was bad but not really reflective of Johnson.

Madden 12

Cover athlete: Peyton Hillis

Season synopsis: What Peyton Hillis accomplished during the 2010 season was and remains to this day the single most baffling, utterly confounding sporting occurrence I have ever witnessed. Hillis, then a member of the Browns, amassed 1,177 yards on 270 carries (a very healthy 4.4 yards per carry!) and scored 11 touchdowns. He added 60 catches and 477 receiving yards for good measure, establishing himself—briefly, gloriously—as an honest-to-God one-man backfield. (This development, coupled with the professional success of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, led me to erroneously conclude that the 2007 University of Arkansas Razorbacks fielded the greatest backfield in college football history, a take that is easily among my five coldest.) EA would’ve been out of its mind to pass up the opportunity to feature a beefy white running back on its next cover.

In 2011—a contract year for Hillis, it should be noted—Hillis tweaked his hamstring and never got fully healthy, rushing for just over 500 yards in a truncated season.

Curse result: OMG, yes. When your Madden campaign is so disastrous that the Cleveland Browns—the Cleveland Browns—look at you and say, “Nah, we’re better than this,” you are unquestionably afflicted with chronic, debilitating misfortune.

Madden 11

Cover athlete: Drew Brees

Season synopsis: Brees threw for a very characteristic 4,600 yards and 33 touchdowns, but also threw a career-high 22 interceptions and lost to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the NFC Playoffs, a game that yielded Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Quake.

Curse result: It is insane to me that Drew Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback ever, once tossed 22 picks in a single campaign. Still, I think that can be overlooked since a) Brees was still an MVP candidate and b) the Saints, who won the Super Bowl the year prior, didn’t experience anything resembling a hangover during the regular season. But to have lost to Seattle the way they did—namely by allowing the first playoff team with a losing record in league history to win a playoff game—surely felt aided in some ways by cosmic forces. I’m blaming Madden.

Madden 10

Cover athlete(s): Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu

Season synopsis: This was the dumbest cover ever. Both Polamalu, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and still luxuriating in his second Super Bowl victory, and Fitzgerald, already the second-best receiver in the NFL and the face of the Arizona Cardinals, were both worthy candidates to emblazon the cover, but selecting both felt like a cop-out.

Anyway, Fitzgerald was great, scoring a whole mess of touchdowns and more-or-less maintaining his status as a world-beating aerial threat, but Polamalu was limited to just a handful of games due to a knee injury.

Curse result: I mean, yeah, technically it endures.

Madden 09

Cover athlete: Brett Favre

Season synopsis: Favre unofficially retired after the 2007 season, making his selection as the cover athlete in for the 2008 iteration of Madden seem a fitting send-off. EA even used his Packers garb for the cover art! Then, Favre famously un-retired, was traded to the Jets, texted a picture of his junk to a female reporter, threw an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions, and tore his shoulder.

Curse result: Yup.

Madden 08

Cover athlete: Vince Young

Season synopsis: Young, whose presence in Tennessee’s offense was always meant to accentuate the strengths of its rushing attack, threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2007, but somehow guided the Titans to a 9-6 record in his 15 starts. Young also made his only career playoff start in 2007, completing 16 of his 29 passes for a shriekingly bad 138 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.

Curse status: Not only was the curse very real and very pervasive in 2007, but it took hold of Young like a parasite, completely derailing what seemed destined to be a successful, accolade-laden career. Young was last seen in the CFL, where he spent part of 2017 as member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ practice squad.

Madden 07

Cover athlete: Shaun Alexander

Season synopsis: Alexander, who scored a then-record 27 rushing touchdowns in 2005, fractured his foot in the third week of the 2006 season. He did return, but finished the season with 896 yards and seven touchdowns (which, adjusted for today’s rushing stats, would be like 550 yards and three touchdowns).

Curse status: For sure it endures!

So, yeah, you get the point. The Madden curse is nothing to mess around with, so send your deepest, sincerest prayers Antonio Brown’s way.