It might all be a coincidence. After all, curses can’t be real, right? It’s merely coincidence or odd confluence of events in a league and sport in which injuries are all too common. There’s no way the Madden Curse — when a player appears on the cover of Madden, and then either he ends up injured or his production falls away the following season — is anything other than happenstance.
And yet … for every Calvin Johnson, who set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards in his cover season of 2012, there is a Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis or Troy Polamalu. For every Eddie George — 1,509 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns as the first all-versions cover athlete of Madden in the 2000 season — there is a plethora of guys who didn’t see the same success.
Not every player has been destructively cursed in his cover season: For example, Marshall Faulk’s appearance on the cover of Madden 2003 came when he was 29 years old, so it’s natural that he would decline (though he was a Pro Bowler that year and rushed for 953 yards while catching 537 more yards in receptions).
But there are many, many examples of players who suffered injuries or worse, including this year’s cover boy, Patrick Mahomes, who suffered a dislocated kneecap on Thursday. However, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback’s injury is far from season-ending, and he has already thrown for 2,180 yards, 15 touchdowns and one interception in seven games this season.
Note: Madden usually titles its games a year ahead of the playing season. For instance, this year’s game is Madden 20, despite being played in 2019.
Cover: Madden 1995
Williams was the first player to appear on a Madden cover — in the background along with San Francisco’s Karl Wilson. Although he wasn’t technically a cover athlete in the sense of the Madden cover athlete of today, he was on the cover, and considering what happened, he makes this list.
The 1994 season was one of three in the four-time Pro Bowler’s career in which he appeared in fewer than 14 games. He was involved in a one-car crash on Oct. 24, 1994, and he tore his MCL and PCL, broke a rib, tore ligaments in his left thumb and suffered facial lacerations.
Cover: Madden 1997
Brabham and Laro were in a split cover with John Madden, honoring the two new expansion teams. They weren’t necessarily victims of a curse so much as circumstance. As members of expansion teams during the Hall of Fame Game in July 1995, they were in the photo Electronic Arts used to denote the two new teams the following season. Cut in August after being taken in the expansion draft from the Raiders, Brabham never played for Carolina — or any other NFL team — after that. Laro, a tight end, played in two games for Jacksonville in 1995, making his only NFL catch for 6 yards. It was his only season in the league.
Cover: Madden 1999
He was on some versions of the game and had a great season in 1998, rushing for 1,570 yards and seven touchdowns. In the divisional playoffs against Atlanta, though, Hearst broke his ankle on the game’s first play and missed the next two seasons because of avascular necrosis. He returned to the NFL in 2001 — which at the time was groundbreaking, considering the injury he suffered — and played four more seasons for San Francisco and Denver.
Cover: Madden 2000
The Hall of Fame running back appeared in the background of the cover of the game released in 1999. One problem: Sanders retired on the eve of Lions training camp before the 1999 season after 10 straight 1,000-yard seasons.
Cover: Madden 2002
Culpepper had an 11-5 2000 season in which he had 3,937 yards and a career-best 33 touchdowns. The 2001 season, when he was the cover athlete, didn’t go nearly as well. He threw for 2,612 yards along with only 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions before injuring his left knee against Chicago on Nov. 25. He played the next week against Pittsburgh but left the game in the fourth quarter, ending a season in which he was 4-7 as a starter. The knee ended up needing arthroscopic surgery.
Cover: Madden 2004
The electrifying quarterback, who is considered one of the few created players to break the game, didn’t make it out of the preseason without being injured. He fractured his right fibula in a preseason game against Baltimore and missed the first 11 games of the season before returning to lead Atlanta to a 3-1 record in the final four games. The next season, he was back to his normal playing self, but 2003 was his only season in Atlanta — other than his rookie season – in which he played in fewer than 15 games.
Cover: Madden 2006
The Eagles’ quarterback began his cover season feuding with his star receiver, Terrell Owens, and ended up missing the final seven games of the season because of a sports hernia injury that required surgery. Prior to the injury, the Eagles were 4-5 with McNabb as a starter, and he completed 59.1% of his passes for 2,647 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Cover: Madden 2007
After rushing for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2005, Alexander was the Madden cover athlete the following season. He ended up rushing for fewer than 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season (896 yards), though that was largely due to a broken left foot suffered in Week 3 that forced him to miss six games.
Cover: Madden 2008
Young didn’t suffer a massive injury, though he missed one week and part of another game because of a right quadriceps injury. The Titans still made the playoffs. But Young’s season was rough statistically, as he threw nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Cover: Madden 2009
Favre retired in March 2008 — then decided to come back before the start of the 2008 season. Green Bay traded him to the Jets, and he played through an injured right biceps. He did play all 16 games for the Jets, though, and was playing incredibly well until the injury. He finished his only season in New York with 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions.
Cover: Madden 2010
Polamalu sprained the MCL in his left knee in Week 1 against Tennessee, and that caused him to miss the next four weeks. He played in five games after that before reinjuring the knee against Cincinnati on Nov. 15, 2009. He finished the season with 20 tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defended. It was the only season in a stretch of eight in which he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He shared a cover that year with Larry Fitzgerald, who had a career-high 13 touchdowns.
Cover: Madden 2012
Hillis was coming off the best season of his career in 2010 — 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns — when he won a fan vote for the cover. He never came close to that production again, starting in his cover season of 2011. He rushed for 587 yards for the Browns that season and barely eclipsed his 2010 rushing total in the next four seasons combined (1,258 yards between Cleveland, Kansas City and the Giants). He missed games in 2011 with strep throat and twice with hamstring injuries.
Cover: Madden ’17
Gronkowski missed eight games — and played hurt through many others — during his cover season. He suffered a hamstring injury that cost him the first two weeks of the season, a pulmonary contusion that knocked him out for a week and an injured back in Week 12 against the Jets. He needed surgery to repair a herniated disk, ending his season. Gronkowski had a career-worst 25 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. He did, however, play two more seasons, scoring 11 touchdowns and winning another Super Bowl after the cover.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers WR
Cover: Madden ’19
Brown didn’t suffer an injury that kept him out of a game, but his season — and offseason — was altered in other ways. Brown skipped practices before the regular-season finale and was benched, finishing the season with 104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. That is where the drama began. He requested a trade in the offseason following the 2018 season — still in his calendar year as the cover athlete — and ended up traded to Oakland. His injury didn’t come until right around when his year ended. On Aug. 3, the day after Madden ’20 was released, Brown posted on Instagram pictures of his feet, which turned out to be frostbitten from his not wearing the correct footwear during cryotherapy. A little more than a month later, due to disputes with the Raiders and Patriots and then sexual assault allegations, Brown was out of the league.