Breaking Down if the Madden Curse is Real or Fake

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 23, 2020

Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar JacksonNick Wass/Associated Press

Madden NFL 21 will be released to the masses Friday, with reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson adorning the cover.

In honor of the occasion, I looked back at the past two decades' worth of Madden cover athletes to figure out once and for all whether the "Madden Curse" is a legitimate concern or a load of hooey.

And, I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson (oooh), but this curse is for re-e-eal.

Well, sort of. It used to be, at any rate. Lately, it has felt more like a dormant volcano that could erupt again at any moment. But let's dig into the history of curses and expected regression a little bit to prove its legitimacy.

The notion of a cover athlete/team being jinxed certainly did not originate with this particular video game franchise. Rather, it was a well-documented phenomenon with the Sports Illustrated magazine nearly half a century before EA Sports started putting star players on the cover of Madden back in 2000.

Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews was the first player ever featured on the cover of SI on Aug. 16, 1954. Less than a week later, he suffered a broken hand. The SI curse hasn't always kicked in that quickly, but Mathews was the first of many players to endure an injury or otherwise go through a slump shortly after being advertised as one of the best in the world.

Then again, Michael Jordan has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated about a billion times, and he turned out OK. So it's not some sort of Final Destination type of guarantee that something awful will befall a cover athlete, but it also hardly seems like a coincidence that so much bad has happened to so many great players.

And the likelihood of a bad year or significant regression has been especially high in Madden lore.

Daunte Culpepper
Daunte CulpepperM. SPENCER GREEN/Associated Press

After leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game following the 2000 season, Daunte Culpepper was on the cover of Madden NFL 2002. He was the first player to undergo the "Madden Curse." Despite having both Randy Moss and Cris Carter at his disposal, Culpepper's numbers plummeted and then he missed the final five games of the season with a knee injury.

Marshall Faulk was on the cover of Madden the following year, but after four consecutive years with at least 2,100 yards from scrimmage, he made just 10 starts and finished with 1,490 yards while the St. Louis Rams crashed and burned.

Madden NFL 2004 was when people really began to pay some mind to the curse, because that was the year Michael Vick suffered a broken leg in the preseason and managed to appear in just five games at the end of a horrific season for the Atlanta Falcons. It certainly didn't deter anyone from running rampant with Vick in the video game, though. It was an awful real-life season, but Madden '04 Vick is right up there with Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson as the most unstoppable video game athlete of all time.

Ray Lewis turned the tide a bit with a great season while on the cover of Madden NFL 2005, but the curse came back with a vengeance, taking down Donovan McNabb (missed seven games with a sports hernia) and Shaun Alexander (missed six games with a broken foot) in the next two years.

More recently, Troy Polamalu (Madden '10), Peyton Hillis (Madden '12) and Rob Gronkowski (Madden '17) missed a combined 25 games because of injury during their seasons on the Madden cover.

That's eight out of 17 guys (47 percent!) who were injured by the Madden Curse in a 16-year span. (Seventeen players in 16 years because Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald were both on the cover of Madden '10.) Patrick Mahomes also missed a pair of games this past season while on the cover, although it's hard to argue that he was cursed since he won the Super Bowl.

It's not just injuries we're talking about, either. Aside from Tom Bradywho, let's face it, is the exception to a lot of rulesand Odell Beckham Jr., everyone who has been on the cover of Madden regressed at least a little bit that season.

That's to be expected, though, isn't it?

Generally speaking, the guy on the cover of Madden just had one of the best seasons in the league and certainly one of the best seasons of his career. And playing multiple consecutive seasons at your peak is much easier said than done.

Rather than a question of whether regression is normal, it's much more a question of how much regression is normal.

Peyton Hillis
Peyton HillisAJ Mast/Associated Press

To figure that out, I looked back at every* NFL MVP since the league expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Using Pro Football Reference's "Approximate Value" statistic, I compared how much value each player added during his MVP year to how much value he added the year after winning MVP.

*Did not include Lamar Jackson and also omitted 1982 MVP Mark Moseley, since that was only a nine-game season. The fact that a kicker was named MVP should tell you all you need to know about how weird that year was.

Of those 42 data points, there were only five instances in which a player's approximate value increased the year after winning MVP. The biggest improvements were Peyton Manning (18 AV as MVP in 2003, 21 AV in 2004) and Tom Brady (18 AV as MVP in 2010, 21 in 2011).

Exactly half (21) of the 42 players dropped at least five units of approximate value with nearly one in five MVPs plummeting at least 10 units.

Marcus Allen dropped from 17 AV in 1985 to seven the following year thanks in large part to a salary dispute which landed him in Al Davis' doghouse. Joe Montana went from 14 to zero when he missed the entire 1991 season with an elbow injury. And then the decade from 1998-2007 was fraught with MVP mishaps.

Kurt Warner
Kurt WarnerCHARLES NEIBERGALL/Associated Press

Terrell Davis (1998 MVP) suffered a devastating knee injury from which he never recovered. Kurt Warner (2001 MVP), Rich Gannon (2002 MVP) and Steve McNair (2003 co-MVP with Manning) each started slow and then missed at least 50 percent of the season due to injury. We previously mentioned Alexander (2005 MVP) suffered a broken foot. And the biggest outlier of all was Brady winning MVP in 2007 with a 24 AV and then posting a zero the following year thanks to Bernard Pollard.

Even with those eight outrageous year-to-year swings included, the average AV for those 42 MVPs went from 18.90 to 13.36a 29.3 percent decrease.

I crunched the same numbers for the 21 Madden cover athletes dating back to 2000 and found a decline from 15.90 to 10.66—a 32.9 percent decrease.

Trim both data sets down to just the past decade, though, and the Madden cover guys have actually maintained their level of production better than the reigning NFL MVPs have. The video-game stars merely had a 19.1 percent decrease from 15.2 to 12.3 while the guys with hardware on their mantles slipped 24.1 percent from 19.9 to 15.1.

A lot of that is because EA Sports put Brady on the cover of Madden NFL 2018, though, because he improved from 13 AV to 19 AV. Had they gone with MVP Matt Ryan (dropped from 21 to 15), Aaron Rodgers (18 to seven) or Andrew Luck (16 to zero) instead of Brady that year, it's a much different story. Put Luck's minus-16 score in place of Brady's plus-6 and the Madden side of the equation skyrockets to a 32.9 percent decrease over the past decade and a 39.2 percent decrease overall.

So, is the Madden curse real?

Yes and no.

Unless you're Tom freakin' Brady, a decrease in output while on the cover is certainly the expectation. But it's no longer the "Whatever you do, don't draft that guy in your fantasy league, because he's going to miss at least half the season" hex that it was in the 2001-09 time frame.

If Jackson is able to maintain the MVP and Madden cover averages from the past decade, he'll still be an MVP candidate this season. He posted an approximate value of 25 last year, which with a 19.1-24.1 percent decrease puts him in the 19-20 rangewhich also puts him ever so slightly ahead of the 18.9 average for MVPs in the past four-plus decades.

If anything does happen to him, though, let's at least agree to split the blame between the Madden curse and the absurdity of 2020 as a whole.