Everyone knows about the Madden Curse. It’s why Lamar Jackson has even more added attention this year. It was also never stronger than in the earlier part of this century. Players from Marshall Faulk to Shaun Alexander to Vince Young never recaptured the magic that landed them on the game’s cover. Barry Sanders retired after getting on the cover (this was rectified when a — still retired — Barry Sanders graced the cover of the PS3/Xbox 360 versions of Madden 25, confusing game title and all). I was such a believer in the curse that I think I accidentally cursed Carson Palmer by printing out a custom cover with him for Madden 06. With that in mind, it’s also fun to think about who the best players were who avoided the Madden Curse by simply never being on the cover.
After all, while some players broke the curse, some players never pressed their luck by appearing on the game. I looked at some of the best players to not only get passed over for the game’s cover in a given year but who never appeared on the cover at all.
There’s an easy argument to be made here that the best players who didn’t appear on the cover of Madden appeared on that year’s cover of the NFL 2K Series. I didn’t do that because that’s too easy. I also wanted to write an entire article about Madden without reminding everyone that we all miss the NFL 2K franchise, and I’ve already failed.
Anyway, I’ll take a look at one player each year since 2000 that, were it not for the person who actually made the cover, would have been good enough to take his place. In part one, we’ll look at the first 10 years that the Madden series put a player on the cover.
Here’s a list of 10 guys EA Sports saved from the Madden Curse.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Eddie George
- Could Have Been: Kurt Warner
It’s weird to think about this mathematically, but for Madden 2001, you have to look to the 1999 season to find an appropriate player. Eddie George is one of six players who appeared on the Madden cover after appearing in and losing the Super Bowl the previous season. The EA team could have gone the tribute route and gone with Dan Marino (retired) or Troy Aikman (playing his last season in 2000). Aikman was coming off of a pretty average season. And with this being the first time a player appeared on the cover, it would have been strange to pick someone like Marino who wasn’t playing anymore.
I think the obvious choice here would have been Kurt Warner. Even though I hated the Rams — as a Steve McNair fan, the Rams-Titans Super Bowl was the first sporting event to make me cry — you could not escape the Kurt Warner story after he led them to a Super Bowl win, picking up an MVP along the way.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? Warner did have a down year in 2000. He missed five games, which played a factor in his touchdown total being cut in half and throwing for a 1,000 fewer yards. He would bounce back the next year with another MVP and Super Bowl appearance.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Daunte Culpepper
- Could Have Been: Edgerrin James
The two most likely players here were teammates — but not Culpepper and Moss. Peyton Manning tied Culpepper for the league lead in passing touchdowns while leading the NFL in passing yards. He did rank in the top 10 in passes intercepted, but so did Culpepper.
But my choice would have been Edgerrin James. In his second year in the league, James led the NFL in rushing yards for the second year in a row. He also had the fifth-most rushing touchdowns, while also leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? Absolutely. Six games into the 2001 season, James tore his ACL. However, a few seasons later he’d top the 1,500-yard mark two more times. He ranks 13th overall in all-time rushing yards, so the cover curse likely cost him a top 10 spot.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Marshall Faulk
- Could Have Been: Michael Strahan
The hardest decision so far. Rich Gannon finished in the top five in passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating. He was also the league MVP. Priest Holmes had a monster year in his first year in Kansas City, leading the league in rushing yards, but couldn’t crack the top 10 in touchdowns. Curtis Martin was second in rushing yards and fifth in touchdowns. Terrell Owens had 16 touchdowns receptions and was third in yards.
However, NFL 2K3 decided to go with a defensive player in Brian Urlacher. I think Madden could have done the same. And who better than the man who just broke the single-season sack record, Michael Strahan. Madden put their first defensive player on the cover two years later with Ray Lewis, who also would have been a good choice.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? Not really. Strahan was 30 in 2001, so a decline was somewhat expected. His season total for sacks was halved, but he bounced back the next season to lead the league again.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Michael Vick
- Could Have Been: Priest Holmes
Rich Gannon shows up again here. Like so many other cover athletes, he’s fresh off of a Super Bowl loss. He finished top five in passer rating and passing touchdowns. His league-leading yardage total was the sixth-best in history at the time. But real-life Madden chose the most exciting player in the game. To have the backup plan be…Rich Gannon? I’m not buying it.
The other best bets would have been Marvin Harrison, Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes. Harrison’s receiving yardage total ranked fourth-best in history at the time. Ricky Williams finished 147 yards short of 2,000. Holmes not only had 1600-plus yards but a 21 touchdown season. Holmes is my choice here.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? The opposite, actually. Kansas City started 9-0 in 2003 — fun fact, I attended their first loss of that season. Priest Holmes also set a then-record with 27 rushing touchdowns. However, he played only 17 games after that season, including a full missed season in 2006, so maybe it was a delayed curse.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Ray Lewis
- Could Have Been; Dante Hall
There’s a lot of good choices here. Peyton Manning again. Randy Moss finished second in both receiving yards and touchdowns. Jamal Lewis not only set the single-game rushing record in 2003 but rushed for 2,066 yards. However, in early 2004, Lewis had a drug ordeal for which he eventually went to prison. Ahman Green had a great season, and I mentioned the amazing year of Priest Holmes, but a back-to-back cover seemed destined for a curse for Holmes.
So I went with maybe my weirdest pick of all of these. If you weren’t watching football at the time, then you don’t remember the absolute excitement of watching Dante Hall return kicks and punts. Devin Hester is the only person to match it since. If you don’t know who he is: watch the highlights. The Human Joystick set a record returning a punt or kick for a touchdown in four straight games in 2003. The guy was exciting and he had a line of Gatorade flavors named after him.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? No. While it’s tough to judge a guy who’s mainly a returner, Hall still had three more great years in the return game. He even got a little more involved in the offense as well. His last season was 2008.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Donovan McNabb
- Could Have Been: Peyton Manning
It seems Peyton Manning’s name is going to keep popping up here. He was going to be the one person I selectively saved until after he won the Super Bowl, but that’s cheating. Some popular choices here include Corey Dillon, LaDainian Tomlinson, Rudi Johnson, Javon Walker, Reggie Wayne and Tony Gonzalez.
But Manning’s 2004 season was his best to that point and likely the second-best season of his career. He finished with 10 more touchdown passes than anyone else and finished third in passing yards. His passer rating was 11 points higher than anyone else. He was coming off back-to-back MVPs.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? Far from it. He’d finish first-team All-Pro again, and win a Super Bowl the next year. He’d then go on and win three more MVPs and another Super Bowl.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Shaun Alexander
- Could Have Been: Steve Smith
Shaun Alexander was the best choice as he led the league in rushing and tied Priest Holmes’ touchdown record. A new Chiefs running back, Larry Johnson, would have also been a solid choice, along with LaDanian Tomlinson and Carson Palmer. While Palmer had a breakout year, it would have been odd seeing him on the cover considering he’d miss the whole season after his knee exploded in the playoffs the year before.
My choice for the cover would have been Steve Smith. Smith had a great 2003 season and helped the Panthers reach the Super Bowl, then he missed almost an entire season in 2004. He bounced back in a big way in 2005, leading the league in receiving touchdowns, yards and receptions, completing the wide receiver triple crown.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? No. While Smith would never surpass any of those three stat totals again, he appeared in the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season. He remained a contributor into his late 30s.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Vince Young
- Could Have Been: LaDainian Tomlinson
Since Peyton Manning was already on one of our fictional covers, his great season is moot here (I can probably just copy and paste that sentence for every year going forward). Carson Palmer had a bounce-back year. Drew Brees got it going in New Orleans. Marvin Harrison, Chad Johnson and Larry Johnson appear to be good candidates. But I think there’s one guy that stands above the rest: LaDanian Tomlinson.
Tomlinson also appears on the cover of NFL 2k4, which I thought might be strange until I found out Marshall Faulk appeared on Madden 2003 and NFL Gameday 2001. LT broke the rushing touchdown record shared by Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes in 2006. He also rushed for over 1,800 yards. This was just another great season put in by Tomlinson and this was probably the peak of his popularity.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? No. It’s hard to follow up a record-breaking season, but he still had 15 touchdowns and almost 1,500 yards on the ground. However, 2007 was pretty much his last season among the top of the running back mountain.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Brett Favre
- Could Have Been: Eli Manning
A pretty big thing happened in the Super Bowl in 2008 as the Giants defeated the undefeated Patriots. David Tyree wasn’t a big enough name to get the cover after his miraculous catch, but Eli Manning might have been. His individual statistics weren’t the greatest: 12th in passing yards, 11th in touchdowns and 20 interceptions thrown. But Brett Favre was on the real cover and he led the league in interceptions almost as many times as he led the league in touchdowns.
Tom Brady had a pretty nice year, but he appeared on a cover in real life. His brand new target Randy Moss had a lot to do with that great season. Moss set an NFL record with 23 receiving touchdowns. While the loss in the Super Bowl might put a damper on the excitement level, Madden has a thing for putting Super Bowl losers on the cover, as I said earlier. My biggest thing is that Moss appears on two covers for the NFL 2K series so this might feel like “cheating.”
I still say Eli gets the cover here. Beating the Patriots that year was such a huge deal. I know it’s not as exciting as Randy Moss, but I feel like EA has made some strange choices in real life, so I’m allowed to make one, too. And I’m wasting it on Eli Manning.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? No. Manning would lead the Giants to a 12-4 record in 2008 while cutting his interception total in half. He’d make his first of four Pro Bowl appearances as well.
- Actual Cover Athlete: Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald
- Could Have Been: James Harrison/Tony Gonzalez
Madden went the two-person route for the cover for this game, and it made perfect sense. It was one offensive player and one defensive player from the prior Super Bowl. Using the same concept, James Harrison would seem like the logical fit here. But who would be the Cardinals rep? Kurt Warner is on our earlier cover. Anquan Boldin wasn’t quite as marketable as Larry Fitzgerald. The number of people excited to see Tim Hightower on the cover would have been Tim’s family and myself.
The five best options of people who meet our criteria would be Andre Johnson, Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Tony Gonzalez and Ed Reed. It’s really a toss-up between these guys. With a technically “unproven” Eli Manning getting the ’09 cover, I think the Madden team would put a more reliable guy on the cover, and Tony Gonzalez is one of the most reliable tight ends of all-time. In real life, it took the Madden team until 2017 to put a tight end on the cover. But after back to back 1,000 yard seasons, it hard to argue with Tony Gonzalez. This would have been Tony’s first year with the Atlanta Falcons, but he got there in April, so EA wouldn’t need to print a last-minute replacement cover like they did with Brett Favre in 2008.
Would the cover have cursed this guy, too? No. Gonzalez played five years in Atlanta and remained one of the best tight ends around.
I found out during part one that picking a Madden cover athlete is a difficult task because a lot of players are deserving. You also have to find somebody that embodies the spirit of the game. In addition to being a fun trip down memory lane, this era was easy for me because it was the peak of my pro football fandom. We’ll see how I do in part two.
Is there anybody that I completely forgot? How bad did I whiff on the ’09 cover? Do you miss Dante Hall as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below.