It's the most famous pattern of bad luck in the sports world this side of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. It inspired Chargers fans to launch a campaign in 2007 to keep star running back LaDainian Tomlinson off the cover of Madden '08 ("Save LT From Madden"). It's the dreaded Madden Curse.
Or is it? And what can Madden '13 cover boy Calvin Johnson do to avoid it, if it really does exist? Let's take a look at past cover players to find out.
Garrison Hearst, Madden '99: Hearst was first player to appear on the cover, and also the first one to suffer a stroke of bad luck afterward. He broke his ankle before the start of the 1998 season, missed the next two years, and was never the same again. The verdict? Cursed.
Barry Sanders, Madden '00: Sanders was within 1,500 yards of breaking Walter Payton's career rushing record, but he abruptly retired just before training camp in 1999. He walked away at age 30, perfectly healthy and coming off a solid season. The verdict? Not cursed. While the motivations are still murky, the decision to retire was his and his alone. You can't say he's cursed for that.
Eddie George, Madden '01: George's numbers actually went up the year he appeared on the cover, rushing for 200 more yards and scoring five more touchdowns. The knock on him is twofold: he bobbled a pass in the playoffs that year while trailing late in a game against the Ravens, which Ray Lewis picked off and took all the way back, and he never averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in a season again. The verdict? Not cursed. One play — however crushing — doesn't outweigh an entire season of production, and George was never much of a yards per carry guy anyway.
Daunte Culpepper, Madden '02: In his first five years in the league, Culpepper had three great seasons and two lousy ones — including one in which he not only threw for 23 interceptions, but also tied the single-season record for most fumbles by a quarterback. Perhaps not coincidentally, those two years were the year that he appeared on the cover and the year after. The verdict? Cursed.
Marshall Faulk, Madden '03: Faulk had more than 400 less rushing yards and four fewer touchdowns the year he appeared on the cover, as well as significantly lower receiving stats. The downward trend continued for the rest of his career as knee injuries took their toll. He was 29 years old when he appeared on the cover. The verdict? Not cursed. Faulk played all his home games on turf — which is murder on the knees — and running backs generally begin to decline around that age anyway.
Michael Vick, Madden '04: Vick broke his fibula in a preseason game and missed the first 11 games of the regular season. There's not much more you can say about that. The verdict? Cursed.
Ray Lewis, Madden '05: Lewis injured his wrist in the penultimate game of the season and was forced to sit the last one out. It was also his first year as a pro without an interception. The verdict? Cursed. Either the injury or the lack of an interception on their own wouldn't have been enough evidence of a curse, but both together suggest it.
Donovan McNabb, Madden '06: McNabb not only missed the last seven games of the year with a torn ACL and meniscus, but he also had suffered a sports hernia in the very first game. The verdict? Cursed.
Shaun Alexander, Madden '07: Alexander experienced both a huge drop off in stats (both raw and per game) and a foot injury in the 2006 season. The statistical regression can be traced back to Alexander's ridiculous 2005 season, when he rushed for nearly 1,900 yards and tied the single-season record of 27 rushing touchdowns. The injury, however, was a fluke. The verdict? This one can go either way.
Vince Young, Madden '08: Young's stats — outside of his horrendous 9:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio — actually mostly went up across the board the year he was on the cover. It was the year after, however, when he suffered a knee injury that shelved him for a few weeks and then was relegated to back-up duties the rest of the season, that the curse seemed to strike. The verdict? This one can also go either way, based on the statute of limitations that you place on the curse.
Brett Favre, Madden '09: In what was essentially the inverse of Sanders' experience, Favre unretired shortly after being placed on the cover. This turned out to be a bad move, as he had a poor year statistically with the Jets, injured his ankle and was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. The verdict? Cursed.
Larry Fitzgerald/Troy Polamalu, Madden '10: Fitzgerald suffered no ill effects from his appearance on the cover, posting his usual tremendous numbers and staying healthy. Polamalu, on the other hand, sprained his MCL and missed four games before returning only to miss a few more with a PCL injury. The verdict? This one goes both ways — Fitzgerald wasn't cursed, but Polamalu was.
Drew Brees, Madden '11: In between two seasons with QB ratings above 109, Brees had a very atypical year. He still threw for over 4,000 yards, but tossed a pitiful 22 interceptions. For good measure, the Saints were upset by the 7-9 Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. The verdict? Cursed.
Peyton Hillis, Madden '12: After a monster 2010 campaign that came out of nowhere, Hillis was admittedly due for some regression to the mean — but he did not so much regress as plummet. He missed six games between a bum hamstring and strep throat. He engendered a large amount of animosity in the clubhouse as a result of his contentious contract negotiations. Even when on the field, Hillis was nowhere near the same running back that had plowed over secondaries at will the previous year. The verdict? Cursed.
So does the Madden Curse really exist? From this little survey, there are nine cursed players, four safe ones, and two that could go either way based on how you're feeling. So for all intents and purposes, yes, the Madden Curse exists.
Now how can Megatron go about avoiding it? For starters, he — like Fitzgerald — should not fall prey to a sudden drop in production. He has a startling blend of size and speed that allows him to catch balls seemingly at will over smaller defensive backs. He has an elite quarterback throwing to him in Matthew Stafford. Not only that, but Johnson is the undisputed number one receiver in the Detroit offense. He'll get plenty of balls thrown his way.
Injuries are a much trickier thing to predict and avoid. But at only 26 years old, Johnson shouldn't be old enough to start having chronic injury problems like Faulk did. He has played in nearly every game in his career, so he seems to be durable enough to withstand the rigors of a typical NFL season.
Barring an unforeseen traumatic injury or making Ndamukong Suh overly angry, it doesn't seem to be too much of a stretch to predict that Calvin Johnson should be one of the lucky Madden cover boys.
Photo via Facebook/Calvin Johnson