Calvin Johnson’s Nerve Injury Serves as Reminder of Madden Curse’s Power Over NFL

Another year, another Madden video game, another star athlete suffering an injury that severely hampers his performance.

With the news coming on Thursday that Madden 13 cover athlete Calvin “Megatron” Johnson has been playing with nerve damage since September, causing him to drop balls and deflate his once incredible statistics, it’s hard to wonder if there isn’t some merit to the so-called Madden Curse. It’s not to say that Johnson isn’t still one of the NFL’s best receivers, but his numbers have taken a serious dip in 2012.

Yes, Johnson has felt the brunt of countless double- and triple-coverage schemes this season, making it difficult for the Pro Bowl receiver to make catches, but in years past, Johnson and quarterback Matt Stafford have made those connections — especially in the end zone.

In eight games this season, Johnson has 48 catches for 767 yards — numbers that still put him on pace for 100 catches and 1,500 yards. The one number that’s most revealing — especially for fantasy owners — is the one touchdown that he’s caught. Since his rookie season in 2007, Megatron has caught 50 touchdown passes, including a career high of 16 last season. His career low was his rookie season of 2007, when Johnson only caught four TDs.

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His insane numbers in 2011 were one of the reasons — along with his nationwide popularity — that Johnson was included in the voting for Madden 13 cover athlete. In a new marketing ploy for the Electronic Arts game, fans have voted for their cover athlete in 2012 and 2013, electing the then-Browns and current Chiefs running back Peyton Hillis and Johnson as their two representatives.

And, interestingly enough, both Hillis and Johnson had injury-riddled and stat-dropping seasons the year they were on the cover. So while the procedure has changed, the result has been the same.

Since EA changed its cover boy from the famed announcer John Madden to NFL stars in 1999, just about every player whose been “fortunate” enough to grace the cover has suffered an injury that’s either ended his career or sent it spiraling down to more-human like NFL standards.

The first non-announcer on the Madden Cover? Garrison Hearst of the San Francisco 49ers. The streak of coincidences that led to the thoughts of the existence of the curse began when Hearst promptly broke his ankle and missed two seasons.

OK — one year, not so bad. But then Barry Sanders graced the cover at the turn of the millennium and retired shortly thereafter. While Sanders did have bad knees, his sudden exit from the NFL may or not be characterized as part of this streak, but for argument’s sake, let’s call it a strange coincidence.

Eddie George is one of the lone anomalies in this streak, as he actually increased his statistics the year he was on the cover. But George coughed up a pass in the playoffs that made people think Madden played a role.

Daunte Culpepper and Marshall Faulk were on the covers in 2002 and 2003, and had truly miserable seasons. Culpepper threw 23 interceptions and led the NFL in fumbles in ’02. Faulk didn’t see the same sort of immediate decline his counterpart did, but 2003 marked the beginning of the end for the shifty runner.

Another stretch of injuries hampered NFL stars from 2004-2008. Michael Vick broke his fibula in the preseason in 2004. Ray Lewis played well in 2005, but injured his wrist in Week 15. Oddly enough, it’s one of only two seasons in which Lewis didn’t record an interception — the other was 2009. Donovan McNabb tore his ACL in 2006 and Shaun Alexander sustained a foot injury a year later. Neither of their careers ever regained the traction held prior to their Madden debut. And in 2008¬†Vince Young posed for the cover, and suffered an injury late in the season that has plagued the former Texas great for years. Now, Young is bankrupt thanks in part to a large tab from the Cheesecake Factory.

The Brett Farve retirement saga played its way on to the cover in 2009, and Farve, too, suffered an injury the year he donned the cover — but it was in a Jets jersey, not in the Green Bay one the game depicted him in.

History was made only three years ago, as Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu both were on the cover for Madden 2010. The Steelers safety suffered multiple injuries, but Fitzgerald stayed oddly healthy during the year and put up numbers comparable over the rest of his career.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees was on the cover in 2011, and threw 22 picks a year after leading New Orleans to its first Super Bowl in team history. (Needless to say, it looks like Brees has recovered his superstardom.)

And then we have the last two fan-picked cover contests. Hillis missed six games in 2012 and was released from Cleveland at the conclusion of last season. Johnson is suffering from an injury hampering his ability to catch passes — somewhat important for wide receivers.

The overarching pattern that’s present suggests an unfortunate sequence of events for these NFLers. Curse or not, players may think twice when EA approaches them in coming years. Johnson still has time to increase his numbers, especially in the touchdown department. But with a Lions team in disarray and an injury to a crucial part of the body, Megatron may need some time for repairs. It’s becoming far too common a pattern to see Madden athletes suffer, and players may start campaigning for fans not to vote for them.

For anyone in New England, most would agree that seeing Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski on the cover would raise some concerns. But, as seen in 2004 in Boston, curses are meant to be broken.

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