If you're an NFL fan or a fantasy football enthusiast, you've likely heard of the dreaded Madden cover curse. Even for those who consider jinxes or hexes to be foolish, it's hard to overlook the fact that whoever has donned the cover of the video game has suffered from an injury or some sort of decrease in overall statistical success. The curse brings additional interest this season, as fantasy superstar running back Peyton Hillis will don the latest version. In an effort to help fantasy leaguers decide if this infamous hex is actually reason enough to pass on Hillis in drafts, here's a look back at the stories of former cover athletes.
Note: The Madden game is released a year ahead of time. The upcoming edition is called "Madden NFL 2012."
Garrison Hearst, RB, 49ers (1999): Hearst was the first athlete to be seen on a "Madden" cover (John Madden was on the cover in previous seasons). He rushed for a career-best 1,570 yards and seven touchdowns in the 1998 season, but Hearst would sustain a serious ankle ailment in a postseason loss to the Falcons and wasn't able to return to action until 2001.
Barry Sanders, RB, Lions (2000): Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards in 1998 and was scheduled to be on the cover for 2000, but he decided to retire before the start of the season. Dorsey Levens, who rushed for 1,034 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns in 1999, replaced Sanders in some versions of the cover. He went on to rush for a mere 224 yards and three touchdowns in 2000.
Eddie George, RB, Titans (2001): George seemed to avoid the curse in 2000, as he recorded career bests in both rushing yards (1,509) and total touchdowns (16), but it would victimize him in 2001. The Ohio State product had what was a career-low 939 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns that season. He also averaged a mediocre 876 yards in his final three seasons.
Daunte Culpepper, QB, Vikings (2002): Culpepper earned his appearance on the cover after a 2000 season that saw him record 3,937 passing yards, 470 rushing yards and 40 total touchdowns, but the curse impacted him in 2001. He would miss the final five weeks due to an injured knee and finished that season with 2,612 passing yards, 416 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns.
Marshall Faulk, RB, Rams (2003): A surefire Hall of Famer, Faulk was a fantasy machine before he donned the 2003 cover. An injured ankle cost him two contests in 2002, and he failed to rush for 1,000 yards for the first time since 1996. Faulk would never again reach the 1,000-yard mark in his career, and his numbers declined in each season after his appearance on the cover.
Michael Vick, QB, Falcons (2004): Even a versatile athlete like Vick couldn't elude the dreaded curse, as he sustained a broken right fibula in a preseason game against the Ravens and was forced to miss the first 11 contests of the regular season. He was able to make five starts down the stretch, but Vick finished with just 585 passing yards, 255 rushing yards and five scores.
Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens (2005): Lewis was the first defensive athlete to be featured on the cover, but he too fell victim to the curse. The All-Pro missed one start in 2004 due to a broken wrist and failed to record an interception for the first time in his career (he had a career-best six interceptions in 2003). He also missed 10 starts due to injuries in 2005.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles (2006): McNabb led the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX and was on the cover of the 2006 Madden game. He would go on to sustain a sports hernia in the first week of the 2005 season. He attempted to play despite the ailment, but he would only make nine starts. The curse also seemed to hurt him in 2006, as McNabb missed six weeks with an injured knee.
Shaun Alexander, RB, Seahawks (2007): Alexander had one of the best statistical seasons ever in 2005, posting 1,880 rushing yards and what was a record 28 touchdowns. Alexander, who had missed one start in his previous 64 contests, sustained an injured foot after he was on the cover. He missed six starts in 2006 and failed to rush for 1,000 yards for the first time since 2000.
Vince Young, QB, Titans (2008): Young was considered a breakout candidate in fantasy circles heading into 2007, but instead he had a miserable season. He had more turnovers (20) than touchdowns (12), rushed for 157 fewer yards than he did in his rookie season (despite 10 more carries), and missed his first game ever (high school, college or pro) with a quadriceps ailment.
Brett Favre, QB, Jets (2009): The "Madden curse" appeared to be over heading into 2008, as a retired Favre graced the cover in a Packers uniform. He would eventually return after a trade to the Jets, but his numbers decreased across the board with the Men in Green, due in part to a right biceps injury that was considered part of the reason for his second "retirement."
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals/Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers (2010): The Madden cover had two players for the first time ever last year. While Fitzgerald did suffer a knee injury, it didn't keep him out of action. He also finished the season with a career-best 13 touchdowns. However, Polamalu did miss 11 games with an injured knee. The Super Bowl XLII champions failed to make the playoffs without him.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints (2011): Brees did have a nice season from a statistical perspective, throwing for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. But he played almost the entire season with an MCL injury. The veteran also threw a career-high 22 interceptions, which could be blamed on the fact that he was playing at less than 100 percent. While the impact wasn't as severe, the curse still seemed to strike again.