If you're an NFL fan or fantasy football enthusiast, you've likely heard of the dreaded Madden cover curse. Even those who consider jinxes or hexes to be foolish have a hard time overlooking the fact that whoever has graced the cover of the popular video game has suffered an injury or some sort of decline in statistical success. Some NFL players even believe in its power: LaDainian Tomlinson, for example, told me he passed on the cover in part because he didn't want to suffer a major injury in the prime of his career.
The curse will draw additional interest this season, because the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy football, Calvin Johnson, is going to be featured on the latest version. In an effort to help fantasy leaguers decide if this infamous hex should cause them to pass on Megatron in drafts, here's a look at what has happened to former cover athletes.
Note: The Madden game is released a year ahead of time, so the upcoming edition is called "Madden NFL 2013."
Garrison Hearst, RB, San Francisco 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 regular season, but a serious ankle ailment suffered in a postseason loss to the Atlanta Falcons kept him off the field until 2001.
Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit 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 with the Green Bay Packers, replaced Sanders on some versions of the cover. He went on to rush for a mere 224 yards and three touchdowns in 2000.
Eddie George, RB, Tennessee 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 he ultimately fell victim to it in 2001. The Ohio State product rushed for 939 yards and scored five touchdowns that season, both career lows at the time. He averaged a mediocre 876 yards per season in his final three seasons.
Daunte Culpepper, QB, Minnesota 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, St. Louis Rams (2003): Already a Hall of Famer, Faulk was a fantasy machine before he appeared on 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; his numbers declined in each season after his appearance on the cover.
Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta Falcons (2004): Even a versatile athlete like Vick couldn't elude the dreaded curse; he sustained a broken right fibula in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens and was forced to miss the first 11 contests of the 2003 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, Baltimore Ravens (2005): Lewis, the first defensive athlete to be featured on the cover, also fell victim to the dreaded 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 entire career (he had a career-best six interceptions in 2003). He also missed 10 starts due to injuries in 2005.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (2006): McNabb appeared on the cover of the 2006 edition of Madden after leading the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX. 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, when McNabb missed six weeks with an injured knee.
Shaun Alexander, RB, Seattle Seahawks (2007): Alexander had one of the best statistical seasons ever in 2005, posting 1,880 rushing yards and scoring 28 total touchdowns, a record at the time. Alexander had missed just one start in 64 previous contests, but he 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, Tennessee Titans (2008): Young was considered a breakout candidate in fantasy circles heading into 2007, but instead 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 having 10 more carries) and missed his first game ever (high school, college or pro) with a quadriceps ailment.
Brett Favre, QB, Green Bay Packers (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 New York Jets before the 2008 season, 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, Arizona Cardinals/Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers (2010): The Madden cover featured two players for the first time ever two years ago. While Fitzgerald did suffer a knee injury, it didn't keep him out of action. He also finished the 2009 season with a career-best 13 touchdowns. However, Polamalu did miss 11 games with an injured knee; the Steelers, winners of Super Bowl XLIII, failed to make the playoffs without him.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2011): Brees did have a nice season in 2010 from a statistical perspective, throwing for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. But he played almost the entire season with a medial collateral ligament injury. The veteran also threw a career-high 22 interceptions, which could probably be blamed on the fact that he was playing at less than 100 percent. While the impact on Brees' career wasn't very severe, the curse did strike him.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns (2012): Hillis, who told me he didn't believe in the Madden curse, changed his tune after being on the cover last year. After posting monster totals in 2010, Hillis missed six games due to injuries and experienced statistical decreases across the board last season. He went from a fantasy hero to a fantasy zero -- was the cover curse to blame? Even Hillis thinks so now -- just ask him!
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions (2013): Johnson, the first wideout to ever appear on the Madden cover by himself, is going to be tough to pass up on in the first round of fantasy drafts after he posted huge 2011 totals. If you do land him, you might want to keep a rabbit's foot in your pocket the entire 2012 NFL season. Unless he falls to Round 2, I won't consider Megatron on draft day.