I’m not a big believer in sports jinxes and curses. The Chicago Cubs didn’t go more than a century without a World Series title because that odiferous billy goat and his owner were asked to leave their Wrigley Field box seats way back when. And the curse the Bambino purportedly put on the Boston Red Sox didn’t lead to that eight-decade long championship drought. Ineptitude on the diamond and in the dugout and front office were the real culprits, not slighted slugger Babe Ruth. (Though if the BoSox had retained Ruth, their history as well as the history of baseball would have unfolded much differently, and perhaps the baseball famine would have occurred in the south Bronx.)
For years, we’ve heard about the Sports Illustrated jinx, in which bad things allegedly happened to athletes, coaches, owners and teams that appeared on the magazine’s cover. Upon further review, the hex was a hoax. The reality is that the majority of sports personalities who SI featured continued to enjoy success—perhaps none more so than Michael Jordan, who was on SI’s cover 50 times. With the exception of the time he was shown swinging and missing while wearing a Birmingham White Sox baseball uniform, His Airness wound up being blessed rather than cursed by his SI appearances.
I bring this up because EA Sports is about to release its latest Madden video football game, and that’s supposedly going to be bad news for Patrick Mahomes. The NFL’s reigning most valuable player is shown on the game box cover pointing at the biceps of his powerful right arm. This should be cause for celebration for Kansas City Chiefs fans, a sign that their quarterback truly has arrived as a transcendent, superduperstar.
Alas, many Chiefs fans are afraid the man who became just the second NFL QB to accumulate at least 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in the same season is destined to suffer a dramatic decline in performance. And they believe that way because it’s happened to so many other Madden cover subjects. That accolade is now considered a malediction. Sure, Mahomes may see a dropoff in his otherworldly stats, but if that occurs it won’t be because of Madden 20. Or will it?
A review of previous Madden cover boys (yes, I have way too much time on my hands), reveals that in 14.5 of the 21 cases the featured player or players have encountered bad luck immediately following their ascendancy to sports video game fame. In the early years, John Madden, the loud and loveable Hall of Fame football coach and television commentator for whom the game is named, adorned the cover. But in 1999, EA Sports decided it was time to feature players, and Barry Sanders, the elusive, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Detroit Lions running back, was chosen. Talk about poor timing. That July, Sanders abruptly quit football. It was too late to find a replacement player, though Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens did appear on alternate covers for the limited number of Madden games sold abroad.
The next year, Eddie George, fresh off a 1,500-rushing-yards season with Tennessee, wound up averaging a career-low 3.4 yards per carry and set a personal high for fumbles after his Madden debut. In year three, the cover appeared to get the better of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who went from tossing 33 touchdowns to just 14 in an injury-truncated season.
A trend was unfolding, as nine of the first 10 players chosen for Madden covers wound up suffering bad tidings after receiving the supposedly good news. Mahomes and Chiefs fans can take heart that the odds for Madden cover success has improved during the past decade. In 2018, Tom Brady was featured, and although his New England Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, Tom Terrific threw for more than 500 yards in that game, establishing a new record. Last year’s cover subject, Antonio Brown, had a tumultuous season in Pittsburgh, but still wound up with 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. I’d hardly call that cursed, though he did force his way out of the Steel City and is now playing for the Oakland Raiders.
Jinx or not, the Madden game remains immensely popular, and fans aren’t the only ones who play it and care passionately about it. NFL players play it, too, and consider the cover designation a prestigious honor. And most are keenly aware of their individual Madden ratings. In this year’s game, the highest grades (99) were awarded to just four players (Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Hopkins). Interestingly, Mahomes received a 97 while Brady was given a 96. Brady doesn’t seem to be bothered that he didn’t grade out the highest. He can always respond that his grade really is a six—as in six Super Bowl rings.
Many players, though, do take umbrage with their rankings. Safety Micah Hyde is the Bills highest-rated player with an 86. Cornerback Tre’Davious White is next at 85, followed by linebacker Lorenzo Alexanader (82), running back LeSean McCoy (82) and quarterback Josh Allen (74). White, who claims not to play many video games, recently told the NFL Network he wasn’t pleased.
“I feel like they robbed us on a lot of our guys,’’ he said. “We definitely didn’t get the credit we deserve in our ratings, but we’ll use it as extra motivation this season.”
Hey, whatever floats your boat. If you are mad at Madden and it prompts you to show the game’s creators you were short-changed, then go for it. Someday, a Bill might be selected as the game’s cover boy. That may wind up being a blessing or a curse—or both.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.