Over the past six months or so, one name has dominated NFL headlines unlike any other: Antonio Brown. Even the most unengaged sports fan can attest to the fact that they are sick of seeing the ex-Steeler/Raider/Patriot on the front page of the news on a seemingly daily basis. All of that came to a head on Sunday when, two days after being released by the New England Patriots, Brown announced on his Twitter account that he would no longer play in the NFL. That concluded a stunning fall from grace for arguably the best wide receiver of his generation, all in rapid succession, no less. However, there will be some who say that they saw the whole thing coming the minute that Brown was confirmed to be the cover athlete for the 2019 edition of the popular “Madden” video games series.
The Madden Curse, which draws heavily from other superstitions like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, is a belief that whatever player is on the cover of the popular video game is doomed to have a terrible season, either due to injury, lack of performance, off-the-field issues or some combination thereof. In the 20-year history of “Madden” having athletes on the front jacket of the game, there have been an uncanny amount of misfortunes, mishaps and maladies have struck some of the best stars in football, with Antonio Brown just the latest to fall under the spell. In this spirit, I’m going to recount some of the more memorable players to fall victim to the Madden Curse, and why the Chiefs should think about putting the reigning MVP in bubble wrap.
Madden NFL 1999: Garrison Hearst
The first player to appear on the cover of Madden was San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst. After a number of so-so seasons to start his career, Hearst broke out in 1998 (the year on the video game is always one higher than the season in which it was released). He finished third in the NFL with 1,570 rushing yards, was selected for his first Pro Bowl and was honored with a Second-Team All Pro selection. Why is he on this list then? Well, he broke his ankle on the first play of the game in the second round of the playoffs and complications in his recovery caused him to miss two full years. While he would return in 2001 to a few more productive seasons, he never quite matched the glory of his 1998 season.
Madden NFL 2002: Daunte Culpepper
Culpepper looked like a safe bet to put a halt to the Madden Curse. If throwing for a league-leading 33 touchdowns and guiding the Vikings to a conference championship appearance in your first year as a starting quarterback doesn’t instill confidence, what would? Nonetheless, Culpepper struggled in 2001, passing for only one more touchdown than interception before a week 12 knee injury cut his season short. He returned fully healthy in 2002, only to lead the league in interceptions that season. In actuality, this is one of the most devastating examples of the “curse.”
Madden NFL 2004: Michael Vick
Coming off a Pro Bowl season in which Vick’s running ability redefined what the quarterback position could be, the former No. 1 overall pick broke his right fibula during the preseason, causing him to miss the first 11 games of the year. He returned to throw only four touchdowns versus three interceptions later in the season. His career never regained its past glory.
Madden NFL 2017: Rob Gronkowski
While there were numerous examples between 2004 and 2017 of players underperforming while manning the cover, I wanted to go with a more recent example. Coming off of two of the best seasons by a tight end in NFL history, Gronk immediately missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury and barely played in the next two. He started to pick up the pace over the Patriots’ next five games before a week 10 pulmonary contusion knocked him out of the next matchup.
He returned in week 12 against the Jets, but exited without catching a single pass due to a back injury. The Patriots shut him down for the rest of the year, and Gronk had to watch from the sidelines as New England came back from a 28-3 deficit to win the Super Bowl.
Madden NFL 2019: Antonio Brown
This one speaks for itself. His 2018 season was actually pretty solid, if not below average by Brown’s lofty standards. He recorded 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and a league-leading 15 touchdown catches in his first 15 games. The final week of the regular season was where it began to fall apart.
With the Steelers’ playoff hopes on the line, Brown got into an argument with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and skipped out on practice all week long. Brown was benched for his behavior and requested a trade following the season. He was dealt to the Oakland Raiders after Brown protested a proposed deal to the Buffalo Bills on Twitter. The Raiders rewarded him with a contract extension making him the highest paid receiver in football. He missed most of training camp dealing with his frostbitten feet and nearly retired because he couldn’t wear his favorite helmet.
Just when it seemed like Brown had turned a corner, an argument with his General Manager over screenshots that he had posted on his Instagram story of fines he had incurred while missing time, which led to his release. The Patriots signed him and he played only one game before allegations of sexual abuse from two different women surfaced, leading to his second release in as many weeks.
In light of one of the worst cases of the Madden Curse yet, all eyes are now on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to see how he responds to being the cover athlete for Madden 20. Considering that Mahomes is leading the NFL in touchdown passes, passing yards and quarterback rating through the first three weeks of the season, it seems the curse has avoided him. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that the Madden Curse teaches, it’s to always be mindful and never question its power, because you never know when it will strike.