On Sunday night, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, a destructive San Francisco 49ers defense and an NFL boogeyman to win Super Bowl LIV and be named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Sorry, “Madden Curse.” Not this year.
Mahomes, named the face of the popular “Madden NFL 20” video game after a historic 2018 season, is the first “Madden” cover athlete to play in and win a Super Bowl since EA Sports started placing NFL stars on the game in 2000. (The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl after Rob Gronkowski graced the cover of “Madden NFL 17,” but the tight end, sidelined by injuries for much of the season, missed the game.)
Depending on how many YouTube conspiracy theory channels you’re subscribed to, the “Madden Curse” is either a life-force-draining evil that robs players of their ability, “Space Jam” style, or just the statistical phenomenon widely known as regression to the mean. It takes a lot to get the cover of “Madden,” and it’s not always repeatable.
There have been some horror stories from the game’s cover athletes, though most are more than a decade old. Five days after “Madden NFL 2004” was released, quarterback Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game against the Ravens. He played in just five regular-season games. Three years later, running back Shaun Alexander broke his foot and missed six starts, after missing just one of his previous 64 games. His rushing yardage fell each of the next three seasons. In 2009, safety Troy Polamalu twice injured his knee and played a career-low five games.
There have been success stories, too. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who shared the cover with Polamalu in 2009, was named to the Pro Bowl after an NFL-high 13 touchdown catches. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record in 2012. And Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the cover athlete for “Madden NFL 2005,” was named first-team All-Pro, even in one of his less dominant seasons. (He did miss a game because of a wrist injury and went on to play in just six games the following season, though.)
Mahomes overcame a dislocated kneecap this past season to lead Kansas City to a first-round bye, then engineered three straight double-digit playoff comebacks. After Sunday’s win, asked whether he thought he was the face of the league, the 2018 NFL MVP pointed to the reigning MVP. “There are several guys that can be the face of the NFL,” Mahomes said. “I mean, Lamar [Jackson] was the unanimous MVP, and he had one of the best seasons of all time at the quarterback position."
For Jackson, dethroning Mahomes won’t be as easy as succeeding him as the next “Madden” cover athlete. After an electric season in which he evoked video game comparisons and surpassed Vick as the game’s fastest-ever quarterback, Jackson has to be the top candidate. Mahomes won’t be considered again for a while, if at all; only John Madden himself has been on multiple “Madden” covers.
While any decision on “Madden NFL 21” is months away, the push to keep Jackson off the cover is underway. A few petitions have already surfaced, with fans urging EA Sports to protect his well-being. But Jackson isn’t concerned. In November, he didn’t seem wary of following in Mahomes’ digital footsteps. Now there’s even less reason to be.
“I don’t believe in any curse," he said. “I play football. If it comes, it comes, but I’m playing football at the end of the day. Tom Brady was on the cover at one point. He still won Super Bowls.”