It hasn’t always turned out that way, of course. So on the occasion of the “Madden 18” cover reveal, let’s revisit and update my 2016 ranking of players’ best seasons after being on a Madden cover. Remember, a small act of kindness can go a long way.
The list includes video game covers since the 2000 version; John Madden was the main feature on the cover prior to then.
1. Calvin Johnson (Cover 2013, season 2012)
What happened next: Oh, no big deal. He just set the NFL record for yardage in a season (1,964), breaking the mark Jerry Rice had held for 16 years. Johnson managed to stave off the cover award’s effects for three more 1,000-yard seasons before he retired in March 2016.
What happened next: He repeated as a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection. Sherman’s interceptions dropped from eight in 2013 to four in 2014, and the Seattle Seahawks failed to repeat as Super Bowl champions. But he was the league’s least-targeted cornerback — thrown at on about 6 percent of his total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus research — and remains one of the game’s top defenders overall.
What happened next: He finished the season tied for second in the NFL in touchdown receptions (13). Beckham also ranked fifth in yardage (1,450), eighth in receptions (96) and first in cheap shots against Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
4. Eddie George (Cover 2001, season 2000)
What happened next: He ran for a career-high 1,509 yards while catching 50 passes and scoring 16 total touchdowns as the Tennessee Titans finished 13-3. Here at Curse-Free Headquarters, we give George a pass for the playoff fumble that helped end the Titans’ Super Bowl hopes. We’ll also gloss over the 403 regular-season carries and the (likely related) 3.2 yards per carry in his remaining four NFL seasons.
5. Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders (Cover 2014, season 2013)
What happened next: Peterson finished fifth in the NFL with 1,266 rushing yards and tied for third with 10 rushing touchdowns, despite missing two games because of a sprained foot. It wasn’t a bad follow-up to an MVP season, even if it ended in the Minnesota Vikings‘ 5-10-1 record and the firing of coach Leslie Frazier. Two years later, Peterson was once again the NFL rushing champion. (Sanders appeared on the main cover, while Peterson fronted the PS4 and Xbox One games.)
6. Ray Lewis (Cover 2005, season 2004)
What happened next: He repeated as a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, which by definition means he remained one of the best players at his position. A 1-4 slump that caused a 7-3 Baltimore Ravens team to miss the playoffs? Not Ray’s fault. The broken wrist and missed game in Week 17? Curses!
7. Drew Brees (Cover 2011, season 2010)
What happened next: He eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark for the fifth consecutive year, a streak that reached 10 years in 2015. Brees led the NFL with a 68.1 completion percentage, and that doesn’t include the 22 times he connected on passes to the other team, a career high. The Saints lost in the wild-card playoff round, in part because of an unfair postseason structure that forced an 11-5 team to play on the road against a Seahawks team that won the NFC West with a 7-9 record.
8. Troy Polamalu/Larry Fitzgerald (Cover 2010, season 2009)
What happened next: The rare double cover, and the split seasons that followed, forced me to take the easy way out and rank this one in the middle. Polamalu played in a career-low five games after spraining his knee in Week 1 and reinjuring it later in the season. Fitzgerald, however, persevered. He led the NFL with a career-high 13 touchdown receptions and helped the Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs.
9. Vince Young (Cover 2008, season 2007)
What happened next: He threw nine touchdown passes and started 15 of the Tennessee Titans’ games, of which the team won nine. He also had 17 interceptions, a preseason benching for violating NFL team rules, an injured quadriceps and the end of his streak of consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, which stood at one.
10. Donovan McNabb (Cover 2006, season 2005)
What happened next: He earned NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors and gamely fought off verbal harassment from receiver Terrell Owens. Even more gamely, McNabb tried to play through a sports hernia injury and a sore thumb, but the Philadelphia Eagles finally rested him after a disastrous interception led to a home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He started more than half the Eagles’ games (nine of 16).
11. Marshall Faulk (Cover 2003, season 2002)
What happened next: He ran for 953 yards, which was better than 298 NFL players who had at least one carry that season, worse than only 24 players and just 429 yards fewer than his previous season. It was the closest Faulk would come to a 1,000-yard season in the final four seasons of his Hall of Fame career.
12. Daunte Culpepper (Cover 2002, season 2001)
What happened next: He started in 80 percent of the Minnesota Vikings’ victories that season (four of five) and was one of 21 quarterbacks to finish with more touchdown passes (14) than interceptions (13). A knee injury cost him four games, in which the Vikings slumped to a 1-4 record en route to a 5-11 finish. The slump cost coach Dennis Green his job.
13. Peyton Hillis (Cover 2012, season 2011)
What happened next: He rushed for more than twice as many yards (587) as any other Cleveland Browns running back, and that was after he missed six games because of a bout with strep throat and a painful hamstring pull. The Browns determined they could no longer afford his services — he was but one year removed from an 1,177-yard season — and allowed him to depart via free agency.
14. Brett Favre (Cover 2009, season 2008)
What happened next: He offered his post-retirement services to the Green Bay Packers, who traded him to the New York Jets. He threw for 3,472 yards — the sixth-highest total in Jets history at the time — and threw at least as many touchdown passes (22) as interceptions (22) for the 14th time in his career. A torn right biceps detoured the season, and Favre once again retired for several months.
15. Shaun Alexander (Cover 2007, season 2006)
What happened next: He ran for 896 yards — just 984 yards fewer than in the previous season. He also cashed in on an eight-year contract extension that is still discussed in NFL negotiation classes. Even better, Alexander played another two seasons before bowing out of the league.
16. Rob Gronkowski (Cover 2017, season 2016)
What happened next: The curse delivered one of its all-time blows. Gronkowski suffered through the worst season of his career, limited first by a hamstring injury and later by season-ending back surgery. He missed half of the Patriots’ regular-season games and their entire run to Super Bowl LI, catching just 25 passes for 540 yards and three touchdowns. All three were career lows. On the positive side, Gronkowski will be just 28 and should be ready to play when the 2017 season begins.
17. Michael Vick (Cover 2004, season 2003)
What happened next: He gave Atlanta Falcons fans one full day to enjoy the Madden announcement before fracturing his fibula in a preseason game. Vick managed to start four games and win three of them, but backups let him down in the other 12. The Falcons finished 5-11.
18. Barry Sanders (Cover 2000, season 1999)
What happened next: He provided key content for his hometown newspaper during a slow news period by faxing in his retirement announcement. Sanders wanted the Detroit Lions to have time to plan for life without him, so he timed the fax to arrive at about the time he was due at training camp. (Sanders appeared in the background of an illustration focused on John Madden.)