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Posted by Doug on September 29, 2006

A couple of posts ago, a commenter named Jacob requested an analysis of just how unlikely all these unlikely Madden cover tradgedies have been. So I did some research. As usual, Wikipedia has a pretty good summary.

It hurt my head a little to track down the details because of the naming conventions of the Madden games. For instance, Shaun Alexander's outstanding play in 2005 landed him a spot on the cover of Madden 2007, which was released in 2006. So, if a player is on the cover of Madden X, then he kicked butt in Year X-2, but should be struck by misfortune in Year X-1. Given this, I think it might be possible that the curse is capable of going backwards in time to rewrite history. Spooky stuff.

Anyhow, for the sake of definiteness, I will list players by their curse year (X-1).

  • Shaun Alexander, 2006 - he was having an unimpressive year through three games, and it now looks like he's going to miss some games with a broken foot.
  • Donovan McNabb, 2005 - he missed 7 games. His numbers were good when he played, but he was cursed with lots of off-field headaches.
  • Ray Lewis, 2004 - he missed one game, but otherwise had a fairly typical year. Numbers down a little, but they do not now look out of place in his career stat table.
  • Michael Vick, 2003 - he was hurt in the preseason and missed most of the year.
  • Marshall Faulk, 2002 - he missed two games (as he had in each of the previous two seasons). His numbers did decline dramatically.
  • Daunte Culpepper, 2001 - he missed five games to injury. When he played, his numbers were down from the previous year, but he was still on pace for almost 3800 passing yards and 28 combined touchdowns.
  • Eddie George, 2000 - he played the full 16 games and had arguably the best season of his career.
  • Barry Sanders, 1999 - he retired unexpectedly.

I am quite sure I am not the first blogger to attempt to debunk The Madden Curse. There's not much to it, really. It's a combination of selective memory, regression to the mean, and random chance.

The selective memory comes into play after the curse is in the public consciousness, or it can be applied in hindsight. Consider this blurb from the previously-cited Wikipedia article on the Madden Curse. On Eddie George:

Although he had the best year of his career, rushing for 1,509 yards, catching 50 passes for 453 yards and scoring 16 total touchdowns, he was cursed by bobbling a pass in the playoffs. The pass was then intercepted, ironically, by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who returned the ball for a touchdown.

This is almost too absurd to comment on, but people do cite this when talking about the curse, which proves that you can find anything if you look hard enough. More evidence is found in the Ray Lewis writeup:

It was also Lewis' first season without a single interception, after posting a career-high 6 the previous year.

Ray Lewis is a very versatile linebacker, but when it comes right down to it, the reason everyone fears him is because of his ability to intercept the ball. I mean, the guy has averaged two interceptions per year --- two! --- during his career. For him to go a whole year without one certainly requires explanation. The Marshall Faulk comment says this:

He never broke through the 1,000 yards rushing mark for the rest of his career.

Now that's legitimate Curse material, but things like this are only brought into evidence when they are bad. Daunte Culpepper came back a few years after The Curse to have an unbelievably great season. Where was the curse then? Ask a Curse-o-phile, and he'll look at you funny. The Curse had worn off by then, of course, what are you nuts? But, if Culpepper had not had that great season later on, I guarantee you that Wikipedia article would say, "Culpepper never again returned to form." (I hate to keep picking on the wikipedia article, but given the nature of how it came to be, I think it is relatively safe to assume it does reflect the mentality of those who believe in the Curse) Try this: ask a Curse proponent right now whether Donovan McNabb is still cursed, or whether the curse has expired. He's having a pretty amazing year as of now, so McNabb Curse talk is limited to just the season afterward. But if this year turns sour, it will surely be added to the list of evidence for the Curse.

The point is, lots of thing happen during an NFL season, and even more happen during an NFL player's career. If you pick out just the bad ones and ignore the good ones, it's easy to contruct an impressive list of misfortunes.

And then there is regression to the mean. In order to get on the cover of Madden, you have to turn in one of the best performances of the year. In almost all cases, that requires a bit of luck. The next year, you're still good, but there is no reason to expect the luck to be there. The league's best performers in any category will always decline, as a group. Just for fun, let's check out the LEAGUE'S LEADING RUSHER CURSE. Again, the year listed is the curse year, the year after leading the league in rushing:

  • Shaun Alexander, 2006 - detailed above. He is doubly cursed.
  • Curtis Martin, 2005 - his rushing yardage dropped by almost a thousand, and he lost four games to injury. The Jets went from a playoff team to 4-12.
  • Jamal Lewis, 2004 - his rushing yardage dropped by more than a thousand yards. And he spent six months in the clink. Further, "the Baltimore Ravens also failed to make the playoffs that season (2004), after winning their division the year before." Is that last one pretty cheap? Of course it is, but it came directly from the wikipedia Madden Curse writeup for teammate Ray Lewis who, by any measure, had a better season than Jamal.
  • Ricky Williams, 2003 - his numbers decline drastically and he never returned to form. The following season started his string of retirements and suspensions.
  • Priest Holmes, 2002 - he missed two games due to injury.
  • Edgerrin James, 2001 - he wrecked his knee and missed 10 games. This was the only year of James' Colt career that they had a losing record and the only year they did not make the playoffs.
  • Edgerrin James, 2000 - Uh, the next year, he wrecked his knee and missed 10 games. Also, he probably bobbled a pass.
  • Terrell Davis, 1999 - he blew out his knee in the season's fourth game, and was not having a good season prior to that. The Broncos went in the crapper after winning two straight Super Bowls. Davis never again had anything remotely resembling a good season.


  • Steve Smith, 2006 - missed the season's first two games with an injury. No TDs so far this year.
  • Muhsin Muhammad, 2005 - missed a game due to injury and also saw his numbers essentially cut in half.
  • Randy Moss, 2004 - lost three games to injury and had the only sub-1000-yard season of his career. Still has not returned to form.
  • Terrell Owens, 2003 - his team missed the playoffs for the first time in three years, his numbers declined, he missed a game due to injury, and he was horribly mistreated by his coaching staff. The events of this season set into motion a chain of events that essentially made TO the most hated man in the NFL.

OK, enough pomposity. Let's return to the original question, which is: exactly how unlikely is this string of occurrences? We need to examine two separate issues: (1) decreased performance, and (2) injuries.

First the performance. As I alluded to above, the top players in any category in any year will have a tendency to decline. But how much decline is reasonable, and how much is the result of the Curse? I looked at all top 3 (by fantasy points) quarterbacks and running backs since 1988. The quarterbacks, on average, declined by 3.3 fantasy points per game. The running backs declined by 2.0 points per game. Here are the declines for each of the cursed players (not counting Barry Sanders and Ray Lewis).

Cursed player Cursed Yr FantPtDiff
Eddie George 2000 2.4
Daunte Culpepper 2001 -2.8
Marshall Faulk 2002 -9.4
Donovan McNabb 2003 -2.0
Michael Vick 2004 -7.3
Shaun Alexander 2006 -11.8

That's an average decline of about 5 points, when we should be expecting an average decline of 2 or 3 points. Note also that, even though Culpepper and McNabb declined, they declined by less than typical top-producing quarterbacks usually decline. Looked at this way, three of the six players did worse than reasonable expectations, and three did better. Although admittedly, the ones that did worse did a lot worse than the ones who did better did better. Still, compare that with the Leading Rusher Curse

Cursed player Cursed Yr FantPtDiff
Shaun Alexander 2006 -11.8
Curtis Martin 2005 -7.8
Jamal Lewis 2004 -6.6
Ricky Williams 2003 -5.7
Priest Holmes 2002 9.3
Edgerrin James 2001 -3.9
Edgerrin James 2000 1.4
Terrell Davis 1999 -13.6

The average decline was about 4 points, when a decline of 2 points would be expected. But six of the eight did worse than reasonable expectations. This seems at least as bad as the Madden Curse.

Now let's consider the injury half of the equation. We can get the relevant data from yesterday's post, and by running the analagous numbers for quarterbacks.

  • Eddie George played 16 games.
  • Culpepper missed five games. My estimate is that an "average" quarterback has about a 20--25% chance of missing five or more games in a season.
  • Faulk missed two games, which we saw yesterday is just about average for a running back. I'd estimate a 30--40% chance of missing at least two games.
  • Vick missed 11 games, which I estimate has probability 10--15%
  • McNabb missed 7 games: about a 20% chance of that.
  • Alexander's fate remains to be determined. The reports I'm hearing right now suggest that he'll miss two to four games. If that's what it ends up being, it is again quite unremarkable for a running back.

Just as a very rough intuitive comparision, I'd suggest that this string of injuries is about as odd as Jeff Wilkins going through a 1-for-6 stretch in which he attempted field goals of 46, 34, 42, 29, 32, and 40 yards. That would be pretty rare, but I wouldn't assume Wilkins was cursed if it happened.

And again, the Leading Rusher Curse appears to be nearly as bad. Madden Cursed players missed an average of 4.7 games, while Leading-Rusher-Cursed backs missed an average of 4.4 games the next year (that's counting Jamal's jail time. I counted Alexander as missing 3 games in each case.)

Curses happen.