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Ranking the Madden NFL video game covers best to worst, from Michael Vick to ...

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

If there’s one thing EA Sports’ Madden franchise has shown us over the years, it’s that football fortunes can change fast.

As the history of Madden covers has taught us, sometimes the best players get the short end of the stick — no matter how deeply they have impacted the game. You need only look back at the last 20 years of the EA Sports mega franchise to understand that.

After all, how do you explain Peyton Hillis over LaDainian Tomlinson? Or Vince Young over Peyton Manning? And in what world do you convene a meeting to determine the worthiness of a Minnesota Vikings Madden cover, then walk out of that meeting having picked Daunte Culpepper and not Randy Moss? The history of Madden covers has been dicey, whether it was the choice of athlete, the artistic design or simply some bad luck.

With that in mind, I took a shot at ranking the Madden covers from best to worst. The ranking is based on a variety of factors that include the quality of the player, the cover’s place in the Madden lineage, the art/design … and in at least one case, the sheer stupidity of letting fans vote a player onto the cover.

So off we go. And keep in mind, Madden releases have a bonkers number system that doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you’re viewing Madden 2005, the game was actually released just prior to the 2004 season. Don’t ask me why. I’m too busy trying to figure out the Hillis thing.

1. Michael Vick — Madden 2004

Madden 2004 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

Vick has been a love-him-or-hate him commodity since his dog fighting conviction, but there’s no questioning his standing in the history of the Madden game franchise. Heading into the 2003 season (which was when Madden 2004 was released), Vick was the most entertaining player in the NFL. He was the closest thing to a rock star at the time, and unlike anything the NFL had seen up to that point.

In turn, EA Sports made sure he was unlike any video game football player we’d seen since Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. His speed made him almost unstoppable, to the point that you had to wonder if maybe the game engineers overdid it. Bottom line, Vick’s 2004 edition was — and still remains — the single-greatest offensive player in the history of the game.

But there’s also a bit of trivia that surrounds it: Vick has never in Madden’s vaunted “99 club”, which honors the best players by giving them a peak aggregate skill rating of 99. Despite being the most unstoppable player EA Sports ever put into its game platform, Vick was never bestowed its highest possible skill rating.

2. Ray Lewis — Madden 2005

Madden 2005 cover (via EA Sports/Nintendo)

Lewis is the defensive version of the 2004 Michael Vick cover. It’s pretty iconic, with the purple Baltimore Ravens jersey and Ray’s massive arms filling up the graphic. His eyeblack underlining his trademark intensity is also pretty classic.

This edition also is one of the few Madden covers that gets away with committing the sin of cutting off the top of the player’s helmet. Linebackers are meant to fill a hole, and this cover makes it look like Lewis is coming for you.

Interestingly, unlike Vick, Lewis was granted entry into Madden’s “99 club”. Four times, in fact.

3. Odell Beckham Jr. — Madden 16

Madden 16 cover (via Electronic Arts/Sony)

No, Beckham hasn’t quite lived up to the early-career performances that landed him this Madden cover in 2015. But that doesn’t change the fact that this one edges out all comes in the best “action” cover representation. The artistic styling of the one-handed stretch-and-catch just looks awesome. From the tattoos on Beckham’s arms to his eyes locking on to the ball.

When it came out, it just made you want to buy the game. It’s unfortunate that injuries have derailed Beckham basically ever since — not to mention moving him to Cleveland from New York.

4. Drew Brees — Madden 11

Madden 11 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

Brees had been rolling up prolific numbers, but this one gets boosted by the art. Next to the Beckham cover, this might be one of the best action shot covers there is. From the veins in Brees’ arms to the intensity of his face, to his clenched jaw and laser-focused eyes, it’s a great shot. It’s definitely the best eyes of any player on the Madden covers.

This is also the only Madden cover that features an actual picture of fans on it. It always felt like a tip of the cap not only to Brees but also the Saints fans who went through Hurricane Katrina just a few years before. The paint splatter on the picture was a really cool effect, too. And hey, they managed to not crop his helmet in half, like the litany of other covers that always butcher helmets.

5. Lamar Jackson — Madden 21

Madden 21 cover (via EA Sports)

There are multiple editions with different covers and they all bring something a little different to the table. I prefer the black and white portrait of the MVP edition, which carries the “not bad for a running back” line. The use of a black and white photo is a new one for a Madden cover, and it really brings home a part of Jackson’s intensity in the picture. It reminds me of black and white photos of a field general, which is probably part of what EA was going for.

The running back line is also a part of his cocky personality, which a new avenue for a Madden cover. This one shows some changes that will likely be coming in future editions beyond this year and I’m all for it. Time will tell if Jackson is everything he appears to be, but this is certainly a cover worthy of all that he has accomplished in a short period of time.

6. Barry Sanders/Adrian Peterson — Madden 25th anniversary (Madden 14)

Madden 14 covers (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson landed on alternate Madden covers via fan vote, which I don’t really like. At the very least, the fans got the choices right (unlike with the Hillis mistake). Peterson made sense, given he was torching the league at that time.

But to this day, Barry Sanders is the only player to land a cover post-retirement. Which is a little surprising, considering the honor could have gone to any number of former players who won titles and were considered the very best to ever play at their positions. Then again, if this was meant to be a player who was in the league during the Madden video game era, I get why it was Sanders and not someone like Jim Brown. I still think you could have made the argument for a Joe Montana or a Jerry Rice to be on the 25th anniversary edition, but I digress.

Sanders was an unbelievably entertaining player and likely the most elusive runner in NFL history. He’s also got something else going for him that not a lot of people realize. Sanders’ overall rating landed in both the Madden “100 club” (in 1999) and the Madden “99 club” in (2000). The only player to eclipse that honor is Deion Sanders, who received a rating of 100 overall in both 1999 and 2000. The 100 rating was phased out by EA Sports following the Madden 2000 edition.

7. Rob Gronkowski — Madden 17

Madden 17 cover (via EA Sports)

The iconic “Gronk Spike” takes center stage and stands on the Mount Rushmore of action shots for Madden covers, alongside Odell Beckham and Drew Brees.

Gronk was certainly worthy as a talent, having been well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But the weird thing about this one was that Gronkowski landed the Madden cover honor before Tom Brady. And I have to wonder if that once again had something to do with so many fans having a seething hatred for Brady that might have left some buyers balking. It’s hard to figure what else it could have been, particularly given that even after the 2015 season, most of us knew that Brady was well on his way to becoming the NFL’s GOAT.

Whatever the case, this cover was really well done. Gronkowski’s face is intense and he’s got the “eyes” factor in it, too.

8. Brett Favre — Madden 09

Madden 09 covers (via EA Sports/Sony)

Call it the “life comes at you fast” Madden cover. This one ended up commemorating Favre’s last season with the Green Bay Packers, coming on the heels of his 2007 campaign. He retired in March, leaving EA Sports to pay homage to him with the next cover.

But in the summer, just about everything surrounding this one got awkward. Favre came out of retirement, forcing the Packers to eventually trade him to the New York Jets. Which meant that EA Sports had to release this puppy less than one week after Favre was no longer a member of the Packers. The whole thing was so screwed up, fans either had to engineer the trade themselves in the game play, or go into the online marketplace and download the updated rosters to fix it. That was annoying to fans in general, but to Packers fans, this edition of Madden was a gaping wound that sat on the shelves in Green Bay for what seemed like an eternity.

The interesting postscript to this debacle was EA making a downloadable Favre cover available that put him in a Jets uniform. Which makes Favre the only player to grace a cover with versions of him appearing on two different teams.

9. Donovan McNabb — Madden 06

Madden 06 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

This is the year when there were a bazillion different game platforms, so you’ll actually end up seeing multiple covers of McNabb in different forms. I’ll just stick with the Playstation 2 platform cover, since that sold the most copies and it’s at least similar to what landed on Xbox.

McNabb was a solid choice. It was coming out of the 2004 season, which was arguably the best of McNabb’s career. However, this was also one of the years Peyton Manning got hosed. He threw 49 touchdown passes in 2004, breaking Dan Marino’s single-season record that stood for 20 years. He was also the NFL’s MVP and a first-team All-Pro. What we don’t remember now is that Manning was also hated by a lot of fans at that stage of his career. This was long before he started doing funny commercials and “Saturday Night Live” and the larger landscape of fans began to warm to him.

McNabb, on the other hand, was still one of the cool kids. He and Terrell Owens were getting along and the Philadelphia Eagles had just appeared in a Super Bowl. Bottom line, McNabb was still the Chunky Soup pitchman at this stage of his career. He was cool enough to sell a game. This was also the cover where EA Sports ditched the circular emblem design of the series and shortened the year. Instead of “Madden 2006”, it became “Madden 06” and a design staple of the franchise was born.

10. John Madden — Madden 1988 to 2000

John Madden Football from 1988 (via EA Sports)

The namesake of a franchise going all the way back to 1988 must get top 10 respect — even if the game has been entirely driven by player popularity for the better part of the last 20 years. Madden himself graced the American cover of the game franchise right up through 2000.

The best was his very first, dating all the way back to 1988. That debut was so long ago, EA Sports issued the game on a floppy disk for the Apple II, MS-DOS systems and two early versions of Commodore computers. In mint condition with its original box, the first game occasionally pops up on eBay for as much as $2,000. The best part about it (other than representing the birth of a monster franchise) is Madden busting through some cheesy cover graphics, with a rolling blonde wave of hair on his forehead. Little did Madden or EA Sports know that billions of dollars in sales would lie ahead, along with a game that would significantly aid the NFL’s decades-long drive to popularity.

11. Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald — Madden 10

Madden 10 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

Some people absolutely love this cover. I’m not in that camp.

But before I get to that, I will yield that EA Sports took some important steps in this one. First, it eliminated that stock white or off-white background, which got stale after the first few years. EA also put two players on the cover for the first (and so far, last) time. There’s also a more artistic bent to the cover. All of these are good things.

But I have to be real: As much as Polamalu and Fitzgerald are both Hall of Famers and everything you’d want on your football team, it was just a so-so pairing from the 2008 season Super Bowl. Surely, you loved it if you lived in Phoenix or Pittsburgh. If we had to stick with the Super Bowl theme, I would have preferred Kurt Warner trying to throw while James Harrison was closing in. Or even if you stuck with Polamalu and Fitzgerald, make it more of an action shot where there’s a hit or contested catch involved.

This just felt like a nod to two good guys who also happened to be great players. Nothing wrong with that, but also nothing that makes me go “wow”, the way it apparently does with some other people.

12. Antonio Brown — Madden 19

Madden 19 cover (via EA Sports)

Well, the upside of Brown’s Madden cover for EA Sports is that it came one year before his scorched earth campaign of 2019. But even now, seeing that cover delivers a little bit of a “yikes” moment. It has great emotion and the smile is all Antonio Brown. But it’s hard to see it — or anything else with Antonio Brown’s face  on it — and not think of all the things that have happened since that Madden cover.

Whether it’s the sexual assault allegations, the ongoing investigation by the NFL, his social media outbursts or his open war with multiple NFL franchises, it just goes to show you that a lot can change quickly for the guys who grace a Madden cover. But taken just in the context of the emotional guy that Brown is, that picture is pretty accurate.

13. Tom Brady — Madden 18

Madden 18 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

Meh. Brady is the legend, and you can see that EA Sports was trying to immortalize him that way with this one. They took the helmet off him and he’s giving that poised stare and everything — but I’m just not into it.

The jersey is clean. There’s no football anywhere and Brady has no hands. EA also once again cut off the top of the subject’s head. (What the hell is it with EA Sports cutting off appendages or the tops of heads/helmets?) Anyway, I get the attempt here, but I’d rather see Brady emotionally directing some players, or something that encapsulates his emotional side that’s kept him coming back and working all these years. This just feels too clean and tidy and stoic.

14. Calvin Johnson — Madden 13

Madden 13 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

No arguments with the player choice, as Megatron was wrecking the league coming out of the 2011 season. He also absolutely buried the “Madden Curse”, putting on a clinic during his Madden cover season — breaking Jerry Rice’s single-season record for receiving yards.

Unfortunately, for everything Calvin Johnson did on the field, his Madden cover wasn’t executed nearly as well. There are two weird and very out-of-place splashes of paint along the left border of the cover. Oh, and there’s no football to be found anywhere. Which is sort of a dumb oversight for a guy who was the best pass-catcher in the league at the time of the cover. Not only was there no football in the frame, there is also no football in the reflection of his helmet visor, which shows the interior of Ford Field. Johnson has his hands up, but what he’s catching is beyond me.

Finally, an athlete absolutely obliterates the Madden Curse — and EA Sports comes in with a cover that was pretty mediocre.

15. Patrick Mahomes — Madden 20

Madden 20 cover (via EA Sports)

This one was a letdown, mostly because there are some wicked photos of Mahomes throwing a no look pass and that would have looked spectacular on the cover of Madden. When he was announced as the next cover one year ago, I had visions in my head of that Madden 16 Odell Beckham Jr. cover, but with Mahomes whipping a no-look — with his eyes pointed one way and the ball going the other.

Instead, EA Sports went with a fairly uncreative picture of Mahomes flexing his right arm. Which, we get it. He’s got that cannon. I just didn’t think it was anything that special or representative of the special gifts or emotion that Mahomes brings to the table. Honestly, it was just boring.

16. Marshall Faulk — Madden 2003

Madden 2003 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

Faulk was a stud and certainly deserving of the cover coming off a 2001 season that was one for the ages. Not only was he the centerpiece of the Greatest Show on Turf, he was coming off a four-year span where he absolutely devoured yards from scrimmage, averaging nearly 2,200 yards rushing and receiving for four consecutive years. He was one of the best in the league, plain and simple.

One thing that was a little weird about the 2003 cover, though, was that Faulk’s image was oversized to the point that he looks huge. Basically every appendage except for his right arm was cropped out of the photo. You also can’t see Faulk’s eyes very well at all, which is unlike the Madden franchise. On most of the covers, the eyes play a big part in the player’s expression. It’s also the only year the Madden emblem is angled. Whoever did the sizing and art for this one had an off day. Just a weird set of choices for a great player.

17. Richard Sherman — Madden 15

Madden 15 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

I have been staring at this cover for years and still have no idea what the hell Richard Sherman is doing. Never mind putting a Seattle Seahawks cornerback on the cover. Don’t get me wrong — Sherman was elite (even if he did need safety help over the top on occasion). But let’s be real, it was Sherman’s ability to entertain and trash talk that earned him that cover.

He was somewhat edgy in that time and space. But Madden showed why it’s hard to put cornerbacks on a cover. Unless they’re tipping or intercepting a pass, there isn’t much more that they do to lend themselves to making a sexy video game cover. So what you end up with is Sherman going a “using the force” pose…to jam a wideout, I guess? Or maybe he’s just halting traffic in the middle of an intersection. Whatever it is, it was weird when it was released heading into the 2014 season, and it’s still weird now.

18. Shaun Alexander — Madden 07

Madden 07 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

Unless you were a fan during the era he played, a great number of NFL fans have forgotten that Alexander had some great years. He was downright prolific in the 2005 season, and that’s what earned him the cover going into 2006. It was also the beginning of the end for Alexander’s career, putting him right in the wheelhouse of the “Madden Curse” crowd.

All in all, it’s one of the more basic, boring covers — with a pretty basic, boring player from a historic standpoint. That said, Alexander was actually the right choice when you looked over the 2005 season. He rushed for 1,880 yards and tied the NFL’s single-season rushing touchdown record with 27. It was just one of those wonky years where a guy actually earned it on the field and then sank out of view pretty quickly after.

19. Eddie George — Madden 2001

Madden 2001 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

George was the first player to land on an American cover of Madden. The Garrison Hearst cover from 1999 and Dorsey Levens cover from 2000 are both European editions of the game. It wasn’t until George in 2001 that the American version featured anyone but John Madden.

At the time, George was arguably the best running back in the NFL, not to mention the most stylistically complete. George’s arms and massive hands pop on the cover, but the franchise really blew a rare opportunity with the waist-up photo. This was a 6-foot-3, 240 pound running back with speed and power. If you’re going to put him on the cover, put all of him on there — showcasing the rarity of a tall, huge man coming out of the backfield.

It’s a first-player-ever cover with historical significance. Too bad someone in the room didn’t point out that a head-to-toe Eddie George shot was worth the design trouble.

20. Daunte Culpepper — Madden 2002

Madden 2002 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

Culpepper was coming off a superb season in his first year as a starter when he nabbed this cover. It’s a pretty boring edition — but that’s not why this is rated so low.

Frankly, this cover was absolute theft by EA Sports. It should have gone to Culpepper’s No. 1 receiver, Randy Moss, who already had three seasons in the books as one of the most electrifying and uncoverable wideouts in NFL history. In the prior three seasons, Moss had three Pro Bowl nods, two first-team All-Pro appearances, an NFL offensive rookie of the year award and had led all receivers in touchdowns twice. Imagine being that good and then seeing EA Sports jump on the Culpepper hype train after his first season as a starter and gift him the Madden cover.

This wasn’t the biggest blunder EA Sports ever made with its cover, but it’s up there. Particularly when you consider Moss never had a cover the rest of his career, including following the 2007 season when he set the NFL’s all-time single-season touchdown reception record. Like the aforementioned Peyton Manning, Moss never getting a Madden cover was a crime.

21. Vince Young — Madden 08

Madden 08 cover (via EA Sports/Sony)

Other than the action shot of Young — which is decent — this was a total crap cover. One of the worst in the history of the game, for multiple reasons. First off, it’s basic. It doesn’t really pop. Second, the framing chops off the top of the helmet, which is annoying in this instance. Third (and most importantly), Young never should have landed this cover. It was a pure hype train that completely went off the tracks following the 2006 season.

This was about the sales. Young’s ability to create suggested at times that he might be the next Michael Vick. That sells. So EA was likely trying to get ahead of it and seize on the heat.

Unfortunately, the decision completely screwed San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who only rushed for 28 freaking touchdowns in 2006, not to mention catching three more and putting up 2,323 yards from scrimmage. For Tomlinson to not land a single cover during his epic burn through the league from 2004 to 2007 is felonious. And the Vince Young cover is where the crime took place.

22. Peyton Hillis — Madden 12

Madden 12 cover (via EA Sports/Microsoft)

Ah yes. The infamous Peyton Hillis cover. Where do we even begin on this one?

The player choice was so bad that it completely negates the fact that the cover art was so good. You know how sometimes you order french fries from a fast food joint — and right in the middle of the bunch, you come across a nasty burnt onion ring that snuck in and jacked up the party? That’s sort of like the Hillis Madden cover, which is either viewed with a wince or a laugh.

Like the Favre Packers/Jets debacle, this was a whack that really left a lasting mark. The story goes like this: In 2010, Hillis came out of nowhere to have a nice season for the Cleveland Browns. Nothing epic, mind you. He wasn’t even close to the best running back in football that season and didn’t make the Pro Bowl. But he was big and physical and entertaining. Hillis was also caucasian … which, if we’re being honest here, made him a little bit of an anomaly that got a lot of media and fan attention. And that matters in this case, because this Madden cover was born out of a stupid corporate gimmick.

Because ESPN loves its ability to cross promote, it paired with EA Sports in 2011 to create a bracket-style showdown between 32 players for the right to grace the Madden 12 cover. Similar to the NCAA tournament, the players were divided into two fields and each seeded 1-16. Fans were asked to vote on who should advance through each matchup. Long story short, Hillis was a 10 seed who ended up beating out many, many more deserving players.

And that’s how he ended up on a Madden cover. Because ESPN and EA Sports had a bad idea and some fans are both stupid and into hype machines. That’s not to knock Hillis. He had a good season. But the fact he won this in a year that it absolutely should have gone to the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers remains a forehead smack in Madden cover history. What EA Sports ultimately got for its bright idea was Hillis struggling through a very mediocre 2011 season that made a bad idea look even worse. Now he’s the one-hit wonder who somehow made it onto one of the most coveted branding stages in the NFL.

But there is a bright side. On his way to the improbable cover, Hillis was voted past Ray Rice. So at least EA Sports avoided that.

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