The cover of Madden NFL is the modern Wheaties box. Every sport has its video game and a cover athlete, but only Madden gets the bar-argument debate over who deserves the front. That begins tomorrow after the clock hits zero in Super Bowl XLV.
Handicapping the next cover selection is alternately easy and difficult. Offensive players dominate the Madden cover - only two defenders have graced the front, one of them sharing it. All but one cover athlete appeared in the postseason preceding the game's release.
But previous team representatives, off-the-field baggage, and the specter of a work stoppage make Madden NFL 12's cover subject a little more difficult to peg. Here's the best guess at how things shape up at the conclusion of this year's professional football season, and who stands the best chance of gracing a video game box front come the second Tuesday of August.
Super Bowl performers dominate the Madden cover selection, especially of late. Seven of 12 made the box front immediately after a Super Bowl appearance - Eddie George for Madden NFL ‘01; Marshall Faulk in Madden NFL '03; Donovan McNabb for Madden ‘06; Shaun Alexander for Madden ‘07, Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald for Madden ‘10, and Drew Brees for Madden NFL 11.
So it's wise to first look to tomorrow's performers for contenders and among them, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the most logical choice, win or lose. He is current, recognizable and well liked, and early enough in his career that he isn't prohibitively expensive to sign. Even without a victory Rodgers is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback with nothing in his history working against him as a spokesman.
Even though Rodgers' counterpart tomorrow, Ben Roethlisberger, is playing for his third Super Bowl ring - only four other quarterbacks have as many titles - Pittsburgh's quarterback would be a difficult choice to make in light of recent circumstances. And that means more than his four-game suspension beginning the year, tied to a sexual assault allegation for which Roethlisberger was never charged. Big Ben is still rehabilitating a basically unlikeable image, and teammate Polamalu shared the cover of Madden NFL just two years ago. All that makes Roethlisberger a longer shot than even a defensive player holding the Madden cover. The good news for him and the Steelers, no Madden Curse to blow up next year.
Other Steelers, even with a win, would seem to be longshots also. Quarterbacks and running backs dominate the Madden covers, accounting for nine of the 12 players featured since Madden NFL ‘01. Pittsburgh tailback Rashard Mendenhall simply doesn't have the profile necessary to hold the front of this game. Linebacker James Harrison is probably the second-most visible player on Pittsburgh roster, but after six figures' worth of late-hit penalties this year, he is not a pick the NFL would prefer. A defensive player has appeared on the cover only twice, and by himself once (Ray Lewis for Madden NFL ‘05).
Hines Ward is is a winner, a certain Hall-of-Famer and a fearless competitor. But wide receivers who are both broadly admired and dynamic enough to move a $60 product are extremely rare, and he's not either of those. Larry Fitzgerald, who shared Madden NFL 10's cover with Polamalu, is the only receiver to make the front.
It's true that the Packers held the cover three years ago with Brett Favre, but that was a longevity selection more to recognize Favre's career than his team's accomplishments - symbolically undone by Favre's notorious unretirement and defection to the Jets. Green Bay also wouldn't be the first repeat selection; Tennessee's Eddie George was Madden's first dedicated cover athlete in 2000. Seven years later, the Titans' Vince Young got the cover.
Rodgers is the odds-on favorite for the cover, and if Green Bay wins, he's a virtual lock.
The Second Stringer
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady priced themselves out of a Madden cover appearance long ago. The only reason they haven't appeared on the box by now is money. After Rodgers and those two, the most visible quarterback is San Diego's Philip Rivers.
It would be a ballsy pick. Only once - Young, in Madden NFL '08 - has the cover gone to a player whose team did not make the playoffs in the preceding year. But Rivers, in the popular mind anyway, turned in a superb season that largely exempted him from blame for the Chargers' disappointment. And his team still finished 9-7, a game out of the playoffs.
Rivers has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past three seasons, with no fewer than 28 touchdown passes. He's the image of the cannon-armed, dropback passer so many emulate in the game. His lack of a meaningful postseason record - only one conference championship, a loss - would seem to hurt. But if Manning (and his brother) and Brady are off the table, and Roethlisberger and Michael Vick (who had the cover of Madden NFL ‘04) are damaged goods, the only quarterback after Rodgers is Rivers.
I'll put Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez here just for the sake of discussion. He is a New York athlete with a great deal of celebrity about him and an up-and-coming pitchman in those Pepsi Max spots. He's appeared in the past two AFC title games, too. But Sanchez lacks a career-defining victory. Nor is his performance on the level of Rodgers or Rivers. Besides, our friends at Deadspin are hinting at an offseason for Sanchez that's about as bad as Roethlisberger endured.
The Falcons' Matt Ryan would still be a stronger choice, except for the fact he hasn't gone as deep in the postseason, and Atlanta is still an NFL backwater. Chris Johnson is a viable candidate, statistically, but he would be Tennessee's third selection, and can't be counted on as an endorser.
Had the Minnesota Vikings made last year's Super Bowl, we might have seen Adrian Peterson on the cover of Madden NFL 11 instead of Brees. This year, however, the Vikings' season was a sixteen-week black comedy of injuries, stadium mishaps and clubhouse dissent, capped by Favre's ignominious farewell. Peterson's performance, statistically, was only incrementally better than Mendenhall's.
Some have mentioned that Chargers' tight end Antonio Gates could be in the hunt, considering his promotional work for Madden NFL 11 last year. That certainly works to his favor, and Gates is considered the best at his position - a 99 rating in the game, even. But if Madden's only had one receiver on its cover so far, I don't see a tight end making it any time soon.
As for defensive players, I simply can't see that happening unless there's some new defensive feature EA Sports wants to call attention to, as it did in 2004 with Lewis and the Hit Stick.
The Wild Cards
Considering the strong possibility that part or all of next year is canceled by a lockout, the shrewd move may be to go with a legend pick, to direct focus away from the troubled current game, and back to the glory days of the NFL. The biggest trouble is the money necessary to make the deal and Electronic Arts' John Schappert already told investors the publisher is planning on a worst-case scenario with an NFL lockout, meaning lower sales.
If this is still the option, a relatively recent Hall of Famer - like Dallas' Emmitt Smith or Troy Aikman- could be the pick. 49ers receiver Jerry Rice or Lions' running back Barry Sanders would be obvious choices, but they appeared on the cover of All Pro Football 2K8, along with Denver quarterback John Elway. That probably rules out all three. Don't forget that San Francisco's Joe Montana appeared with EA Sports president Peter Moore at last year's E3, though he has remained more distant from the game than guys like Aikman, Steve Young or Dan Marino.
John Madden himself is always a fallback, but training camp begins with a lockout, that would send the message this is a seatwarmer edition waiting out a work stoppage. Any other coach would be ludicrous given that this franchise is named for a hall of famer and besides, Bill Belichick would never agree to it, Mike Tomlin wouldn't sell enough, and Rex Ryan, though widely admired, exposes EA Sports to foot-fetish jokes.
If it was up to me
If money was no object, sure, I'd finally put Manning or Brady on the cover. I'm not the only one with that idea. Otherwise, I'd be on the phone with Rodgers' agent no matter what. I can't imagine that's a deal that can't be done, for either side. If not, then bring in Rivers. After him, there are no good options.
A win tomorrow makes Rodgers an extremely easy and justifiable selection for EA Sports. I know one big, lifelong Steeler fan in that shop, and he'll be at the Super Bowl cheering them on, loudly. But it's hard to think the publisher isn't quietly pulling for Rodgers and Green Bay.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.