The past three years on Super Bowl Sunday, I've tried to handicap the field for the cover of the coming year's edition of Madden NFL, the bona fide Wheaties box of sports video gaming. It's gotten increasingly difficult as EA Sports has opened the search to a fan-voted process, from three candidates to 32 and 64.
This year, EA Sports will again let fans vote on a bracket of 64 candidates, but this time will separate the field into halves of 32 legends and 32 current stars.
EA Sports didn't say whether every franchise will be represented in each bracket, but as this is inherently a marketing campaign, and there are 32 franchises in the league, it seems unlikely one club will be totally left out of both. Voting begins March 11, and on that day we'll know who is paired against whom for the cover of Madden NFL 25, and no, that's not a typo. The game celebrates its silver anniversary this year.
For now, these are my best guesses at the potential all-time great and modern candidates for each of the National Football League's clubs. While an established relationship with EA Sports, and visibility at an offensive skill position (running back, quarterback or wide receiver) counts for a lot, remember that EA Sports has been willing in years past to put names on its cover-vote bracket without yet having an agreement in place for their appearance. That leaves open the possibility for some wild card candidates.
Legend: Kurt Warner is on the "Canton Greats" roster of all-time greats in Madden NFL 13. If not him, this may sound crass, but EA Sports did cut a deal with his estate earlier this year, and Pat Tillman would be a fantastic candidate, nearly transcendental in his mainstream and football appeal.
Current: It's Larry Fitzgerald, the Madden NFL 10 cover co-star, or Patrick Peterson at cornerback.
Legend: Call me crazy, but they had him on the Canton Greats' roster, and enough time has passed, and there's a crowd of Dallas talent out there. Deion Sanders back in the black and red would be a bold selection, contemporaneous with Madden's early 1990s heydey. Tony Gonzalez is a darkhorse here if he's retiring and not appearing for Kansas City.
Current: So many options here, best to take Matt Ryan, the quarterback. Michael Turner and Roddy White also are solid bets in a stocked lineup.
Legend: Easy. Ray Lewis. Regardless of what happens today, he retires after this season. He has a long promotional history with EA Sports, supplied an opening narrative to Madden NFL 13 and was on the cover of Madden NFL 2005, fondly remembered as the best entry in this series.
Current: Ray Rice was in last year's contest and was the cover star for January's NFL Blitz. If Joe Flacco was available before now, we would have seen him. If he wins a Super Bowl today, his price goes up.
Legend: He wasn't on the Canton Greats' squad but it wouldn't surprise me to see Bruce Smith in the mix. If Touchdown! Thurman Thomas is on the list, it's a shot across the bow of Tecmo Super Bowl nostalgia.
Current: Either Stevie Johnson or C.J. Spiller.
Legend: Not many legends to be found on a franchise still in close proximity to its expansion days. It wouldn't surprise me to see Sam Mills as Carolina's legendary representative, if it has one.
Current: Cam Newton. Runner-up for last year's cover, he's a cinch for a return appearance this year.
Legend: Walter Payton is on the legends roster and could sell games coast-to-coast. Sweetness is a lead-pipe lock, but I'd love it, too, if EA Sports got a crowd favorite like Dick Butkus or William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
Current:Devin Hester or Matt Forte, both were candidates last year.
Legend: A lot of wild cards here. Cris Collinsworth was the game's color analyst for four years, but he's better known for his work in the booth than on the field, and many find him off-putting. If it needs a Bengal great, EA Sports may go to a figure like Boomer Esiason, also a broadcast personality, but who hasn't had a relationship with the game to date.
Current: With a lot to look forward to, A.J. Green or Andy Dalton are fine selections.
Legend: Well, Jim Brown sued EA Sports a few years ago, so I doubt they're on speaking terms. My money is on Otto Graham as the Browns' historical representative. Graham and his facemask-less helmet both appear in Madden NFL 13.
Current: EA Sports would have to go back to the well with Joe Thomas, the offensive lineman, or Trent Richardson, the running back.
Legend: Dallas is well represented among the game's greatest stars and if not Troy Aikman, one of the Canton Greats in Madden 13, then Emmitt Smith or Michael Irvin.
Current: Either Jason Witten or Demarcus Ware.
Legend: Elway. Period.
Current: Assuming Peyton Manning still has no intention of appearing in the game, then Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil or Demaryius Thomas are good picks.
Legend:Barry Sanders. Again, given his promotional history with EA Sports, this is a no-brainer. He was the first NFLer to have a cover to himself.
Current: Reigning Madden NFL 13 cover star Calvin Johnson is a good bet, as is quarterback Matt Stafford. Firmly established as the league's dirtiest lineman, Ndamukong Suh is radioactive. No way.
Green Bay Packers
Legend: Can we begin the healing? Madden NFL 09 cover boy Brett Favre would create the surefire buzz and discussion this game's marketers want.
Current: Aaron Rodgers has been a candidate in the past. I still want to see Greeeeggg Jennings put da team on his back, doe, and do it, for Madden.
Legend: Depends. If you're going with Houston as the legend, and not necessarily the Texans franchise, then Warren Moon is a credible representative. Otherwise ...
Current: Arian Foster or Andre Johnson.
Legend: Split among two cities and two different eras, and with Peyton Manning presumed unavailable, this is a tough call. Eric Dickerson, if they can get him, is the only one who makes any sense from a non-Manning historic perspective.
Current: Easy. Andrew Luck.
Legend: Jacksonville is in the same boat as Carolina, though Tony Boselli, Fred Taylor or Mark Brunell would be worthy of a nod here.
Current: Maurice Jones-Drew.
Kansas City Chiefs
Legend: Though he's still undecided on his retirement, Tony Gonzalez is far and away the best Chiefs representative out there in this category.
Current: Either Jamaal Charles or Derrick Johnson.
Legend: Dan Marino. He was on the Canton roster, so, bet on it.
Current: If anyone from the current team is in the field, it'll be Reggie Bush.
Legend: Cris Carter as a newly-minted Hall-of-Famer would be timely and justifiable. It'd be hard to swallow for some, but Favre is a reasonable choice unless EA Sports is going off the grid to get Fran Tarkenton.
Current: Adrian Peterson. He nearly broke the NFL's single season rushing record and is a solid bet to beat all comers, Hall of Famers included.
New England Patriots
Legend: This is extremely tricky, as the franchise's winning reputation comes solely from the Brady-Belichick years, and neither have any intention of appearing on the cover of this game. Outside of Curtis Martin or Drew Bledsoe or Stanley Morgan, which is going back to the point of irrelevance, I have no idea what "Legend" represents the team here.
Current: Brady would have been on a cover by now if he wanted to, so, it's Wes Welker or Rob Gronkowski.
New Orleans Saints
Legend: Another franchise for whom past is present. If none of his sons want to be on the cover of a video game, then Archie Manning doesn't either. I really don't know who EA Sports would tap here. Willie Roaf?
Current: Drew Brees has been a cover candidate the past three years. Either him, Jimmy Graham, or NCAA Football 12 cover boy Mark Ingram.
New York Giants
Legend: Lawrence Taylor was on the Canton Greats. Phil Simms supplies booth commentary in this year's game.
Current: Ahmad Bradshaw or Victor Cruz.
New York Jets
Legend:Can you name a Jets legend other than Namath What, Mark Gastineau? Joe Klecko. Al Toon?
Current: Oh wow. Uh, LaRon Landry? Darrelle Revis maybe, but he's hurt.
Legend: As this game is named for one of its greatest head coaches, there is no shortage of all-time greats available from the Raida Organization, especially considering Marcus Allen and Jim Plunkett's apperances for NCAA Football 13 last year. I know that Phil Villapiano is a sentimental favorite among some on the inside, but unlikely to get on the board. If, somehow, EA Sports gets Bo Jackson, the greatest video game athlete to walk the Earth, he is a 1:100 favorite to take it all.
Current: Darren McFadden will do. Ditto Carson Palmer. Both were on NCAA covers.
Legend: I don't know if they can get Reggie White's estate to sign off. If Randall Cunningham went by "QB Eagles" in Tecmo Super Bowl, he's not a good bet here. Donovan McNabb had a Madden cover once but doesn't really qualify as a legend. Jerome Brown? Arkansas Fred? The People's Champ?
Current: LeSean McCoy?
Legend: Mean Joe Greene was on the Canton Greats' roster. Jerome Bettis would be a good choice, too. Hines Ward could be viable, if EA Sports can't ante up for the likes of Bradshaw or Swan.
Current: No way in hell the league licenses a game with James Harrison on the cover. Ben Roethlisberger is more preferable.
San Diego Chargers
Legend: Kellen Winslow or Dan Fouts.
Current: Philip Rivers or Antonio Gates.
San Francisco 49ers
Legend: Joe Montana has gone on stage with EA Sports at E3 and is on the Canton roster so, yeah, I'd say it's his nomination to lose. Jerry Rice is a strong possibility. So is Steve Young.
Current: Colin Kaepernick, depending on today's game, could get a nomination. Otherwise Patrick Willis or Vernon Davis
Legend: Tough call. Steve Largent or Cortez Kennedy are the only ones to leap to mind. Well, there's Dave Krieg and Jim Zorn, but good luck moving games with those guys.
Current: Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch.
St Louis Rams
Legend: Marshall Faulk for sure. He's the first Madden cover star to make the Hall of Fame, and also has appeared in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, of all games.
Current: Sam Bradford or Steven Jackson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Legend: Warren Sapp, like Cris Carter, fits nicely here as a new Canton enshrinee. There's a lot of love for Lee Roy Selmon but I don't know that he has the profile to sell video games.
Current: Josh Freeman would be a fine choice. So would Doug Martin or Vincent Jackson.
Legend: AssumingWarren Moon represents Houston, then Eddie George is the best Titan and has a Madden cover under his belt.
Current: Chris Johnson.
Legend: As one of the few franchises utterly bereft of significant achievement during the Madden era, it would not surprise me if Washington had no representative among the all-time greats roster. Could EA Sports pull a John Riggins or Art Monk or a Darrell Green out of their hat? I'm sure Jeff Hayes is available.
Current: Easy, Robert Griffin III, injured or not.