For football enthusiasts picking a Madden cover boy from a a field of 64 candidates, graced by some of the game's greatest players of all time, one name stands out from all the rest.
Ron Rivera? you're wondering. Wait, the backup Chicago linebacker? Boy, whoever picked this bracket, he wasn't a Bears fan.
Actually, he is. Anthony Stevenson grew up in the heart of Bears country, and loves the team.
"I will be honest, when you say Chicago Bears, a lot of names come to mind before his," Stevenson, the game's marketing director, admits. "One is Sweetness, obviously, Walter Payton, but he is no longer with us, so it's difficult for him to be our cover athlete. There are other names out there, too, like Mike Singletary."
Reading between the lines, though, I think I could understand why a Bear like Singletary wouldn't be interested, assuming EA Sports approached him. Stevenson declined to mention any candidates who were contacted but do not appear. Still, speaking generally, he said, "These are high level athletes who are born to win," he said. "For some of them, if they don't feel like they have a great chance of winning, they don't want to participate."
And the field that a Singletary or a Richard Dent or a William the Refrigerator Perry would go up against is damn formidable. Half of this year's field are legacy players, nearly all of them retired, representing their franchise's glory days during the Madden era (which explains why Ditka, Gayle Sayers or Dick Butkus are not repping the Bears, either.) Deion Sanders' outsized presence alone kills a lot of hopes for victory. And anyone going through Prime Time will then have to take down Jerry Rice, the game's greatest receiver, followed by Joe Montana, who threw him the ball.
That's just to get to the final round of voting, where a guy would probably be pitted against someone from what is easily the best draft class of quarterbacks during Madden's reign—Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Even if a rookie is put up against a Hall of Famer in a popularity contest voted on by fans, somehow that feels like a legitimate toss-up after the season we just saw.
Three More Questions about the Madden Cover Vote:
• So, OK, about Ron Rivera, let's hear your pitch, Mr. Madden Marketer: "At the end of the day, you're going back to the 1985 Bears championship team, arguably the best defense in history, and Rivera played a part of that," Stevenson said. Yeah. He played part of 16 games that year, starting zero. He played a part in one sack, too.
• Why isn't Calvin Johnson, the Madden NFL 13 cover star, back in the field again this year? "Look, if you're Megatron, and if you believe in this sort of thing—I'm not saying I do—but if you believe in this cover curse, then he just looked it in the face and shut it down," Stevenson said. "Do you really want to get on that ride again?" The real reason, Stevenson said, is after winning last year, Johnson wanted a teammate—Matt Stafford—to have the fun of being in the voting campaign.
• Also, where the hell is John Elway? Denver is represented by Terrell Davis, a fine running back. But John Elway is one of the greatest quarterbacks, Madden era or otherwise, ever. He appeared on the "Canton Greats" all-time team in Madden NFL 13 and also is one of the Hall of Famers who present a Super Bowl trophy to you in that game. "Performance on the field is paramount," Stevenson said, "but so is the consideration of, how good of a brand evangelist will they be? John Elway is incredibly busy right now." He's the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations. "He's out wining and dining the Wes Welkers of the world.
"We go through this process for two-plus months, so when we get down to that moment in New York City, it's really important to me that our fans get to witness, in person, their choice at that moment," Stevenson said. "Due to scheduling considerations because of the draft, there's no guarantee John could appear." There's no guarantee Ozzie Newsome, representing the Browns, could appear either. He's the Baltimore Ravens' general manager. But, yeah, there's no chance Newsome would even make it that far, either.
"My bosses are adamant about the old school winning," Stevenson says. "They really think it's no question. I don't know if it's because they're older than I am or what, but their logic is that you don't have to be a fan of the 49ers to like Jerry Rice or Joe Montana, and you probably do if you're a fan of Colin Kaepernick," who is a top seed among current players.
"I say that's incredibly flawed logic, because of fantasy football," an obsession that creates loyalty to specific players, Stevenson said. It has proven to be a significant influence on voting in the past two years. Peyton Hillis may have been an ironic choice, or one largely determined by a motivated Cleveland constituency, but the guy did run very well for a lot of fantasy league owners in the year preceding the Madden NFL 12 cover vote. Last year's finalists, Calvin Johnson and Cam Newton, were household names well beyond the Detroit and Carolina markets because of it, too.
For as much as I have complained about social media voting for a video game cover, I still tip my cap to Madden NFL, because it truly does take a simple bar argument or a comment fight and elevate it into an event for which Las Vegas sports books will take a bet. Joe Montana is the money-line favorite in one listing; he and Barry Sanders are 7/1 odds favorites in another. We haven't yet mentioned Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota running back who came within nine yards of the NFL's single-season rushing record, and had what is arguably the greatest single season of any player, regardless of position. He's a 10-to-1 shot.
Peterson isn't a "No. 1 seed," whatever that means in a popularity contest—and it should mean little. He'll still kill everyone in his region until meeting Griffin for a final four berth. Stevenson says seedings for current players were tied not just to their athletic excellence, but also their team's popularity within Madden's multiplayer. And as devastating a runner as Peterson is, as clutch and automatic as Luck is, far more people were picking Kaepernick's 49ers or Griffin's Redskins in the quickmatch screen.
"We have the telemetry, you know. And you can see when a certain player is excelling on the field in real life, how it changes the way Madden players play the game," Stevenson said. "Washington just became a popular team, if not the most popular team, as the season went on. One team is trending up, that's the Redskins, and another team is trending down—that's the Vikings, who also just lost (receiver) Percy Harvin to free agency."
So there is method to the madness in determining candidates and seedings. "You know, in the NCAA tournament this year, North Carolina and Kansas may face each other in the second round, and the seeding committee is like, 'Well, that's not why we put them there.'" Stevenson said. "I'm here to tell you that, yes, we do do that."
That's why Luck and Wilson will likely meet in the third round of voting, and receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones are scheduled to clash in the second. It's why linebacker Ray Lewis, of the University of Miami, meets linebacker Derrick Brooks, of Florida State, in the opening round. It's why Deion Sanders, representing the Atlanta Falcons, is a good shot to face Troy Aikman, later his teammate in Dallas, for a bid to the round of eight. It's why Dan Marino is in the same subregional with Joe Montana, to give that who's-better debate—guy with the stats, or guy with the rings?—some kind of a knockout result.
With all that in mind, Stevenson and I got down to arguing about who would emerge in the contest's final four.
Old School Region 1: Joe Montana is easily the favorite, but don't discount newly retired Ray Lewis coming off a Super Bowl winning year and carrying a more developed social media presence than Super Joe. Lewis was also the cover star of what many consider Madden's finest edition back in 2004. "I'll say Ray Lewis," Stevenson said. My pick actually is Barry Sanders, who faces, ahem, Ron Rivera in the first round. I just see him as a more popular pick against Lewis, where Montana could get into more trouble against Dan Marino and, potentially, lose.
Old School Region 2: There is very little to suggest anyone other than Jerry Rice or Deion Sanders will come out of this. "Watch out for Michael Strahan, though," Stevenson said. "If you were to talk about a viewership you wouldn't expect to over-index among these voters, it'd be Live! With Kelly & Michael." If the former Giant can get his daytime TV audience to flood the polls, he could cause problems for Rice. Stevenson thinks Sanders struts into the end zone easily, as a contrarian pick against a consensus greatest-of-all-time like Rice. I concur, setting up a Sanders-Sanders semifinal.
New School Region 1: "Seattle fans couldn't be more excited about their upcoming season," Stevenson reasons, "and they are very motivated to vote." That makes Russell Wilson deadly and perhaps underseeded at No. 3. "It comes down to, if you're not a fan of the 49ers, do you like the Seahawks more, and vice versa." A regional final with Colin Kaepernick is almost foreordained. Houston's Arian Foster could show up with get-out-the-vote. Again, Stevenson and I are of a like mind, and I think Wilson's red-hot and top-of-mind, the two essential qualities of a popularity contest.
New School Region 2: The weakest of the four regions paves a road to a Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson final. Fans will have to balance Griffin's performance last year with the fact he tore ligaments in his knee in the playoffs and his rehabilitation could cause him to miss the beginning of the season. The guy he's going against, Peterson, tore up his knee late in the 2011-12 season, returned, started every game and obliterated the league, so it is possible to return from this injury to ultra-stud status. Griffin could be the most popular player in the NFL but the uncertainty is enough to make a broad electorate think the game should be fronted by someone guaranteed to start opening day. Stevenson says Griffin, I say Peterson, All Day.
Whatever takes place in the final four, Stevenson said it is a winner-take-all contest. One guy on the cover. I asked if Madden planned secretly to give a prominent cover shot to the overall winner, and maybe place the runner-up in a background pose, as NCAA Football 13 did when fans selected Barry Sanders to accompany Griffin last year. No. "That is not in our plan, to have two guys share our cover," he said. "That would be news to me."
Voting on the first round will close tomorrow, at which point EA Sports is likely to announce record-breaking participation. If you want to register your choices, by all means, head to the link. A winner will be announced April 24, the day before the NFL Draft.
Madden NFL 25 Cover Vote [SportsNation]