In past years I've used the Saturday before the Super Bowl to handicap the field for the next cover of Madden NFL. Since the last time I did that, EA Sports put the honors up to a fan-voted, 32-player tournament in 2011, and on Thursday announced it was doubling that field to 64 for 2012.
That makes the job of prognosticating the cover star of Madden NFL 13 a little more time consuming and complex, but I'm up to it. Given what I know of this game, the league, and EA Sports' relationships with the NFL's top performers, here are my picks for the entire field of 64 when it is announced on March 7.
Madden NFL is the progenitor of the modern video game cover, both as a career honor and a marketing concept. It is the 21st century's Wheaties box. No other video game gets a fan base to argue or even care this much who ends up on its packshot.
In making my predictions below, known existing relationships with EA Sports' marketing operations carried the most weight, especially if the player appeared in last year's cover contest playoff. No prior association to Madden likewise counted against a player, especially if he is a longtime veteran. So-called skill positions on offense (receiver, running back, quarterback) have an advantage over defensive positions.
No other video game gets a fan base to argue or even care this much who ends up on its packshot.
In short, a team's best, highest or mos decorated player —Eli Manning or Tom Brady, for example—may not be on this list. That's not its purpose. We're trying to guess who EA Sports has nominated, considering that if that person wins out, the two sides must be able to agree to some kind of contract terms.
This year's fan-voted contest will begin with a two-week "play-in" round matching players from the same team, to determine which one represents the franchise in the main draw. Once the play-in round is resolved, the entire bracket will be seeded.
As those matchups are unknown, I'm not prognosticating the entire tournament here, just who represents each team in the first and second rounds, and the winner's relative strength against the rest of the field.
Buffalo Bills: Receiver Steve Johnson fell in the first round of last year's cover vote. Absent any compelling alternative, he should return. The best top-of-mind alternative is quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose Harvard bio would make for a nice twist in the tale of this tournament.
• Picks: Fitzpatrick beats Johnson. Or the other way around. Neither goes past the first round.
Miami Dolphins: As thoroughly average as this team is, it does have a few names worthy of mention: wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and Reggie Bush, who held the cover of NCAA Football 2007. Lineman Jake Long was Miami's representative in last year's contest.
• Picks:Long and Bush, with Long winning out and going nowhere after that.
New England Patriots: Should be an easy call here. Danny Woodhead represented the team last year, prized for his personal story of being cut in the Jets' pre-season camp. If not Woodhead, all-pro receiver Wes Welker, and Rob Gronkowski, at tight end, just burst on the scene, too. Don't overlook BenJarvus Green-Ellis
• Picks: Woodhead and Welker have lost their appeal outside of the Hub. Go with Ellis and Gronk. Either will be stopped by by anti-Patriot backlash in the second round.
New York Jets: Quarterback Mark Sanchez may present a mixed bag in terms of results but he's the quarterback in a major media market and has solid ties to EA Sports, in both last year's contest and this last minute promotional video signaling the end of the lockout. LaDanian Tomlinson will probably retire; Santonio Holmes is a malcontent. Plaxico Burress almost shot his leg off in a night club. I think Darrelle Revis and EA have a promotional relationship—he's at least received a custom PS3 that the label sends out to its celebrity ambassadors.
• Picks: Sanchez and Revis, in the closest teammate matchup of the bracket, with Revis emerging.
Ray Lewis, who held Madden NFL 2005's cover and appeared onstage for EA Sports at E3 last year, should get another look.
Baltimore Ravens: Also an easy call here. Running back Ray Rice just won a vote-off to make the virtual cover of NFL Blitz. He also represented Baltimore last year. Future hall-of-fame linebacker Ray Lewis appeared on the cover of Madden NFL 2005 and has a good relationship with EA Sports (appearing on their behalf at E3 last summer).
• Picks: Lewis emerges on name recognition, but only goes as far as the final eight depending on seeding. Yeah, some people are going to make a stink about Lewis' involvement in an infamous double-murder case more than 10 years ago. (Charges were dropped; he was convicted of obstruction of justice.) They make a big stink about that any time he's mentioned.
Cincinnati Bengals: Lots of fresh faces on the Bengals make their two delegates a toss-up of a guess. I'm going with quarterback Andy Dalton and reciever A.J. Green, both rookies. There's no history working against either and a rookie QB/WR pairing is a neatly marketable concept.
• Picks: Dalton, by virtue of being a quarterback, may win a first-round matchup if he gets a favorable seeding.
Cleveland Browns: The only NFL franchise to mobilize a get-out-the-vote push for its candidate last year, don't dismiss the Browns Backers. They got Peyton Hillis on the Madden cover despite the most lackluster resume of any cover star at the time of selection. Hillis may not return to the team next year, thanks to both injury and a malcontent season that many fans found off-putting. He's also an unrestricted free agent coming into this season.
• Picks: All-pro offensive lineman Joe Thomas is the field's Joe Lunchpail representative. Josh Cribbs makes the cut for his versatility and special teams dynamism. He's also under contract, which is a key distinction among any candidate on this team.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and linebacker James Harrison are basically ineligible here, given their past. That's fine, Hines Ward represented the team last year, and Troy Polamalu graced the cover of Madden NFL 10
• Picks: Ward's an obvious pick. And am I looking at Troy Polamalu's hair? No! Am I looking at Troy Polamalu's hair? Yes ...
Houston's Andre Johnson made the Madden cover vote playoff last year, but will have to contend with teammate Arian Foster, a solid pick to win it all.
Houston Texans: Running back Arian Foster was at Madden Bowl XVIII. Receiver André Johnson represented Houston in last year's bracket. They'll both rep the Texans this year, following the franchise's first playoff appearance.
• Picks: Foster wins in a rout, and has great appeal, name recognition, and fantasy football value. He is easily a final four pick across the entire tournament.
Indianapolis Colts: This is where it gets vexing. Last year, EA Sports tabbed defensive end Dwight Freeney but he could be gone next year if the Colts clean house, as is expected. Reggie Wayne was a candidate in EA Sports' first try at this, a three-way voteoff for the Madden NFL 11 cover. But he also just played the final year of his contract. Ditto Jeff Saturday, who's an offensive lineman to boot. Peyton Manning wouldn't be in the tournament even if he was healthy and signed. Andrew Luck can't be tapped until he's actually drafted. There are almost no good options.
• Picks: Receiver Pierre Garçon and tight endDallas Clark, with either getting blown out in the first round.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars have one star, and it is all-pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was in last year's Madden cover vote. Slim pickings after MJD though. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert? Montell Owens?
• Picks: Gonna go with MJD and Gabbert here. I don't know a thing about the Jaguars after those two gentlemen. Neither does most of America.
Tennessee Titans: Another easy pairing. Chris Johnson is their most recognizable star, at running back, and appeared in the cover vote last year. Backup quarterback Jake Locker, a rookie first-round draft pick, was in the NCAA Football 12 cover vote. I'd love it if Cortland Finnegan made the field. No way in hell that happens, not with Andre Johnson representing Houston.
• Picks: Chris Johnson trounces Locker but after that, wins one round at best, depending on seeding.
Churches won't lose their tax-exempt status if they tell their congregations to vote for Tim Tebow.
Denver Broncos: As I have written, if Tim Tebow is in this tournament, then it's Tebow's tournament to lose. Whatever you think of him as a person or player, he was unquestionably one of the NFL's most visible performers and compelling stories this past season. While he faces a considerable anti-vote, he also has enormous name recognition and should have sizeable get-out-the-vote backing. And churches won't lose their tax-exempt status if they tell their congregations to go vote for this man.
• Picks: Tebow will be joined by linebacker Von Miller. Tebow bulldozes to the final round, at least, and if he gets that far I can't imagine him losing to anyone else in this field.
Kansas City Chiefs: An unfortunate ACL tear cost Jamaal Charles practically all of the 2011 season. It would be too strange to vote on a guy coming back from a career-threatening injury, and I doubt he'd agree to participate for those reasons, too. That leaves a very bare cupboard for the Chefs.
• Picks: Matt Cassel did work for another football game. Kyle Orton was a midseason pickup, cast off from the Broncos. I'm searching for a good pairing here, so I'll go with former LSU teammates Dwayne Bowe (wide receiver) and Glenn Dorsey (defensive line).
Raida Organization: As a former NCAA Football cover star, and last year's representative, Darren McFadden is a lock here. Don't laugh, but Carson Palmer was on the cover of NCAA Football 2004. That may be ancient history, though.
• Picks: McFadden and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Whatever his opposition, McFadden wins out and wins one round, tops.
San Diego Chargers: Total no-brainer pairing here. Quarterback Philip Rivers, who was a No. 1 seed last year in the bracket's toughest region. Tight end Antonio Gates has a strong promotional history with EA Sports.
• Picks: Rivers beats his favorite target and wins two rounds, depending on where he's seeded. The Chargers failed to reach the playoffs a second straight year and are a franchise in turmoil. Rivers didn't have a great season, costing him the fantasy-owner vote. Hard to see either getting far despite their big names.
Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Ware represented the team last year and should return. Tony Romo is another big-name quarterback who would have gotten involved before now if he was interested, so he's out. As for second options, DeMarco Murray was in the NCAA 12 cover contest. He had a reasonable year for a rookie, but isn't the team's first option at running back. The alternatives are guys like Dez Bryant or Felix Jones. Jason Witten appeared in Quickhit NFL, likely ruling him out.
• Picks: Ware, and I'll hold my nose and take Murray, as it won't really matter who the No. 2 option is here. It also won't matter who the No. 1 option is. Everyone hates the Cowboys, and their representative gets voted off the island in round one.
As 2011's most compelling story in the NFL, Tim Tebow is the odds-on favorite for Madden NFL 13's cover.
New York Giants: Again, Eli Manning would have been on the cover by now if he had any intention of doing so, so he is out. It's hard not to like a pairing of the Giants' eye-catching wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, the latter of whom has a great Horatio Alger story and just played a breakout year. Jason Pierre-Paul is a fine option, but defensive players didn't do well in last year's voting.
• Picks: The receivers, with Nicks winning the play-in and lasting one round, tops.
Philadelphia Eagles: Despite all his baggage, Michael Vick reached the final round of last year's cover vote with EA Sports none the worse for wear. There's no reason not to bring him back this year. He'll be paired with receiver DeSean Jackson, who has appeared in Madden promotions before.
• Picks: Vick beats Jackson, but coming off a weaker season, won't make it as far as he did last year. Wins two rounds, tops.
Washington Redskins: GEICO tried its damndest all year to make Brian Orakpo a household name, in an advertisement that should win Orakpo's agent a lifetime achievement award. The rest of the country doesn't know who the hell he is, but he did represent the Shanaclan in last year's cover vote and there's no better option on this sad bunch.
• Picks: Orakpo and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who had a solid rookie season out of Purdue, with a big game-changing interception against the Giants in the Sept. 11 season opener.
Chicago Bears: Running back Matt Forte was on the blue carpet at Madden Bowl XVIII, so he's a lock to represent the Bears. Julius Peppers was the Bears' representative in last year's field. No reason to go against the grain here.
• Picks: Forte wins out and loses in the first round.
Detroit Lions: This is tricky because I don't know what kind of relationship, if any, EA Sports has with Matt Stafford or if they're working on bringing in Calvin Johnson. Obviously, if they have access to Megatron, he becomes a solid favorite to win it all, but if EA Sports had anything going with him, he would have been down on Madden Bowl's blue carpet. Ndamukong Suh represented the Lions in last year's tournament, but the league may have a problem with someone it's repeatedly fined appearing on the cover of its official video game. Not that either he or Nick Fairley would get very far. Fairley was in the four-man field vying for the NCAA Football 12 cover last year, but he is Suh's backup and was practically anonymous in his rookie season.
• Picks: Suh prevails over someone we haven't heard from yet, like Jahvid Best at running back, who spent about half of the season on the injured list. But unless Stafford or Johnson get into the act, Detroit is one-and-done in the tournament, just like it was in the playoffs this year.
Green Bay Packers: With Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews Jr. involved in Madden NFL 12's promotion, there's no reason to believe they wouldn't be in the field here—unless EA Sports doesn't pass Rodgers' discount double-check, now that he's a huge endorsement figure. If the quarterback doesn't sign up, I'd pee my pants if they got Greeeeeeg Jennnnnnnnings to do it.
• Picks: I'm gonna go with my heart over my head and say Matthews and Jennings, not Rodgers. Jennings is an immensely likeable person, has been a great sport about his notoriety in Demetry James' video, and EA Sports itself has no problem referencing it, as evidenced by the "Put Da Team on Your Back," achievement in Madden NFL 12. EA Sports wants stories it can sell through this tournament, and Jennings' makes him a very dangerous competitor. Also a deeply religious man, Jennings would be the only one who could take down Tebow in the final round, splitting the Christian vote and picking up mainstream fans who love the Packers and/or that video. I say he at least makes the final four.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikes' representative last year was Adrian Peterson and he tore his ACL on Christmas Eve. Absent that he'd be one of the top four contenders in this field. Peterson may not want to be up for a Madden cover in a rehab season, and EA Sports may not want to put him up to such an awkward situation. That leaves Jared Allen as the leading representative. The defensive lineman was in the 2010 vote-off against Wayne and Drew Brees and appeared in this pre-season promotion for Madden NFL 12. No reason he shouldn't return.
• Picks: Allen and punter Chris Kluwe. If any active pro football player truly connects with video gamers, it's Kluwe, a World of Warcraft devotee who also turned Peterson on to Magic: The Gathering. He'd be a great novelty selection, especially considering anyone other than Peterson would lose to Allen.
Atlanta Falcons: The clear choices are quarterback Matt Ryan, who was in the 2011 cover playoff, and wide receiver Roddy White who was a candidate for NFL Blitz's virtual cover back in December.
• Picks: Ryan wins the play-in. His problem is Atlanta fans have a deservedly fair-weather reputation. With no get-out-the-vote muscle, the semifinals are as far as Ryan advances even given his name recognition and marquee position.
Madden NFL 11 cover star Drew Brees will likely seek his second selection.
Carolina Panthers: Quarterback Cam Newton is the most visible Panther. He wouldn't have represented the franchise in last year's vote because it had yet to draft him. That said, he didn't have any association with NCAA Football in the one year he'd have been expected to (insert joke about $180,000 demands here.) It's more likely that he's not in the field, but I wouldn't rule him out. Steve Smith, the franchise's all-time leading receiver is the only other obvious choice, but if he wasn't in last year's field, why would he be in this year's?
• Picks: Newton's in Indianapolis as a celebrity coach for the annual beach-football tournament, so if he and EA Sports were involved, he'd have been at least scheduled to appear in Madden Bowl's celebrity crowd. Outside of him, this is the most anonymous team in the field. Jordan Gross, an offensive lineman, represented the franchise in last year's tournament, so let's say he returns. Assuming Smith and Newton aren't involved, the hell with it, I'll pick the pride of Appalachian State, Armanti Edwards. I don't think running back Jonathan Stewart or tight ends Jeremy Shockey or Ben Hartsock have what EA Sports wants.
New Orleans Saints: EA Sports has several options here. Tight end Jimmy Graham was just at Madden Bowl XVIII, teaming with quarterback Drew Brees to win the celebrity tournament. Brees was featured on the cover of Madden NFL 11, was in the cover playoff last year, and has a great relationship with the label. If he wants to sit this out, there's always running back Mark Ingram, who was on the cover of NCAA Football 12 and also won a four-way fan vote for the honor, thanks to Alabama's fan base.
• Picks: Brees and Ingram, with Brees emerging. No one's been on the cover twice, and no one has been on the cover of em>Madden and NCAA Football in consecutive years. Both are easily marketable stories. But after a record-breaking year, Brees would be considered at least a darkhorse candidate to win it all, with only his previous appearance working against him with egalitarian-minded voters.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: After missing the playoffs at 10-6 in 2010, good things were expected of the Bucs in 2011. They didn't happen. There are plenty of damaged goods here as a result. No way in hell Albert Haynesworth gets a look. The Bucs had one Pro Bowl pick, an offensive lineman, so forget that, too. Josh Freeman at quarterback, is the team's de facto face. After him, there's really only Kellen Winslow, Jr.
• Picks: Freeman and Winslow, with Freeman prevailing and losing early.
Arizona Cardinals: Receiver Larry Fitzgerald shared the Madden NFL 10 cover, represented the team last year, and is as good a pick here as any in the field. Patrick Peterson just completed an electrifying Pro Bowl rookie year in which he returned four punts for a touchdown, tying him for a single-season record. His sensational 99-yard return to win in overtime against St. Louis is one of the year's greatest highlights.
• Picks: Fitzgerald and Peterson, with Fitzgerald winning out. He can win three rounds with favorable seeding.
Unless EA Sports comes up with Cam Newton, Steve Smith is the Panthers' only good option.
San Francisco 49ers: Linebacker Patrick Willis is a shoo-in, as a dominant performer, an NFL Blitz cover candidate, and the Niners' representative last year. After Willis, it's tight end Vernon Davis or running back Frank Gore.
• Picks Davis prevails and wins one round at the most.
St. Louis Rams: Quarterback Sam Bradford, injured for much of 2011, may not return to the cover tournament. The best available players after Bradford are Chris Long and Steven Jackson.
• Picks: Bradford and Jackson, either bowing out in the first round.
Seattle Seahawks: Don't expect the gimmicky 12th Man to reappear this year, although Marshawn Lynch may be unavailable for money, personality, or a combination of the two. Outside of Lynch, the best options are receivers Golden Tate or Mike Williams. Cornerback Marcus Trufant was injured while the season was barely underway.
• Picks: Seattle's about as dire a situation as Carolina or Indianapolis. Take Lynch and Tate, but it's a crapshoot for either. None wins a single round.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.