Why you should care
If there’s anybody special enough to beat the Madden curse, it’s Mahomes.
Madden NFL 20 is coming, and Patrick Mahomes, the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, has the dubious honor of being on the cover of the best-selling video game.
Much has been said about this “Madden curse” marking the beginning of the end for the Kansas City quarterback, but there is hardly any evidence to support that claim.
Except that more than 60 years ago, after Oklahoma won 47 straight college football games, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story proclaiming, “Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable.” Oklahoma lost its next game, 7–0 to Notre Dame, and people started noticing that other athletes who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated are evidently jinxed in that they do not perform as well afterward. And, in 2002, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the jinx with a picture of a black cat and the wonderful caption, “The Cover No One Would Pose For.”
Any athlete who is one of the best players in his or her sport in a week, month or year most likely had more good luck than bad.
Now we have this much-stressed-about Madden curse, which says that the player whose picture appears on the cover of Madden NFL will not perform as well the next season.
As his no-look tosses and jaw-dropping plays have shown, Mahomes is a very different player. Jim Brown, one of the greatest players in NFL history, is the only person to win the MVP award in his rookie season. Mahomes was a backup to Alex Smith for his rookie year and locked up the coveted award his sophomore year. If there’s anybody special enough to beat this so-called Madden curse, it’s Mahomes.
It’s easy to see why some might consider being on Madden a curse and not a blessing.
After 1,654 rushing and receiving yards for the Cleveland Browns, Peyton Hillis appeared on the cover of Madden NFL 12. His yards fell by half; four years later, he was out of football. He blamed his demise on the Madden curse: “There’s a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain’t no doubt about it.”
A San Diego Chargers fan was so worried about the curse that he collected more than 2,000 online signatures on the website Saveltfrommadden.com to keep LaDainian Tomlinson off the cover. Tomlinson turned down the cover offer, but his performance dipped anyway. Tomlinson’s cover replacement, Vince Young, went from rookie of the year to sophomore slumper with nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Last year’s Madden cover, Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown, had a modest drop in performance but a turbulent year off the field, which culminated in being benched for Pittsburgh’s final game of the regular season, which it had to win in order to have a chance of making the playoffs. The Steelers won the game but missed the playoffs and traded Brown to the Oakland Raiders.
The Sports Illustrated jinx and the Madden curse are extreme examples of a statistical phenomenon called regression toward the mean, which is endemic whenever there is luck involved in performances used to assess abilities: the best student, the best worker, the best political candidates or the best soul mate.
When a student takes a test, there is luck in the questions the teacher chooses to ask and in any guesses the student chooses to make. Scores consequently fluctuate. A student who might average 80 doesn’t get an 80 on every test. Sometimes, she gets a 70; sometimes, a 90, 95 or even 100. So, when a student scores 95 on a test, how likely is it that this student was unlucky and would normally score even higher? Not very, since there are far more students who would be lucky to get a 95 than those would be unlucky to do so. The student who scores 95 was probably lucky and will probably regress by scoring somewhat lower on the next test.
Companies don’t know which job candidates will be the best employees; voters don’t know which politicians will be the most effective once elected; and we don’t know which prospective soul mates will be genuine and which will be duds. The regression insight is that those we rate the highest are more likely to be overrated than underrated.
Exactly the same thing happens in all sports.
Mahomes probably won’t do as well this year as he did last year. Claiming Offensive Player of the Year and touchdowns leader honors in back-to-back seasons would be quite the feat. But even if Mahomes’ performance dips, even ever so slightly, it won’t be because he has been jinxed by being on the cover of Madden NFL 20. He’s jinxed because he was video-game amazing last year.
Any athlete who is one of the best players in his or her sport in a week, month or year most likely had more good luck than bad. How many athletes could have an off year and still be one of the best players that year? This is why we have the Cy Young jinx, the rookie-of-the-year jinx, the Sports Illustrated jinx and the Madden curse.
When a player or team does something exceptional enough to earn a place on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Madden NFL, there is practically nowhere to go but down.
To the extent that luck plays a role in athletic success, and it surely does, the player or team that stands above all the rest almost certainly benefited from good luck — good health, fortunate bounces and questionable officiating. Good luck cannot be counted on to continue indefinitely, and neither can exceptional success. As the Swedish proverb says, “Luck doesn’t give, it only lends.”
Gary Smith is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College. His statistical research has been featured in various media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Businessweek, and he recently released a new book, The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford University Press, 2019).