The John Madden Cover Jinx and Regression to the Mean

August 31, 2014

Categories: Sports

It’s the beginning of fall, the leaves are changing, and football season is about to start! I love this time of year.

When I was little, one of my favorite video games was John Madden football. I was reading, and it was announced that Richard Sherman, the star cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, would be on the cover for the next iteration of this popular video game.

Interestingly, a lot of people think there is a curse associated with appearing on the cover of the Madden video game. Namely, many years the athlete who appeared on the Madden cover had a bad year (or even got injured) the following year.

1999 was the first year Madden put a player on the cover of the game. San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst was chosen. He was an incredible talent who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame. However, the next year, after leading his team to a divisional playoff game, he broke his ankle badly, missed two full seasons, and was never the same again.

The curse continued:

  • Barry Sanders (2000): To the dismay of Detroit fans, he retired suddenly.
  • Eddie George (2001): Near the end of the Super Bowl, George bobbled an easy pass that got intercepted, causing the Titans to lose. The following year George got injured.
  • Dante Culpepper (2002): Culpepper suffered a season ending injury.
  • Marshall Faulk (2003): Faulk had a nagging ankle injury all season and had a below average year.
  • Michael Vick (2004): Vick broke his leg and was out for the season.
  • Ray Lewis (2005): Lewis tore his hamstring and missed most of the season.
  • Donovan McNabb (2006): McNabb had a hernia near the beginning of the season. He missed a few games, tried to return, but eventually had season ending surgery.
  • Shaun Alexander (2007): Alexander broke his foot and was never the same again.
  • Vince Young (2008): Young hurt his quad and missed some playing time. The next year he hurt his knee and missed most of the season.
  • Brett Favre (2009): Favre had a good start to his season, but tore his bicep and finished poorly.
  • Troy Polamalu (2010): Polamalu tore a ligament in his knee and missed most of the season.
  • Drew Brees (2011): Brees actually did okay, although his Saints lost in the first round of the playoffs.
  • Peyton Hillis (2012): Hillis played terribly.
  • Calvin Johnson (2013): No curse here. Johnson actually had a great year.

So what’s the deal here? Is there some voodoo curse associated with this particular video game?

I don’t believe so.

I actually think the explanation is pretty simple, and it’s a lesson that we can apply to our own lives as well.

I think the Madden curse has to do with a phenomenon called ‘Regression to the Mean.

Basically, ‘Regression to the Mean’ is the idea that anytime you have a unique and extraordinary performance, the following performance is likely to be closer to average.

The reason is there are a lot of factors that contribute to extraordinary performance. Returning to our football example, when a player has a great season, part of the excellent season is due to the player’s talent and hard work. But there are other factors as well. The player avoided injury, for example. The player’s teammates probably did better than average in their supporting roles. The player probably had a bit of luck go his or her way. All these factors lined up and an extraordinary performance was the result.

The next time around, chances are some of the factors (especially the ones outside of the person’s control) have changed. And because of those changes, chances are the performance the next time around won’t be quite as good.

Once you learn to spot it, ‘Regression to the Mean’ can be seen all around us. If you have an especially tall parent, for example, chances are you won’t be quite as tall. If a stock does incredibly well over a particular quarter, chances are it won’t do quite as good the next quarter. If you feel especially sad and depressed one day, chances are you won’t feel quite as depressed the next day. It’s ‘Regression to the Mean.’

Because of this phenomenon, it’s good to be cautious about jumping on the bandwagon for anything based on one incredible performance. It’s probably better to wait a bit and see how things play out over the long run. Also, sometimes it can be helpful to not overreact to something extreme that happens in your personal life or emotions. Chances are good things will level out the next day.

That’s why I’m predicting a good season from Richard Sherman next year… But not quite as good.

Discussion: Where in your life have you seen ‘Regression to the Mean’ at work?


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  1. […] Regression to the mean. In statistics, if you notice an extreme data point (either very high or very low), the next data point is likely to be less extreme. In the same way, in life, if you have a very good or very bad day (or performance, game, or whatever), the next one is likely to be more average, statistically speaking. Thus, it’s usually a good idea not to get too high when things are good, or get too down when things are bad. Your next experience will probably not be quite as good (or bad). […]

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