Editor’s note: This post was updated following John Madden’s death in December 2021.
The Madden series has been around since EA Sports released John Madden Football on MS-DOS in 1988.
For the first decade, Madden himself graced the cover. The Super Bowl-winning coach-turned-fan-favorite-broadcaster-turned-Turducken-evangelizer is also something of a master at building a personal brand. Even though he hadn’t broadcasted a game since 2009, he remained a household name thanks to EA’s best-selling franchise.
After 2000, Mr. Madden finally started to share the screen with NFL superstars. Here’s a look at every player who’s been on a Madden cover. And remember: Patrick Mahomes is among the athletes to show the “Madden Curse” is just a myth.
This was the last year the man himself was on the cover. The game included an improved Franchise mode, which let multiple owners participate in the same season. 2000 was also the first iteration of the game that was ported to the Game Boy Color.
John Madden was still on this cover, but Tennessee Titans’ running back Eddie George took center stage. This year’s version was the first to make the jump to PS2 and first to feature NFL Europe teams. It also placed a big focus on customization, including Madden Cards, which let you add different rules to the game like giving yourself a fifth down.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Dante Culpepper was coming off his breakout 2000 campaign when he featured on the Madden cover. Like Madden 2001, this iteration featured as a launch game for new consoles: Xbox and GameCube. It was also the first game to include an Expansion Draft as it brought the Houston Texans to the game ahead of its first season.
“The Greatest Show on Turf” was long overdue for a Madden cover, and Faulk was the perfect poster man. This game is also notable because it was the first year Al Michaels was in the play-by-bay spot alongside John Madden, with long-time partner Pat Summerall retiring.
Not only was Vick the cover star, but he was downright broken in Madden 2004. The QB boasted 95 speed, and Madden developers were forced to introduce features to slow him down in the sequels that followed. On top of that, Franchise mode was expanded to include owner mode, giving you the opportunity to do everything from building a team to setting your stadium’s hot dog prices.
This Madden was all about defense. EA went all in and put Lewis on the cover to signify that change. That, of course, means we got the introduction of the Hit Stick, letting you really unload on ball carriers. Plus, it was the first time players could hop onto Xbox Live.
For the first time ever, John Madden wasn’t on the cover at all. Instead, McNabb took center stage by himself for the Xbox 360 launch title. We also saw Superstar mode introduced, which let you take control of your own NFL rookie and play through his full career.
Seattle great Alexander helped kick Madden into gear on PS3 and Wii. EA also added in Lead Blocker Control and the Highlight Stick, but the move to the next generation took out Owner Mode.
Titans QB Vince Young was coming off his most successful professional season when he hit this cover. This year’s version was highlighted by improvements to animations to help the game feel more lifelike. EA also started to make star players feel different by including the Weapons System. Finally, NCAA Football 08 players could bring their Campus Legend over to continue their NFL career for the first time ever.
Interestingly, Favre was actually retired from football when the game was announced. Of course, he would later come out of retirement and get traded to the Jets, but this was the first time a non-active player made the cover. Outside of that weird footnote, this game was focused on refinement, onboarding new players with a bizarre force ghost version of John Madden, and improving the on-field presentation in lieu of any major new features.
We saw the first duo cover in years when the two teams from the previous Super Bowl both had players on the cover in Polamalu and Fitzgerald. Madden 10 saw several improvements to defensive realism by introducing PRO-TAK, which let more players join a tackle. However, we also got Fight for the Fumble, which wasn’t nearly as fun. This year also saw the introduction of Madden Ultimate Team.
Saints QB Drew Brees had just come off a series of successful years, winning a Super Bowl in 2010. This year, fans were introduced to GameFlow. This gave players the option to build a situational game plan that was meant to speed up games. Players could go online for 3v3 matches.
Hillis actually won this cover as a part of a fan vote, beating out Michael Vick. This was also the last year players could create a team without the use of mods, making it something of a classic for Madden fans.
Johnson won another fan vote to grace the cover, beating out 64 other NFL players. Fans also got access to Connected Careers, which let them combine Franchise, Online Franchise, and Superstar modes into a single mode.
As the first Madden for PS4 and Xbox One, EA decided to give out two different covers. Peterson made his debut on the next-gen version, while Sanders was on PS3 and Xbox 360. It also brought back team relocation, letting you take your franchise to Mexico City, Dublin, or London.
With Sherman on the cover, the developer had to focus on defense. Madden 15 brought big improvements to pass-rushing, while also revamping tackling and player AI.
This year’s vote was held on Madden NFL Mobile and MUT. Beckham beat out Rob Gronkowski for the coveted spot. It also introduced Draft Champions, giving players an easier way to hop into an Ultimate Team-like mode.
After losing out on the vote the year prior, Gronk finally got a Madden cover. EA also redesigned Franchise mode to critical acclaim, even if the entire playerbase didn’t agree.
It’s kind of wild that Brady didn’t feature on a Madden cover until 2017. This version was also the first year EA switched to Frostbite engine and saw the team introduce a new story mode called Longshot.
Brown made the cover after spending several years establishing himself as one of the most dominant wide receivers in the modern game. For the first time since Madden 08, the series launched on PC. We also saw the continuation of Longshot and additions to MUT that gave solo and team players even more options.
Mahomes made a great cover athlete for Madden 20 considering all of the changes the developer added to this iteration. EA ditched Longshot in favor of QB 1, which let players take a custom player from college into the pros in an updated version of Superstar mode (which was last seen in Madden 25). It also introduced X-Factors, which made star players feel even more like the players you see on the field every Sunday.
Lamar Jackson’s brand of dynamic quarterback play perfectly suited the new mode Madden 21 brought to the table. For this release, EA introduced a street-style mode called The Yard. However, this version was met with some of the harshest critics and fan responses in Madden’s history.
Outside of Madden himself (and Barry Sanders on some editions) Brady and Mahomes became the first athletes to appear on the cover twice. EA attempted to rectify Madden 21’s mistakes by introducing improvements to Franchise mode and giving players a new Superstar-like mode called Face of the Franchise. However, it was again met with fan backlash and lackluster scores.
More than 20 years after appearing on Madden NFL 2000‘s sleeve, John Madden will grace the cover of another entry. That’s right, when Madden NFL 23 launches this fall, the late coach will be there once again.
Written by Ricky Frech on behalf of GLHF.
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Editor’s note: This post was updated following John Madden’s death in December 2021.