Welcome to our third annual report card for sports games cover stars, where legends are made, records are broken, careers are ruined, and curses continue. While it's certainly no small honor to wind up on the cover of a sports game, that honor only takes you so far. Here, we're interested in results, as in touchdowns, goals, championship trophies, and most importantly, celebrities dated. OK, not so much on the last one. And though football is three quarters done and basketball's only just begun, as sports fans, its our job to judge prematurely, so let's dive right in and start handing out grades...
FootballMadden NFL 07
Another Madden curse in the making? Alexander, practically brilliant beyond measure last season, fell victim to the injury bug in 2006. The former Alabama running back missed six games after breaking his left foot in a game against the New York Giants. Though his return coincides well with Seattle's second-half push to the playoffs, there's little doubt that all eyes will be on the Madden cover-star's numbers throughout the rest of the season. One thing's for sure: Without Shaun in the backfield, the 'Hawks are going nowhere.
Bush's entrance into the NFL should have been seamless. As one of the most prolific and dynamic college backs of the last decade, Bush was poised to become an instant superstar in the backfield of whichever team drafted him. Then New Orleans selected him in the draft, and Bush, while saying all the right things, acted like a guy who wasn't sure he wanted to be playing in the Big Easy. The word "holdout" was bandied about, and this in the midst of allegations that Bush's parents got a sweet (and improper) deal for a house while Bush was still at USC. Luckily, Bush has found a place behind a potential MVP in Drew Brees. Then there was his week 13 performance, where Bush managed to score four touchdowns with the division-leading Saints. It seems that, wherever he plays, Bush's winning ways continue.
|2005||15 (including playoffs)||5|
Dan Rooney's patience finally paid off in 2006. For 14 seasons, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers had remained amazingly loyal to his head coach Bill Cowher, sticking with him through thick (such as the 15-1 2004 season) and thin (three losing seasons, including a pair of 6-10 seasons in 1999 and 2003). But last season that loyalty was repaid, with the Pittsburgh Steelers taking their first Super Bowl win since 1979. In hindsight, it might have been best had Cowher not returned for another go, as the 2006 Steelers are struggling mightily. The loss of key offensive weapons like Jerome Bettis and Antwaan Randle-El, as well as unexpected struggles of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, has made Cowher's job that much more difficult. The Steelers probably aren't playoff bound this season, which means that Rooney's patience might be tested once again.
Super Bowl XL: A
Rest of 2006: C-
With the way he dresses, talks, and plays, Chad Johnson seems tailor-made to be in an EA video game. Sure, he's loud and outspoken, but he's not exactly dangerous. He's got a big mouth but enough skills to back it up (usually). And this year, he's got a bleach-blond mohawk to go with his gold-capped teeth. Call him the anti-T.O., and even if the game he appears on isn't anything special, there's no denying that CJ is one of the most fun receivers to watch in the game. Too bad, then, that the Bengals, who seemed primed for a Super Bowl appearance last year, haven't exactly lit up 2006.
Like him or not, Romanowski was probably an apt choice for the 'roid-fueled, over-the-top, violent football fantasy that is Midway's Blitz: The League for the Xbox 360. Romo, an admitted juicer, spent a good chunk of 2005 promoting his book and admitting to breaking the bones of other players more or less intentionally. By appearing on the cover of this lifeless port of Midway's football game, Romo does something practically nobody else could do: make his fellow cover star Lawrence Taylor look like a teddy bear in comparison.
What, you didn't see this one coming? After seemingly skipping his rookie year in 2004 to lead the Steelers to a 15-1 record, then proceeding to follow up the performance by bringing a Super Bowl to Steeltown, Big Ben was bound for a letdown in the 2006 season. It started behind the handlebars of a Suzuki Hayabusa just before the season began, as Roethlisberger landed himself in the hospital after a truly scary accident that some initially thought might cost him the season. He fought back, however, only to rack up multiple concussions on the playing field thanks to an offensive line that has developed more holes than a Pennsylvania coal mine. Oddly enough, if you take away the interceptions, Ben's having a great statistical year. With the Steelers struggling and no playoffs in sight, though, it might be best if Roethlisberger spent more time healing up and preparing for next year.
* = Statistical year not complete
BasketballCollege Hoops 2K7
Nothing says "Welcome to the NBA" like a mug shot. Unfortunately, that's just the kind of ignoble circumstance suffered by J.J. Redick, who was arrested and charged with DUI earlier this year, less than a month before being drafted by the Orlando Magic. The second unlucky break, of course, was being drafted by the Magic. Or, at least it seemed that way at the time. While Redick's numbers haven't exactly blown up--even J.J. admits he probably won't be much more than a role-player in the NBA--his team is playing well, holding one of the best records and, at the time of this writing, is atop the Southeast Division by a comfortable margin.
Here's what we wrote about Big Diesel in this space last year: "It would be great to see him win a Kobe-less championship too, but if that's going to happen, it better be this year." Who knew that he'd actually go out and do it? By sealing his post-Kobe legacy by bringing the trophy to Miami, the future Hall of Famer did what many thought was impossible. Yes, his minutes, rebounds, and points were down, but none of that matters if it comes with championship gold. And while Shaq could have gone out in style last season, and has struggled with injury so far this season, we're glad to see the big guy back and having another go at the trophy.
The Houston Rockets happen to be one of the better teams in the NBA. They also happen to be in one of the strongest divisions in the league, which makes it that much tougher for the Rockets to shine. With two other Texas teams ahead of them in the standings at the time of this writing--the Mavericks lead the division, with San Antonio just behind--the Rockets are counting on T-Mac more than ever. Unfortunately, McGrady has been bumped around a bit of late, suffering mild injuries in the same week (a hip injury on Tuesday, November 28, and a mild concussion the following Saturday). It's a long NBA season, and the Rockets are going to need to make sure McGrady stays healthy (his minutes are already slightly down from last season) if they hope to make it very far in the playoffs.
We suspect that if Kobe spent more than the 10 minutes he was likely required to play NBA 07 for photo opportunities, he wouldn't dare lend his image to such a subpar series. That said, Bryant has more trouble on his mind than simply a bad hoops game--namely, a knee problem that some folks think may permanently affect the 28-year-old's hops. Don't write him off any time soon, though. He may not be able to get to the rack like he once could, but when the game is on the line, there's nobody else in the Association that can touch him.
BaseballMajor League Baseball 2K6
If the New York Yankees organization was Grey's Anatomy, Derek Jeter would be Dr. Christina Yang. Alex Rodriguez, of course, would be the whiny, self-important Meredith Grey, but since Rodriguez is never going to make the cover of anything but the New York Post (complete with the headline "Invisible Man"), we'll focus on Jeter. Like Sandra Oh's complex, complicated character on Grey's, Jeter is at once highly skilled and utterly mechanical at his job. Also like Yang, Jeter exudes a sense of smug confidence that is artfully backed up by his tremendous skills on the diamond. After a down year in 2005, Jeter's numbers were back in a satisfactory range for his storied career. Unfortunately, and unlike the happenings at Seattle Grace, Jeter's New York Yankees annual spend-and-suck travails have become completely predictable.
Here's a surprising fact for you: The development studio formerly known as 989 Sports made one of the best sports games of the year in MLB 06: The Show. The PlayStation 2 game was a brilliant meshing of quality and quantity, and they probably couldn't have chosen a better cover star than the gregarious and game-worthy David Ortiz. No one is going to doubt Big Papi's ability to rake at the plate, but now that the Red Sox Nation has a championship that living people can remember, Ortiz's next task will be to lead Beantown back to another World Series appearance.
* = Statistical year not complete
Baseball (cont.)MLB SlugFest 2006
Measured in terms of pure bang for the buck, the cover of MLB Slugfest 2006 is probably the best cover released this year. At the very least, it's the cover with the highest guaranteed salary requirements. Unfortunately, this game features perhaps the biggest gap between on-cover talent and in-game quality of any sports game this year. Pujols, Willis, Guerrero, Man-Ram, Pedro, and Giambi all had good years, some better than others. But SlugFest 2006? That was just ugly. We cut them a half-letter grade simply for agreeing to appear on this game at all. Pujols, Ramirez, Giambi, and Guerrero are especially to blame here, as all four have appeared on better games than this.
Albert Pujols may just be the only baseball player ever to appear on the cover of three different games, including MVP Baseball 2004, as well as two games in 2006 alone: MLB SlugFest 2006 and this kids' hardball game. It's a nice accomplishment for the Cardinals' first baseman, and not even his crowning achievement on the season. Not only did he significantly improve in almost every major statistical category, Pujols also helped bring a World Series trophy home to the baseball-mad fans in St. Louis, the first for the organization since 1982.
Beyond winning Most Outstanding Player in the 2005 College World Series while playing for the Texas Longhorns, not much is known about David Maroul's baseball career since. At last check, he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and spent most of 2006 with the Giants' minor-league affiliate, the Augusta GreenJackets. He put up respectable numbers, but there's no word yet on when (or if) the Giants will call up the third baseman, an unlikely short-term prospect considering the Giants recently signed veteran Rich Aurilia to the team, who could move to third base.
You could practically hear the cheers all the way up from Silicon Valley last year when San Jose traded three Sharks for one big Boston Bruin. Joe Thornton has brought with him an excitement and skill that has reignited a young Sharks team and resulted in a 56-24-7 record, as of this writing, since Thornton joined the team. We had a chance to see Thornton play during a recent Sharks practice, and his skills on the ice go beyond simply shooting the puck and hammering opponents--it's clear right away that Thornton is the man in San Jose. More importantly, he seems to be having a good time in that role. Good thing, too, as the Sharks play in one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL and will need Thornton's leadership and skills to take them into the playoffs and beyond.
One of the more exciting preseason NHL matchups of the year happened on September 22. At least it could have been exciting, as the Pittsburgh Penguins (with young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in tow) took on the Washington Capitals own future superstar, NHL 07 cover star Alexander Ovechkin. Unfortunately for fans in attendance, all three players were out due to various injuries. Hopefully that won't be the case on December 11, when the Capitals host the Penguins in the clubs' first of four head-to-head meetings of the regular season. It's been a long time since we've seen a guy with his kind of skills.
TennisTop Spin 2
Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick
There was a brief window where Andy Roddick was the toast of the tennis scene. Of course, that was before Roger Federer came along and readjusted everyone's expectations of how to dominate on the court. As of this writing, Roddick is currently at number six in the world, which is nothing to scoff at. However, when viewed on ranking points, the gap between Roddick (2415 points) and Federer (8370 points), or between that of Roddick and number-two Rafael Nadal (4270 points), is that much more apparent. On the women's side, Maria Sharapova (3532 points) sits comfortably, but well back, from the #number-one Justine Henin-hardenne (3998 points), even though Sharapova beat Henin-hardenne in the US Open to capture the second Grand Slam victory of her career. As always, the women's race is far more interesting, with Amelie Mauresmo (3391 points) just behind Sharapova, and the unretired and reinvigorated Martina Hingis (2018 points) on her way up. A rule of thumb for future cover considerations: Cute girls playing tennis always trumps the guys. Game, set, and match.
GolfProStroke Golf - World Tour 2007
Among the host of golfers who made the cover of Gusto Games' golf title, Montgomerie, Garcia, and O'Meara are the best-known of the bunch, at least here in the States. Mark O'Meara has more or less faded from prominence ever since his double Major wins in 1998 (the Masters and the British Open, plus a fourth-place finish in the PGA). The Majors spotlight shown brightly on both Sergio and Monty in 2006, but, unfortunately, it illuminated some embarrassing meltdowns: Garcia at the 2006 British Open and Monty at the 2006 US Open (after a hard-to-watch double bogey on the 18th). Garcia gained some redemption in the Ryder Cup, more or less destroying his opponents until losing to Stewart Cink on the final day. However, Cink's victory meant little, as Garcia and the rest of the Europeans handily beat the American team (yet again).
OK, go with us on this one. Though Tiger Woods' 2006 was much like his 2005--with two Majors wins (British Open and PGA Championship) in 2006 and yet another appearance at the top of the money list, there are some signs that his game slipped a bit. First, his earnings are down by nearly $700,000. Second, his average round score increased from a 68.7 in 2005 to a 69.1 this year. Now, granted, calling a two-major, nearly $10 million dollar season a letdown is a bit like saying Scarlett Johansson didn't look as good in The Island as she did in Match Point. But, when it comes to criticizing Tiger Woods' once-in-a-lifetime skills, straws are practically the only thing you can grasp at.