Design by Randall Montanari
Another year, another crop of sports games featuring the best real-world athletes in the business. Welcome to our second annual Grading the Cover Athletes feature, where we take on all the stars who appeared on the cover of major American sports game in 2005. After all, their play in 2004 might have earned them that cover appearance, but last year is last year. All we're concerned about here is 2005. Did those cover studs turn into pine-warming duds this year, or are they meriting that cover appearance with more brilliant play on the field? It's time to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, and the Eli Mannings from the Kellen Winslows. Who got bit by the Madden Curse? Who made the cover but hasn't seen a smidge of game time yet? Who played big when it mattered most, and who disappeared once the game was on the line? The answers are here as we look back at the sports gaming year that was.
Madden NFL 06Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia Eagles)
After a year in hibernation, the Madden Curse has seemingly struck again, and boy, this time it was a doozy. Donovan McNabb started his year with so much promise--he had come off a tough Super Bowl loss to the Patriots with a reloaded and revitalized offense led by wide receiver Terrell Owens. It wouldn't take long, however, for the tension that emerged between the two during the tail end of the 2004 season to come to a head after the former 49ers receiver decided to once again make himself a locker-room cancer, this time on the East Coast. After T.O. was unceremoniously kicked off the active roster by the Eagles organization, McNabb was in a prime position to show the entire NFC that Philly hadn't needed T.O. and that the team could win without him. Instead, the Eagles have lost four straight, and the Philly offense is in free fall. As if that weren't enough, McNabb's season ended this week with his decision to undergo sports hernia surgery. Provided he can come back from this injury, McNabb's got some good years ahead of him. It's just likely he'll want to forget this one.
NCAA Football 06Desmond Howard (Michigan Wolverines)
Beyond coming up with a great pose during a rivalry game between his Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State, Desmond Howard hasn't done much of late to warrant his inclusion on a game cover. There is his stint on ESPN's College GameDay to consider, but bearing in mind that the show also has included guest spots with professional reality show personality Nick Lachey, it's tough to include this as a big positive on Howard's resume.
Blitz: The LeagueQuentin Sands (as played by Lawrence Taylor)
|Year||Roughing the Passer||Hits With Intent to Maim||Excessive Celebrations||Yards Penalized|
Big hits, a big mouth, and, at one time, a big drug problem. Is there a better cover athlete choice for Blitz: The League than Lawrence Taylor? The former New York Giants linebacker and scourge of quarterbacks everywhere during the late 1980s, Taylor makes a welcome comeback in Blitz as badass Quentin Sands. As Sands, LT takes great pleasure in taking out your rookie pick late in Blitz's single-player game, and even if it's your job to beat him and his New York Nightmare in order to beat the game, you'll still enjoy LT's above-average voice acting as much as you'll rue his punishing hits. Here's hoping the big man makes it back to the inevitable sequel.
MLB 2006Vlad Guerrero (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Vlad was a cornerstone of our fantasy baseball team for years before he caught on with the rest of the baseball fans out there. Solid power and a resistance to injury have given him great numbers during his eight years in the league, including, most prominently, a lifetime .324 batting average and nearly 1,000 RBIs. In all, with his numbers reaching their peak, it seemed like Vlad (the 200 American League MVP) was in a perfect position to take home a few World Series rings before his career wrapped up. Then his Angels hit the playoffs in 2005, and Vlad simply...disappeared. During the postseason, Vlad managed only seven hits in 38 at bats, resulting in one RBI, a meager .184 batting average, and a paltry .244 on base percentage. This from a guy who managed 108 RBIs in 2005 and 126 the year prior. His lack of performance was most noticeable in the ALCS, where Guerrero managed only one hit and one RBI in the series, at a time when his team needed him most. With The Angels' best player hiding his head in the sand, is it any wonder the White Sox took the AL pennant?
Grade: B+ (regular season), D- (postseason)
MVP Baseball 2005Manny Ramirez (Boston Red Sox)
It would be hard to top 2004 for Manny or, indeed, for any player on the Red Sox roster. After rescuing the franchise from perpetual frustration, Manny and his teammates were heroes who could do no wrong. That is, until this season, when Boston ran into a white-hot White Sox team, who took the Beaners down in three straight. To his credit, you can't place much of the blame for Boston's playoff performance on Manny; the guy put up personal best RBI numbers and tied his best single-season home run record. Perhaps this is why we're hearing a familiar postseason refrain from Ramirez, who, as in seasons before, is looking for a trade from Boston to...well, any team that will eat his nearly $20 million-per-year salary. It's hard to believe that after bringing so much glory to Boston, Ramirez would want to leave for some place like Milwaukee or Tampa Bay, but it could happen.
ESPN MLB 2K5 Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)
It's been a rough couple of years for Derek Jeter and his Yankees. Of course, for New York, "a rough couple of years" means simply not winning the World Series (again). Still, we feel bad for Jeter, who managed to put up yet another solid slate of stats, only to be snubbed when it came to All-Star voting time. Perhaps people were tired of his good-guy image and all-out play on the field. Actually, we can be certain that at least two people were tired of Jeter--his teammate Gary Sheffield, who vociferously claimed in an August interview that "Jeter is our captain. He's not the leader," and the racist idiot who sent him a threatening e-mail warning that he would be "shot or set on fire" if he didn't stop dating white women. And you think you've got problems. We expect Jeter will react to both criticisms once the 2006 season rolls around in much the same way he always has: spectacular play on the field and quiet humility off.
NBA Live 06 Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat)
We'll admit it: We didn't believe in Wade at first. We saw him as little more than riding Shaq's coattails when Big Diesel made the trip from LA to Miami. We imagined posters of a baby Dwyane wrapped in swaddling clothes and being carried by a doting O'Neal. Boy, were we wrong. In just his third year in the league, Wade has made an impact on not only his team, but the entire NBA. Judged on pure statistics alone, the guy seemingly skipped over his rookie season and has played like a first-string All-Star ever since. The real test this year will come once the playoffs arrive, of course, and most people think that, with a healthy Shaq, the Heat are a lock to go deep. Should that be the case, his Miami teammates will once again look to Wade to carry them on his shoulders. As a result, we fully expect him to continue proving us wrong well into the future.
NBA 2K6Shaquille O'Neal (Miami Heat)
It's so sad to see the great ones slow down, isn't it? From Jordan to Favre, Malone to Rice, watching our greatest sports heroes eventually be chased down by time is a humbling thing. It's not completely over for the Heat's Shaquille O'Neal, but you can see it coming. After 13 mesmerizing, dominating, unparalleled years as the best big man in the game, O'Neal is finally coming to the end of his playing time in the NBA. Note that we haven't said he's done completely, as we certainly think O'Neal has a good number of defensive rebounds and missed free throws ahead of him this season. But, with ankle problems galore and a weight situation that's going nowhere but up, the writing is seemingly on the wall. You can't help but cheer for Shaq, who's always been the most entertaining NBA personality. 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.
NBA 06Amare Stoudemire (Phoenix Suns)
Oh Amare. Things were looking so good for you and your high-powered, run-and-gun, offensive juggernaut Phoenix Suns. After an All-Star season that saw you and your fellow Suns make it all the way to the conference finals, you give us the news that you'll be out for the first four months of the NBA regular season thanks to a microfracture in your left leg. Therefore, the Suns are without one of their most productive point scorers and an above-average rebounder at that. It's too early to tell if the Suns will be able to fill the sizable gap you'll leave as you recover. That said, at least you got that $73 million contract signed before the surgery, huh?
College Hoops 2K6Marvin Williams/Roy Williams (North Carolina Tar Heels, Atlanta Hawks)
Two Williams made the cover of College Hoops 2K6, and though they're unrelated, neither could have done without the other in this year's NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament. In North Carolina Tar Heels coach Roy Williams' case, it was Marvin Williams' ability to play both inside and out that helped take his team to another national championship win, this time over Illinois. For Marvin, it was his coach's aptitude at leading men to victory even in trying circumstances, a fact that has earned Roy Williams four National Coach of the Year awards. After being taught how to win by Roy, Marvin will have to learn another important lesson in the NBA--how to lose after being drafted to one of the league's perennially bad teams, the Atlanta Hawks (who, at the time of this writing, are winless in nine games). Marvin likely misses those heady days when victories were commonplace.
NCAA March Madness 06Raymond Felton (North Carolina Tar Heels, Charlotte Bobcats)
Last year, the Atlanta Hawks picked College Hoops 2K5 cover boy Josh Childress, while the Charlotte Bobcats chose NCAA March Madness 2005 cover star Emeka Okafor for their team. Here we are a year later, and the Hawks and Bobcats are still nabbing cover athletes. In Atlanta's case, it's College Hoops 2K6's Marvin Williams, and for the Bobcats, it's March Madness 06 cover star Raymond Felton. Unlike with his national champion Tar Heels, Felton has seen only limited action so far, averaging just eight points per game. It's still far too early to give Felton failing marks on the season, but considering the distance the Bobcats have to travel back to respectability, they'll need him to contribute early and often.
NHL 06Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning)
What can you say about Vincent Lecavalier's play over the past two seasons? About the same thing you can say about everyone's play, unfortunately. Thanks to the NHL's unfortunate decision to lock out its players (and the players' stubborn refusal to make a deal...until they made a deal that screwed them), we don't have much of an idea of what Vincent would have done during the 04/05 NHL season. He did play with fellow NHLers such as Ilya Kovalchuck, Darius Kasparaitis, Ruslan Salei, and Fred Braithewaite for Russia's AK Bars Kazan team during the lockout, but we're all glad to have him back in the NHL where he belongs. Will he and teammate Martin St. Louis (himself a hockey game cover star) be able to take the Lightning to a second straight Stanley Cup? We'll find out next spring.
NHL 2K6Marty Turco (Dallas Stars)
Marty has the distinction of being the first goalie in a long time to be on the cover of an NHL game. If you believe the producers of the Xbox 360 version of NHL 2K6, Turco's game input was the impetus behind the core gameplay addition to the game--the improved third-person goalie controls that actually make playing the net fun and effective. Turco has had a strong early season with the Stars, starting all 17 of Dallas' games and posting 11 wins in the process--second-most, at the time of this writing, in the NHL. Who knows how far Dallas will progress this season with Turco in net, but one thing's for sure: Once he's done with his time on the ice, he might have a future in game design ahead of him.
Gretzky NHL 06Wayne Gretzky (Phoenix Coyotes)
In June of 2000, Wayne Gretzky was announced as the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, in charge of all hockey operations, a position he began fulfilling in 2001. Not content to work behind the desk and perhaps longing to once again be closer to the ice, Gretz made the move to become coach of the Coyotes during the off-season and has been mentoring longtime vets such as Curtis Joseph, Petr Nedved, and Mike Ricci to hopefully attain a measure of the greatness the Great One found as a player. Yeah, good luck. So far, the Phoenix are hovering just above .500 with an above-average offense and pretty porous defensive play. If Wayne can prove he's as much of a leader behind the bench as he was on the ice, however, it will be yet another line item on his unparalleled resume.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06Tiger Woods
Last year, many had Tiger Woods written off at the ripe old age of 28. While he struggled with a different caddy and enjoyed his marriage to his Swedish model wife, experts wondered if Tiger had finally lost his killer instinct and would be prepared to traipse through the rest of his career in true Sergio Garcia fashion. Plus, in 16-year-old wunderkind Michelle Wie, the golf world had its latest up-and-coming phenom. Then Tiger went out and, much like the game that bears his name, changed up his swing, and ever since, he's been playing like the Tiger of old, taking six wins total. His two Major wins--the British Open (-14) and The Masters (-12)--were signature wins for Woods. The Masters win was especially inspired, as it saw Woods come from behind on Chris DiMarco and ultimately send it to a playoff, where Tiger won it on the first extra hole. Tiger's prepared to enter his 30s as once again the world's best golfer--who knows how many more wins he has in front of him.
NASCAR 06Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon
Two of NASCAR's best on it's cover means NASCAR 06 is twice as fast, right? Well, not exactly. NASCAR 06 was a pretty good game of oval racing, and the two drivers that appear on the cover each had solid years. Up until Tony Stewart's clinching of the Nextel Cup this past weekend, Johnson was well and truly in the chase. As it stands now, with just one race to go in the season, he's only 22 points behind fourth-place sitter Mark Martin. Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, is currently sitting at 11th place. Though Gordon has won just as many races as Johnson this year, he leads the native of El Cajon, California, in money earned by just about $50,000.
Grade: Johnson: A-, Gordon: B
Top SpinRoger Federer, Maria Sharapova
Virtua Tennis: World TourRoger Federer, Andy Roddick, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams
Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova each hold the distinction of appearing on the cover of two tennis games this year--Top Spin for the PlayStation 2 and Virtua Tennis: World Tour for the PlayStation Portable. They also happen to have other feathers in their respective caps: Federer is the best player alive today (having just seen his streak of 35 straight wins end with a loss to David Nalbandian), while Sharapova proves that it's possible to merge Kournikova's looks with Navratilova's skills. It may have been in 2004, but Sharapova, the current world number four, took home her first grand slam win at Wimbledon 2004, knocking off two-time winner Serena Williams in the process.
Serena's misfortune has been her sister Venus' good luck, as Venus won her third Wimbledon title this year after beating Lindsey Davenport in three sets. And while Andy Roddick hasn't done much more than lose to Federer in grand slam events, he did date Mandy Moore briefly. And that's got to count for something.
Grade: Federer - A+, Sharapova - A, Williams - A, Roddick - C+, Mandy Moore - A+