A Moral Loss in Victory
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Late in the afternoon on Sunday, Cam Newton described the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium as having a “weird feeling.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Cornerback Josh Norman, still seething over his contentious mano a mano battle with Odell Beckham Jr., sat quietly in full uniform in front of his stall, needing nearly a full hour to shower and cool down before talking to reporters. But he wasn’t the only player left stunned by the Panthers’ 38-35 win, secured only by Graham Gano’s 43-yard field goal as time expired.
This didn’t feel like a winning locker room. Newton, who picked up the last 10 yards of the game-winning drive with his legs, showed none of his usual exuberance. He and most of his teammates filed into the locker room as if it were halftime. “The most disappointed 14-0 team I’ve ever seen in my life,” veteran safety Roman Harper said.
A week earlier, the Panthers were jubilant after their 38-0 thrashing of the Falcons clinched a first-round bye in the postseason. In November, after they’d staved off a late rally by the Colts to push the game to overtime, Newton and his receivers were animated in their home locker room as they recounted his best dimes—perfect throws—of the game.
Last Sunday was different. The Panthers allowed the plucky Giants to claw their way back from a 35-7 third-quarter deficit and tie the game with less than two minutes remaining—a comeback that, had the Giants actually won, would have tied the largest turnaround in NFL regular-season history.
Even though Norman declared victory over Beckham afterward, the Panthers allowed the on-field theatrics between their shutdown cornerback and the Giants’ star receiver to get in their heads. Their personal matchup netted five unnecessary roughness penalties (three for Beckham, two for Norman) and still dominated the public conversation Monday, with multiple reports indicating that members of the Panthers may have started things by wielding a bat at Beckham in a threatening way and/or issuing homophobic slurs before the game. (The Panthers have been known to bring bats on the field before games this season, their rallying cry for “bringing the wood.” The team roundly denied that any taunting occurred.)
The NFL suspended Beckham on Monday without pay for the Giants’ Week 16 game, citing multiple violations of player safety rules. The league’s announcement left the door open for Norman to be fined for his on-field actions.
The quasi-street-fighting between the players escalated all afternoon, with the crescendo happening on a 19-yard run by Shane Vereen late in the third quarter. Beckham took a running start of several yards and launched the crown of his helmet at the earhole of Norman’s helmet, blindsiding the cornerback. After gathering himself, Norman strutted over Beckham and appeared to knee him in the face mask, drawing offsetting fouls. Newton went on the field, towel over his head, to calm down Norman, who had to be restrained by officials and other players. “Malicious in every way,” was how Norman described the hit after the game.
The Giants scored five plays later, after Norman had drawn his second unnecessary roughness penalty for shoving Beckham’s facemask; it was the first of four straight Giants touchdowns to tie the game. Beckham was suspended largely because of his helmet-to-earhole shot that prompted New York City sports radio host Mike Francesa to say on Monday, “He damaged the legacy of his head coach and the legacy of his team. … If the Giants aren’t embarrassed for what this kid has done, let me tell you, they should be.”
After that play, the Panthers were suddenly reeling. “When things started getting a little chippy, maybe it took us out of our game,” Carolina defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “Guys were focusing on that matchup instead of just executing the defense and the call that was called.”
The Giants’ rally, Edwards admitted, was “humbling.” So was Norman’s last play of the game, a 14-yard Beckham touchdown following a double-move. Entering the Giants game, Norman had shut down top receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, TY Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones to the tune of 89 total yards, according to the NFL Network. (Beckham caught six passes for 76 yards and the TD.) Norman said there should have been a flag on the touchdown for Beckham’s alleged pushing off, but he did allow that he needed to be “stronger.”
“When it comes to games like this, we have to dig down deep and we’ve got to fight—we’ve got to finish,” Norman said. “We cannot let stuff like this affect us. God blessed us again with the win. It’s amazing how much he shines his light down upon us and smiles upon us, even when we don’t deserve it.”
For the Giants, losing the game and losing Beckham for a week may very well end their postseason hopes. The Panthers are in a very different position, needing only one win or a Cardinals loss in the final two games to secure NFC home-field advantage. They’re also still in contention for a perfect season—assuming they’re able to put the focus back on football.
After describing Beckham as “a little kid” and a “ballerina” in his postgame comments, Norman continued to fan the flames of controversy on Monday morning. He tweeted a string of emojis including lipstick, a purse and a bikini along with Beckham’s first-half stats line (two drops, zero catches)—an apparent attempt to use emasculation as an insult. Using sexuality in that context is not far removed from reports by ESPN and Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders claiming that Panthers players allegedly directed anti-gay slurs Beckham’s way.
Those allegations surfaced later, but after the game, Panthers coach Ron Rivera focused on his team’s loss of composure. It’s a sore spot for Rivera, who earlier this month talked to The Charlotte Observer about “the biggest mistake” he made in Carolina’s playoff loss to the 49ers two seasons ago. He aired his displeasure with the officiating early in the game, and felt his uproar triggered a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties from his players that changed the course of the game. It’s no surprise that he was none-too-pleased Sunday about an individual matchup threatening the Panthers’ march on history.
“We lost our composure. We started to get scrappy for no reason,” Rivera said. “There was no reason to do that. Just turn away and walk away. That’d have been a lot easier. It would have been a lot easier for us. That’s for doggone sure.”
It doesn’t matter that it was mutual. The Panthers, for the first time this season, nearly got derailed because an opponent on a sub-.500 team got in their heads. Afterward, several Panthers said it: They were lucky to learn their lesson in a win.
“Different situations call for different reactions,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think guys understand what we almost let slip away here, and how devastating that would have been. It was a close call.”
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