There’s plenty of reason for optimism in Carolina after Super Bowl 50—as long as the Panthers’ weaknesses, exposed dramatically by Denver, are taken seriously for 2016 and beyond
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — While Cam Newton was answering questions to the dissatisfaction of those doing the asking, Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers was taking his lumps graciously, though with no less unease behind his words.
How would you assess your play, Mike?
“I’m not happy with it,” he said.
Of course he wasn’t. The guy across from him, Denver’s Von Miller, was crowned MVP of Super Bowl 50 after beating Remmers around the edge, to the inside and right down the middle en route to a pair of critical, game-winning forced fumbles. For three hours on Sunday, Remmers was the Achilles heel of Carolina’s 17-1 juggernaut. And here’s the tragic, mind-boggling thing about it: He was destined for this role. From the moment Ron Rivera and Mike Shula looked at the AFC Championship Game and decided they’d approach the problem of Von Miller without consistent supplemental pass blocking from running backs and tight ends, this game hinged on Mike Remmers, the 26-year-old undrafted veteran of six NFL teams who was released by the Rams before the 2014 regular season and promptly picked up by Panthers GM Dave Gettlemen.
Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert watched that New England-Denver championship game too, the one in which Miller and DeMarcus Ware combined for three sacks and more hits than Tom Brady had endured in any game all season. And Tolbert wondered what they would do to avoid the same fate. The answer was faith—faith in Remmers to neutralize an opponent the likes of which he’d never seen; faith in Cam Newton’s ability to get the ball out of his hands faster than he’d been asked to do all season.
“I watched that tape on Tuesday after they played, and, I mean, I hadn’t seen a more dominant performance by edge rushers this season,” Tolbert said. “Those guys are amazing. Ware’s a future Hall of Famer. Von Miller is headed that way. They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with for a while.
“Spreading the field was part of the game plan, but you can’t do it all.”
Said Panthers tight end Ed Dickson: “We left our tackles out to dry.”
Spread the field. That was the plan. Be better than the Patriots at being the Patriots. It was confusing for the Panthers defense, that each of these playoff opponents have left their tackles exposed against the premier pass-rushing linebackers in football.
“I feel like a lot of teams, even the Patriots, were like, OK, we’re going to sit back and dice them up,” said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. “And they didn’t protect. The running back free-released all the time. There were only a couple of teams that decided, OK, we’re really go to protect. In the playoffs nobody did it. I don’t know why. They must’ve thought, OK, we can block these guys. But they couldn’t.”
And who knows if they could have, even with help from Tolbert and/or Jonathan Stewart. That’s what the Broncos were planning for anyway. They figured the Carolina offense would become so predictable in such a scenario that the defense would be snagging interceptions, not fumbles.
“You give yourself away when you dedicate a running back to pass-blocking consistently,” said Denver cornerback Bradley Roby. “You tip your play. There’s no simple solution.”
Perhaps giving Cam Newton five options and asking him to make the quick throws was the best and only way to go, with a roster that despite its stellar record in 2015 had deficiencies that were not exposed until the Super Bowl, thanks to a relatively cake schedule (the AFC South and, of course, the NFC South).
The Panthers don’t have a Julian Edelman, a Calvin Johnson or anything close. They have Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery, who found themselves smothered by a Denver defense that went with Cover 1 for much of the game and challenged Carolina’s receivers to get open, fast. These guys could do that in the regular season but not in the playoffs, when players say officials are wont to condone physical play in the secondary.
“I think you get more leeway from the refs, and rightfully so,” said Panthers defensive back Cortland Finnegan. “The officials just seem to let the teams play; they don’t want to have to throw flags unless it’s obvious.”
Said Dickson: “There were some questionable no-calls, but you cant rely on the refs to save you.”
Dickson, 28, was one of dozens of Panthers who, unlike Newton, obliged reporters tiptoeing around the ruins of a two-loss season on Sunday night. This wasn’t a despondent Super Bowl locker room relative to previous losers. That these Panthers will be back on this stage next season is a commonly held belief, especially to playoff veterans like Dickson, who spent his first four seasons in Baltimore and won a Super Bowl following the 2012 season.
“This feels just like when we lost to the Patriots the year before we won the Super Bowl,” Dickson said of that Ravens team. “It’s a knife in the heart. It felt like the whole game we were one play away. But you’re encouraged because you look around here, and everyone is young and getting better fast.”
Looking forward to 2016, the return of a healthy Kelvin Benjamin means one more viable option for Newton in the event of another potential sack-fest. But what Newton really needs if the Panthers are to overcome the presence of a Von Miller-type edge rusher (and there aren’t many out there) is a legitimate set of tackles. At 29, left tackle Michael Oher appears to have experienced a revival in Carolina, but he’s on the backend of an up-and-down career. Remmers is Remmers, a castoff forced to start for a team that, prior to taking Daryl Williams in the fourth round in 2015, hadn’t drafted a tackle since 2011 (Lee Ziemba in the seventh round). Before Ziemba, you have to go back to the 2008 drafting of Jeff Otah in the first round.
It’s been a luxury unique to the Panthers since 2011, when they took the mobile and durable Newton first overall, to spend minimal resources on protecting the edges and invest instead on road-grading interior linemen. Superman could always handle it, until he couldn’t. With the Panthers trailing by six points late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Von Miller beat Remmers for his second forced fumble of the night. Newton stepped forward to corral the ball on the ground, and at the last moment hopped out of the way, sparing his own legs from a diving DeMarcus Ware.
Showed replays of the clip in the winning locker room, some Broncos players speculated that Newton was hoping for the ball to bounce out of the melee and give him the opportunity to make a play. And others had their worst assumptions about Newton confirmed.
“He didn’t want it,” repeated cornerback Aqib Talib. “He didn’t want it.”
Said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan: "I wouldn’t do that, because I like to get dirty. But that's the way he is. Playing for himself."
And so what if that’s true? Can you really blame Cam for saving his own skin after it was made abundantly clear, from the general manager to the coaching staff, that no one would be saving it for him?