From Cam Newton’s shaky throws to Mike Shula’s chess-match loss to blockers who couldn’t win one-on-one, a look back at what went wrong for a number of Panthers in their worst game of the season
As painful as the Super Bowl loss was for the Panthers, it had to feel much worse watching the film on Monday or Tuesday. (That is, for those members of the Panthers who could bring themselves to watch.) Second-guessing yourself in Super Bowl defeat is only natural. And while the 20/20 vision of hindsight makes the woulda-coulda-shoulda game fruitless, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be played. A number of Panthers players, all from the offense, had their worst outing of the 2015 season last Sunday. That’s unfortunate, because rarely in the history of relatively close playoff contests has one side of a matchup influenced the outcome as much as Carolina’s offense vs. Denver’s defense did. After studying the film, let’s take a tour through the clouds of second-guesses that surely are going on in the heads of so many Panthers.
You’re wondering why you reverted back to the 2011-14 version of yourself. The maturation you showed this season vanished in the biggest game, where you were under duress early and often. Your mechanics got sloppy and your ball placement wasn’t always sharp. True, your receivers failed to step up. Ted Ginn can probably be blamed for T.J. Ward’s interception (he failed to catch a bullet on a crossing route against man-free coverage). Jerricho Cotchery had two crucial drops: the one up the seam that Ron Rivera lost a challenge on early in the game, and the wheel route early in the third quarter one-on-one against Von Miller (exactly the matchup Carolina wanted on the play).
Greg Olsen didn’t have any drops, but he only caught four of the nine balls thrown his way. The Broncos put a litany of different man-to-man defenders on him, depending on the situation or Carolina’s formation. All of them stifled the Pro Bowl tight end.
But the receivers not helping the quarterback was as much a reflection of the quarterback not helping them. In other words, Carolina’s passing game was out of sync. So if you’re Newton, you’re probably ruing that you weren’t better prepared for Denver’s constant coverage changeups. Just like he did in the AFC Championship against New England, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called every core coverage known to football: Cover 2, 2-man, man-free, Quarters, Cover 6 and, a few times, Cover 3. Most of these coverages were played straight up, with few disguises. What you found problematic was the lack of pattern in how they were being called, especially in the first half. Phillips kept you guessing. That took you out of your game a little more than it should have.
None of these regrets, of course, are as big as the one you have from late in the fourth quarter, when you didn’t go for the ball on Von Miller’s second sack-fumble. As a quarterback, it’s understandable that you’d want to protect yourself. Most likely, several coaches over the years have even instructed you to play this way. But those rules get thrown out in crunch time of a Super Bowl. It’s the biggest moment of a title game; what, exactly, are you ever protecting yourself for?
Fortunately, if you’re Newton, you’ve shown admirable toughness on almost every snap you’ve ever taken, so your teammates can probably deem this lowlight a mental gaffe rather than a cowardly decision. To dive on that sort of fumble as a quarterback requires you to overcome all of the drills and teachings that now comprise your instincts. Overcoming instincts in the heat of a battle is just about the hardest thing to do.
Lastly, if you’re Newton, maybe you regret your postgame behavior – but no big deal if you don’t. There were far more important things on Sunday.
You probably wish you’d seen the hole that opened up on the first play, when you bounced it outside for a gain of just two. You uncharacteristically made a few mistakes like this, though to be fair your offensive line was not winning many one-on-one battles.
It’s too bad you injured your hamstring. Those things happen. Before that, though, you weren’t having your best outing. Malik Jackson ate your lunch on a number of run plays, splitting your double-teams and shedding your blocks late. Don’t feel too bad; Jackson continued to do this even after you left the game. (Everyone knew the fifth-year defensive tackle had great quickness. Who knew he had this kind of refined technique and sheer strength? Most of his damage came as a 3-4 end in run D, not as a pass-rushing three-technique. The looming free agent made himself a lot of money Sunday night.)
Where to begin and end on this one? Obviously you regret getting beat twice outside by Von Miller for sack-fumbles near your own goal line. But you shouldn’t. After all, you knew you didn’t have the quickness to compete with Miller. Your coaches knew this, too, which is why they went with so many max protection packages in this game. The Broncos ate those alive by green-dog blitzing them. On that first sack-fumble, which resulted in Denver’s first touchdown, you were probably expecting fullback Mike Tolbert to get at least some contact on Miller when delivering chip block help. But that’s on Tolbert to regret, not you. (And Tolbert might not have room for that regret given that he had two fumbles to think about, including one that he lost just as the team’s power running game was starting to roll.) It’s possible that on the first sack-fumble, what you actually regret most is that you initially reacted to linebacker Danny Trevathan off the snap. Trevathan was lined up over your gap and for a split second you thought he might rush. That split second was all it took to get beat by Miller, who was aligned extremely wide (which might explain why Tolbert didn’t contact him). Bad as that play was, the second sack-fumble may have been worse just because on that play Newton was looking to hit wide receiver Devin Funchess, who was wide open on a deep sail route.
• WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE PANTHERS?: 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.
As a coach and play-caller, you know you’re going to be second-guessed more than anyone. None of the second-guessers are privy to all of the necessary information behind your decisions, which is why you mostly ignore those people. But if any of them this week say you should have run the ball more, well, you can’t help but wonder if they’re right. Your team had over 75 snaps in what was mostly a close game. You called a run on just 24 of them. This regular season you ran the ball on 49.6% of your snaps, the second-highest rate in the league (behind Buffalo). In your biggest game of the year that percentage dipped to about 33. And this against a defense whose corners were so clearly superior to your wide receivers.
You know why you stopped running, at least. For one, the Broncos’ front seven was playing great. All four linebackers were disciplined and all three defensive linemen were overpowering your blockers. Your multifaceted misdirection ground game got nullified. Additionally, the Broncos kept their base front seven in when you went to three-receiver sets on first or second down. Out of the base, they walked both outside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage, presenting what amounted to a five-man defensive line.
The only substitution Denver made here was in the secondary, where corner Bradley Roby replaced one of the starting safeties in order to get three corners against your three wideouts. Like all NFL teams these days, much of your rushing attack takes place out of three-receiver sets. In fact, you averaged 56.5 yards a game rushing out of this look, fifth most in the NFL. But what Denver knew was that the vast majority of your three-wide rushing concepts would not work against a base seven-man box. For a coach, no pill is more bitter than being beat tactically. But that’s what happens when you face a wily old defensive coach like Wade Phillips, and that wily old coach has an extra week to prepare.
So feeling compelled to throw the ball more, your offense took a lot of snaps out of empty formations, with Newton the lone player in the backfield. Typically teams spread out in this look. You, however, like to employ chip-blocks and seven-man protections from it. That’s why you aligned tight ends and running backs just outside of the offensive tackles, rather than in the slots. This fits your team’s style, and there were a few downfield opportunities that came from here on Sunday. But you can’t help but notice that a startling number of unsuccessful plays—including the first sack-fumble and the T.J. Ward interception—also came out of these condensed empty sets. Would you use this formation so many times again if you had it to do over?
In those unexpected five-man defensive lines that Denver played against your three-wide sets, nose tackle Sylvester Williams beat you on a handful of pass rushes. That’s not supposed to happen. By allowing the Broncos to get pressure from this unusual look, you removed their cost for employing it.
The good news if you’re Carolina is you have a dominant defense, a franchise quarterback and a strong base running game. Plus, rising star receiver Kelvin Benjamin rejoins the lineup next year. You have every opportunity to put yourself in another Super Bowl and, hopefully, come away with no regrets next time.