SANTA CLARA, Calif. — “I know you’re disappointed, not just for yourself but for your teammates. Because you guys talked about how you’re a band of brothers coming in, and this has to be really tough for everyone involved.”
Cam Newton, sporting a hoodie tight as seeming insulation from prying eyes, and slouching dismissively, opened his Super Bowl 50 postgame press conference with a pouting silence in in response to questions about Denver’s defense. And upon hearing that statement, Newton walked off the podium—but not before putting together a single paragraph for the media throng.
“They just played better than us,” he said about the Super Bowl champion Broncos, who thrashed Newton’s Panthers, 24–10. “I don't know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us, and that’s what it came down to. We had our opportunities. There wasn’t anything special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That’s it.”
Well, not really.
The entire situation was not at all a good look. And it was far from the first bad look Newton showed on the day of Super Bowl 50.
As much as I’ve jumped to defend Newton from his critics because I believe most of them to have racially-and societally-charged opinions that hold little basis in fact, there is a gravitas to the quarterback position. By walking off that makeshift podium in the bowels of Levi’s Stadium the way he did, Newton gave all the ammo required to everyone who would prefer that he keeps his head down and shows the kind of humility one would expect from a guest rather than a host. It’s understandable that he felt awful about the way the game turned out, but there are certain responsibilities that come with his job, no matter who you are.
It’s a shame, because in that fit of pique, Newton couldn’t have possibly understood what he did to his image. Not that it matters in the big picture—what matters is what the Broncos’ defense did to Newton’s offense, his dynamism and the most complex run game the NFL has ever seen.
In the game of football—as in the game of life—there are losses, embarrassments and ass-whippings. And to walk into the Panthers’ locker room is to know what it feels like to get your ass whipped.
The 24–10 Panthers loss (which was that just as much as it was a decisive Denver win) shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen. This was the best offense in football, with a run game that incorporated power/counter/trap blocking concepts, a base multi-back run game that combined acceleration and power in lethal doses and an option attack that paralyzed defenses all year. Newton himself had thrown 27 touchdowns and three interceptions since Week 9, which added an entirely new level of frustration for any defense trying to stop what the Panthers were doing.
And then, the Broncos’ defense, fresh off its annihilation of Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, did precisely what the Seahawks did to the Broncos’ offense two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX—they took the NFL’s best offense and summarily ripped page after page out of the playbook. Broncos EVP John Elway responded to that 43–8 beatdown by building the league’s best defense, and when it was time for the tables to be turned, the story was very much the same. No, Denver didn’t put the same number of points, primarily because Peyton Manning played like Clint Eastwood might have in The Unforgiven—a reluctant hero who knows his time is just about up, and wants to go out with a cause.
But that defense? My goodness, it was spectacular. Newton seemed to be in a state of near-rapture during Lady Gaga’s fearless and peerless rendition of the national anthem, but that was the last rapturous moment Newton would see all day. Newton’s day wasn’t epically horrible, according to the stat sheet, though 18 of 41 attempts for 265 yards, no touchdowns and an interception certainly won’t feed the Chihuahua. However, Newton sailed multiple passes over the heads of his receivers, and said receivers didn’t help him at all by flubbing a number of catchable throws.
No, the real killing work Denver’s defense did to that generally unstoppable Panthers offense was to take away the sweeps and counters with incredible gap discipline, and remove the consistency of the inside power and option run game with the great play of ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. That defense prevented Newton from stepping up in the pocket to make his throws, forcing him to hurl the ball with his arm alone rather than his lower body—and the effect on his mechanics showed over and over again.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who’s looked very much like the best in the business all season, seemed utterly flabbergasted by what Wade Phillips’s monster had done to his precious creation.
“We tried a lot—a lot of different things,” Shula said. “We knew those guys coming in were the best we’ve seen, and they proved it. They’re fast to the ball, they can rush the passer, and they do a good job against the run game. You throw in the fact that we were off on some things—had a couple turnovers early, just a little bit off on some things. It can add up, and unfortunately, it looked like that.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera couldn’t quite explain what happened immediately after the game. But it was clear from the auxiliary press box what was happening—Phillips had Shula’s number, Newton’s number and the Panthers’ number, and he was dealing winning hands all afternoon.
“I’d have to go back and watch the film to see, but when we did, I thought we had success running the ball,” left tackle Michal Oher said. “I mean, how many times did we run?”
In the twenties, I said. (I later learned it was 27 times. As I was running down to the interview room as the game was ending, I didn’t yet have the totals).
“So, if you’ve got 120-something yards, and twenty-something carries, what does that put you on average?”
Around five yards per carry, I said.
“That’s what I’m saying. I think we got it.”
Yes, but... stats can lie at times, and this case, it was a real whopper. Guard Mike Remmers simply said that he’d have to watch the tape (yes, that again) to see why it was that Carolina’s rushing offense was so tentative, but it was no mystery. Newton led the team with 45 rushing yards, but only one of his runs was designed—most of the time, he was simply running for his life. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller followed up his bravura performance against the Patriots with a 2.5-sack masterpiece here, and Newton simply had no shot to be what he had been all season.
Newton’s teammates insisted that the loss wasn’t their quarterback’s fault. And in the midst of all the drama that will come down, it’s important to remember that Newton had one of the most transcendent seasons at his position in recent memory, tied together with afterthought receivers and an offensive line that far outperformed expectations until the most important game of the season rolled around.
“I don’t think we played well around [Newton],” tight end Greg Olsen said. Olsen had been Newton’s one consistent target all season, but was limited to four catches on nine targets for 41 yards. “I don’t think this is all him. We can’t turn this into the ‘What’s wrong with Cam Newton’ show.”
Sadly, that’s exactly what it’s going to be for Cam Newton, as he continues to fight the war of perception on and off the field. And even more sadly, this time around, he has nobody to blame but himself.