I’ve never played quarterback in the NFL. You’ve never played quarterback in the NFL, probably. And yet, we all seem to know what should’ve been going through Cam Newton’s mind when, down six in the fourth quarter, Broncos linebacker Von Miller swatted the ball out of his right hand on third down.
Get the ball! It’s the freakin’ Super Bowl!
But that’s not what Newton did. He waffled. He peered. He took two half-steps, then a hop back and watched DeMarcus Ware drop his big paw on it. The Denver recovery at the Carolina 4-yard line led to an easy touchdown and sealed a 24-10 victory in Super Bowl 50. Hypothetically, a Panthers recovery followed by a punt and a three-and-out by the Broncos would have given Newton the ball with something like three minutes remaining, down 6.
Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback of 14 years and current CBS color man, echoed what America was thinking during the broadcast. “I guess he made a decision it wasn’t worth (it) to go in there and get it,” Simms said. “Should've dove in. Had a chance to recover it.”
After the dust settled, Simms addressed his colleague, Jim Nantz: “Jim, when you see that football on the ground, no matter the situation, but especially the Super Bowl, you have to go in there and get that recovery.”
After a pouty post-game press conference, Newton would go on to explain a day later: “I didn’t dive on one fumble because the way my leg was (positioned). It could have been contorted in a way. You say my effort? I didn’t dive down. I fumbled—that’s fine. That’s fine. We didn’t lose the game because of that fumble.”
“You can’t really say it didn’t have an effect on the game,” a previous Super Bowl starter said. “Every play has an effect on the next play.”
I have my own feelings about that statement, which we’ll get to later. First, let’s hear from four guys belonging to the fraternity of 58 men who have actually been in Newton’s position—four Super Bowl starting quarterbacks who watched the play in hi-def and came away with four different opinions.
“It’s a weak explanation,” says Joe Theismann, winner of Super Bowl 17 and loser of Super Bowl 18 with Washington. “The game’s about effort. And certainly he was under tremendous duress the entire game. But to come up with that excuse? … He has to grow up. There’s no question it’s all about him. Did anybody doubt that this entire season was about him?”
Another Super Bowl quarterback, who asked not to be named, said the choice to pursue a fumble recovery or an interception return with less than 100% effort is a choice all quarterbacks make, but not in the Super Bowl—not in the final quarter of an elimination game.
“We have all made business decisions at different times as quarterbacks,” said the quarterback, who is now retired. “It would have been pretty hard at that point in time for me to have made that business decision, but I wasn’t there, and I didn’t see what he saw in that moment.”
Brad Johnson, quarterback of the Super Bowl 37 champion Buccaneers, had a more Newton-friendly take.
“The one injury that I always thought changed the course of this argument was the Drew Brees injury,” Johnson says.
Indeed, Newton’s backers have spent the better part of the past 48 hours citing that play. The scenario: In the second quarter of a Week 17 loss to Denver in 2005, Broncos safety John Lynch hit Chargers quarterback Drew Brees from behind, forcing a fumble which Brees dove to recover, only to have 325-pound defensive tackle Gerard Warren land on his back, tearing the labrum in the quarterback's throwing shoulder and essentially ending his run in San Diego.
Here's the key (and obvious) difference: Brees went down in a regular season game. He also went on to sign a mega-deal with the Saints, throw for 48,555 yards and 348 touchdowns over the next 10 seasons and earn Super Bowl 44 MVP honors. Not exactly the pessimist’s ideal cautionary tale.
“It was a weird play, and he might have reacted slow, but he did go to the ground,” Johnson says of Newton, who dove for the ball only after Ware had landed. “Sometimes it’s hard to find the ball. Who’s to say? Maybe you would like him to dive on it a little bit quicker.”
Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme lost his only Super Bowl appearance, 32-29, to the Patriots in Super Bowl 38. In the divisional playoff game against St. Louis that season, Delhomme fumbled a snap at the Rams 5-yard line that was kicked around the turf of the Edward Jones Dome and eventually corralled by teammate Muhsin Muhammad for a go-ahead second-quarter touchdown. The Panthers won 29-23 in overtime, and the fumble was a happy footnote in the Super Bowl run.
“I thought about that fumble when I saw the play in question,” Delhomme says. “I remember seeing the ball, and I’m looking to see if it’s gonna bounce out for me to scoop up, and then Muhsin pounces on it. That play is a way bigger deal if Muhsin doesn’t fall on that.
“You’d like to think you’d jump on that ball if you're Cam,” Delhomme continues, “but I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
There are points of agreement, though, for the quarterbacks. For one: Newton’s response, both during the post-game press conference and later in Charlotte, did not meet expectations.
“You can’t really say it didn’t have an effect on the game,” Johnson says. “Every play has an effect on the next play.”
Theismann took issue with Newton blowing off his press conference after the game (during which Panthers players could hear the jubilation of Broncos defenders in nearby interviews).
“He has not handled adversity very well his entire career,” Theismann says. “There’s no question he was the most valuable player in the NFL, but he has things to learn when it comes to maturity.”
Newton was supposed to be there. That was the narrative out of Charlotte at least. As far back as 2013, you’ll find articles comparing the ‘new’ Cam Newton, a reformed ‘Mr. Mopeyhead’ as Ron Rivera once called him, to former quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was notably deflective of praise and accepting of criticism during his seven seasons with the team.
Additionally, Newton’s sprint to the MVP award was bolstered by a chorus of teammates who lauded his team-first attitude. And yet, Newton couldn’t muster up those hollow interview maxims about being proud of the team effort and coming back strong next year. That's not his style; he wears his heart on his sleeve. And in doing so, he made it all about him. Again. And when offered the opportunity to accept blame, he deflected.
“We didn’t lose the game because of that fumble,” he said.
• 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
Delhomme, who defended Newton in 2012 and beyond (“He’s still a kid.”), appears resigned to the reality that Newton won’t soon be the prototypical leader many expect him to be.
“He takes losses very hard,” Delhomme says. “People want the quarterback to have a CEO type of voice, but that’s not him. The finality of the Super Bowl is so abrupt. It happens and then everything’s over, everything you worked for.”
It’s true that Cam Newton didn’t lose this football game. And it’s indisputable Newton still has work to do when speaking for a franchise. But that’s not the point.
This is about being a quarterback, right? This is about never saying die. That’s what I thought when I saw the fumble. And that’s how several Broncos felt once I showed them the Vine of Newton hopping out of the way.
“He didn’t want it!” Aqib Talib yelled in the winning locker room. T.J. Ward agreed: “He didn’t want it!”
They weren’t talking about the ball; they were talking about the game. They’re talking about a 6-6, 260-pound quarterback, bigger, faster and stronger than any Super Bowl quarterback before him. They’re talking about the most athletic guy on the field next to Von Miller; the guy who did a front-flip into the end zone over a Texans defender, then popped up and mimed a Superman reveal. That wasn’t 2011, the year he was drafted—that was four months ago. It’s enough to make you wonder.
“They played a better team, and this offensive line couldn’t block anyone,” Theismann says. “But the ending just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
Says Delhomme: “It’s an all-in type of deal.”
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