The NFL's Most Valuable Player—who spent all season lighting up the league with his scoring and his smile—slouched back into a black hoodie, drawing a dark cloak around himself as frustration clouded his face.
For not quite three minutes, Newton gutted out one- and two-word answers to a host of questions about his and his teammates' failure. When he'd had enough, he simply left.
In one brief press conference, Newton seemed to un-make all the progress he'd made, un-mature all the maturation he'd shown in this, his fifth NFL season. What's worse, he fueled the anti-Cam fire that's been raging off and on ever since he entered the league (and even before then).
The Panthers fell far short of expectations in Super Bowl 50, and while Newton wasn't the problem, he didn't do quite enough to solve it, either. By giving a petulant, perfunctory presser, Netwon gave his detractors plenty of ammo with which to attack his character.
Asking a 26-year-old man to gracefully handle a Q&A session about what could be the lowest moment in his career is asking an awful lot. Especially when, as one Panthers fan captured on Twitter, Newton could clearly hear Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. denigrating him from the other side of a black curtain:
THIS is why Cam walked out (listen to what's being said in the background). https://t.co/6LdLFwv8tj2/8/2016, 2:37:50 PM
Yes, being a franchise quarterback in today's NFL is an incredibly difficult job, but that's why the top-tier signal-callers receive $100-plus million contracts.
Newton had unquestionably taken a big step forward this year, both on and off the field. The days of his sulking through losses by himself, on the bench, head covered in a towel, seemed behind him. He not only weathered in-game adversity, he met it in stride. When facing defeat against the New York Giants, he led the way with an assured head nod and drove his team to victory.
During Super Bowl 50, Newton weathered plenty of adversity. Near-constant pressure from Von Miller and the Broncos pass rush kept him scrambling for time. His pass-catchers struggled to get open, making him a sitting duck behind an overwhelmed offensive line. When Newton managed to survive the rush and get a pass off, his targets had an awful night catching the ball.
Even when the Panthers got the break they needed, as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning finally gifted them a turnover, they weren't able to capitalize. The officials blew a replay review, costing the Panthers a timeout, a challenge and a drive. The Panthers special teams allowed the longest punt return in Super Bowl history. When the Broncos helped extend a Panthers drive with an unnecessary roughness penalty, Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert short-circuited it with a costly fumble.
After all of that, it was still a one-score game before halftime. The Panthers had the last possession before Beyonce came out and still couldn't get any points. After the break, kicker Graham Gano doinked a 44-yard field goal off the right upright. One of Newton's passes bounced off Ted Ginn Jr.'s hands and into the arms of Broncos safety T.J. Ward. Kony Ealy's strip-sack of Manning at midfield only resulted in a field goal.
It seemed as though Newton and the Panthers were being foiled at every turn, prevented from taking advantage of the few opportunities the Broncos were giving them, let alone getting any luck of their own. But there was a surprising lack of urgency from Newton and the Panthers offense, and it started long before the fourth quarter.
"We read them like a book," Broncos safety T.J. Ward told Andy Benoit of The MMQB. With two weeks to prepare for a defense that was certainly the league's hottest, if not its best, the Panthers seemed to have rolled out of bed and played their standard game. No new wrinkles, no new option plays, no different packages, nothing to slow down the Broncos pass rush or confound the Broncos secondary.
There's a thin line between being cool under pressure and shrinking from the challenge, and Newton was on the wrong side of it. Much like Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs blithely winding down the clock against the New England Patriots earlier in the postseason, Newton and the Panthers offense showed no initiative, no drive, no urgency while time ran out on the chance to turn a 17-1 season into an NFL championship.
Newton's apparent hesitation to cover up his own fumble with just four minutes left fit into this weird fatalistic streak, this seeming acceptance that it just wasn't going to happen that night.
Newton is an emotional player, and the brilliance of his radiant highs are more than worth some occasional dark lows. But as disappointing as his brusque press conference was—after all, teammates such as Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman got up there and faced the music—what Newton and the Panthers will have to fix is not his cliche-regurgitation ability but his apparent acceptance of losing when his teammates aren't helping him out.
Just a few games into his rookie season, I wrote that Newton had a chance to be the best quarterback ever. But there's far more to greatness than winning with style, and part of it is handling adversity. As the tone-setter for the entire franchise, Newton has to be the first one into that pile and the last one to accept defeat. And when defeat comes, Newton doesn't have to like it, but he has to be an example for the rest of his team and be willing to put the blame on his shoulders.
That's the responsibility that comes with the contract, the "C" badge and the No. 1 jersey. Yeah, you'd have to be Superman to go through that kind of personal and professional agony with 100 million people watching and come out smiling, but that's why the job pays $103 million.
With this incident as fuel and this game as a learning experience, football fans everywhere should hope to see Newton clear that bar in Super Bowl LI.
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