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SANTA CLARA, California — The day after being named 2015 NFL MVP, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had his worst game of the season on the biggest night of his career.
Following the game, the Panthers’ locker room was nearly silent — the televisions were off as Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller accepted his MVP award on the field — and players spoke only cordially to media, barely to each other.
Newton’s pads were tossed in front of his locker, but the quarterback was nowhere to be found for nearly 20 minutes after locker rooms opened to media. He walked out of the shower room still in his grass-stained pants, shirtless and silent. He looked dejected, maybe embarrassed.
As reporters followed, Newton took a lap around the locker room, head down, shoulders slumped, appearing to hope that he could be left alone. But for a quarterback whose team went 17–1 before the Super Bowl, only to be upset spectacularly in the ultimate game, there is no option to hide. Newton took a second lap, put on his hoodie, and headed out to the podium to face the rest of the expectant media.
In Super Bowl 50, Newton completed just 18 of 41 passing attempts for 265 yards. The quarterback was sacked six times for a loss of 62 yards. Newton was no match for the Broncos defense and spent most of the Sunday afternoon game looking lost and overwhelmed. It was about as distant as one could imagine from the dancing, confident, take-no-prisoners Newton who’d helmed the Panthers through the regular season and first two games of the playoffs. The momentum was never in the Panthers’ favor. With a few minutes left of game time, the Panthers were down only 6 points — a touchdown without an extra point — but it was clear the game was over and the Broncos would go home with the Lombardi.
With four minutes left in the game, Newton was sacked at Carolina’s 16 yard line by Von Miller and fumbled to put the ball back in the Broncos’ hands on the four yard line. Fourth turnover for Carolina, their highest of the 2015–2016 season and the most under Newton since Week 1 of 2013.
Newton said nearly nothing at the podium when asked about his team’s loss.
“They just played better than us. 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. […] They scored more points than we did.”
His first answer was the only answer that would extend beyond seven words.
“We’ll be back,” Newton said to Panthers fans.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera “told us a lot of things,” after the game.
“We lost,” Newton said when asked about his disappointment.
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A reporter then asked Newton why he hadn’t “hit the deck” to cover the late-game fumble, a presumption that Newton had consciously given up a still-winnable game on the Carolina 9 yard line. He shrugged, rolled his eyes, and soon after walked silently away from the podium.
What wasn’t captured in a transcript was the audio coming over the loudspeaker of a Broncos player talking about their victory. “All week we heard about Cam Newton,” the Broncos player said before rightfully praising his own team’s defense. If it was audible to the press corps, it was audible to Newton, as he sat on the podium taking questions about his biggest defeat to date.
What Newton showed post–Super Bowl is seen as bad sportsmanship or understandable dejection, depending on who you ask. Newton makes known his highest highs, but sports etiquette asks for grace amid the lowest lows.
It wasn’t Newton’s finest moment, brushing off an obligation while his teammates listened to their share of questions. But as Newton waits for the next meaningful game to come in September, it won’t be what happened after the game that will be weighing on his mind.