For much of the 2015 NFL season, which came to an end Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif., with the Denver Broncos’ 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, quarteback Cam Newton has taken a public relations beating from some in the media, as well as some fans.
And to be fair, most of it has been undeserved. Until now.
Sunday night, after a game that saw the Denver defense beat up on Newton, the obviously disappointed Carolina quarterback walked out in the middle of his postgame interviews.
“They just played better than us,” Newton said Sunday night. “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 nothing special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That’s it. They scored more points than we did.”
After that, he responded to the next six questions with a total of 17 words.
On what he would tell Panthers’ fans: “We’ll be back.”
On why the Panthers struggled: “They outplayed us.”
On what Panthers coach Ron Rivera said at the half: “He told us a lot of things.”
On the Broncos’ game plan against the Panthers: “Nothing different.”
On putting his disappointment into words: “We lost.”
Did the Broncos do anything to slow down the Panthers’ running game: “No.”
And then he got up and left.
Many have speculated that Newton, in close proximity to Denver defenders giving interviews in the cramped interview area, heard a Broncos player brag about being able to shut Newton down if they forced him to throw, and that this was the final straw.
It doesn’t matter. He should have stayed.
In addition to his play that led to the Panthers’ 15-1 regular season and beatdown of the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs, Newton drew attention to himself for his on-the-field celebrations and his habit of giving touchdown balls to kids in the stands.
It bothered some opponents, fans and more than a couple of sports writers, but none of these things warrant criticism. He’s having fun playing in a league that seems to work hard to suck it out of you. He’s an emotional player.
But that doesn’t excuse walking out. The Panthers need Newton to be a leader. Anybody can celebrate when things are going well. But how he reacts to losing is a better sign of how he’ll act to adversity. Leadership is more important when things aren’t going well.
Newton believes a lot of the criticism he takes for his celebrations isn’t really about his celebrations, but about his race. And to a certain extent, I agree.
But that’s not the case here. This is about maturity.
This year’s winning quarterback, Peyton Manning, has been on the losing side of two Super Bowls. He never walked out of the media conference after one of his losses.
Twice before during this postseason, the Denver defense has demolished a quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Tom Brady of the Patriots lost to the Broncos, as well. They didn’t walk out, either.
Does the emotional Newton deserve a pass. So the aforementioned future Hall of Famers are not emotional players?
Some have pointed out there were other interviews going on near him, he heard what the Broncos defenders said about him and this was the impetus for him walking out.
Newton talked a lot when he was winning. Certainly he doesn’t begrudge the Broncos the same courtesy?
"You are the face of our brand right now, you can't do that," NFL analyst Deion Sanders said after the game. "I understand the emotions of losing, but you can't do that. A Manning, a Brady ... all these guys who are a prototypical type of quarterback in our game, they're not going to do that ever. Would Drew Brees ever?”
Sometimes you have to face the music, even if you don’t like the song.
The bottom line is Newton is a quarterback with a physical skill set that is unmatched to this point in NFL history. The potential for greatness. But he is at a tipping point.
He can learn from his mistakes, grow and use this as motivation to lead the Panthers, the early favorites to win Super Bowl 51, to build on this year’s success.
Or he can continue to pout or run and hide when things get tough.
And one day, we can talk about what might have been.