Losing is one thing. Nobody likes it.
Losing composure is another thing. Nobody likes seeing it.
The Carolina Panthers lost a pretty gruesome Super Bowl 50 on Sunday night. After winning the opening coin toss, very little went right for the favorites against a relentless No. 1 Denver Broncos defense that stifled the best league’s offense. The cliché that “defense wins championships” was rarely more apropos, because the Broncos offense barely showed up, yet the AFC champs dominated from start to finish anyway.
Nobody on the Panthers offense covered themselves in glory Sunday. The receivers struggled to get open and dropped too many passes when they did. The running backs struggled to gain traction and fumbled the ball away on the rare occasion that they did. The offensive line struggled to contain Denver’s blitz and repeatedly flinched as though they had a football version of PTSD.
Nobody, however, came out of the experience worse than Cam Newton. The runaway league MVP was hounded into arguably his worst performance as a pro. He missed some open receivers. He failed to account for a touchdown passing or rushing for the first time all season. He was sacked six times, twice fumbling on the two most decisive plays of the night – the first recovered for a touchdown and the second essentially ending the game when Newton backed away from even trying to recover it.
Denver simply did what everyone has been saying all season – if you want to keep Newton from dancing and smiling and giving away footballs to children, then stop him.
There certainly wasn’t anything for Newton or the Panthers to smile about. Even a polarizing player like Newton, however, can recover from a bad title game. John Elway did it. Peyton Manning did it. These same Broncos tormented Tom Brady similarly two weeks before, so Newton is in good company.
But it’s what happened after the loss that opened the door for Newton’s many haters to pounce – and rightfully so. Newton has often been characterized as the best winner and the worst loser, a plight he had very little training for in college. Sulking on the podium and giving mostly terse answers before walking away was incredibly poor form. It’s certainly not the example he’s been trying to set for the kids who look up to him. When you’re the face of your team and the league, accountability is part of the job. If you want to dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it as well.
This was the crack his critics were waiting for. Newton was mercilessly ripped on social media and in the network postgame shows. All of the pregame conversation about his maturity was rendered moot in two uncomfortable minutes. It was savage. He came across as a pouting brat.
The first thing that came to mind was the poetic wisdom of Caddyshack’s Judge Smails:
“It’s easy to grin
When your ship comes in
And you’ve got the stock market beat.
But the man worthwhile,
Is the man who can smile,
When his shorts are too tight in the seat.”
Newton didn’t handle it well, even if there were mitigating circumstances that weren’t apparent on the video clips of his exit. It turns out that just a few feet away, Denver cornerback Chris Harris was loudly extolling the details of how they harassed Newton into submission. Newton couldn’t help but hear it over the questions, shook his head and walked off the podium abruptly. He shouldn’t have, but it’s more revealing in proper context.
I’ve covered three Super Bowls and hundreds of other football games over the past 32 years, and never have the winners and losers been set up in close proximity to each other. After 50 Super Bowls, the NFL should know better than to present such a combustible scenario.
But that won’t change the takeaway on his reputation that Newton will have to live with during what will be the most important year of his career – 2016. The Panthers are set up to be the dominant team in the NFC South for the foreseeable future. Their defense was no slouch on Sunday, either, and they have the components to potentially reach the game’s greatest stage once again.
For all his skills and all his welcome exuberance, Newton will need to display growth of character in defeat because defeat is inevitable in sports no matter how good you might be. It’s not too late for him to man up. Manning certainly recovered from prominent missteps including bolting off the Super Bowl XLVI field without congratulating any New Orleans Saints players.
“There’s not much consolation for the guys who didn’t win,” Manning said that night.
Losing a championship game is the hardest thing to take in sports. You never know whether you’ll ever get a chance again. It’s funereal in those postgame losers’ interviews, and answering the same inane and repetitive questions must be torturous while the wound is still fresh.
I can vividly remember how stoic and hurt former Richmond County star Ken Whisenhunt was when he dutifully addressed the media as the Arizona head coach after a devastating last-second loss to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Even two months later, he didn’t want to talk about it and still suffered reminders.
“I’ll tell you when that happens,” Whisenhunt said when asked whether he had come to terms with it 75 days later. “It’s been tough. I’m getting to the point where I’m almost able to enjoy it. I’ve seen highlights of all the special things we did last year. Then they have to show that Super Bowl and it brings back tough memories of how close we came.”
The Panthers did a lot of special things this season – especially Newton. One day he’ll almost be able to enjoy how close they came and start dabbing and dancing toward rectifying the pain.
Until then, he needs to learn to grin and bear it no matter how tight his shorts feel, because the only thing worse than a great winner is a sore loser.