Winning a football game is not easy.
Until Sunday night, the Carolina Panthers had lost a total of one game since the start of 2015 and two since Week 14 of the 2014 season. Collectively, the team emitted the aura of confidence that goes with perennial winners. The Panthers would take the field, play a game for sixty minutes, and leave victorious.
It was easy. Sure, they could slip up and lose a game here or there, but it only happened once. Things happen. Losses happen. Carolina would shake it off and flex its muscles in the next game. And the game after that.
Despite running away with the league, the Panthers had been criticized throughout the year. Some argued that the level of competition that Carolina faced was sub-par — myself, chief among these detractors — while others took exception to the players’ on-field antics. In defense of both criticisms, the Panthers could only be accountable for playing the opponents on their schedule and, while beating up weaker opponents, the victories naturally become fun.
People took notice. Suddenly, the Panthers weren’t just a good team that kept winning. They were now the ‘it team.’ Super Bowl parties morphed into ‘Panthers parties,’ and an added level of celebrity was attached to the organization. When the Panthers would win the Super Bowl — basically, an inevitability in the minds of most — there would be a celebration.
As the game unraveled in front of tens of millions of viewers, however, so did the Panthers. The team had survived the season relatively devoid of resistance. When threatened, they collapsed.
The actions during the game and reactions afterwards both yield the same conclusion — not only were the Panthers expecting to win, they were downright stunned that they didn’t. For a team that had found success by jumping out to large leads in the early minutes of a game, Carolina looked completely unprepared to actually fight a battle. It also didn’t help that Denver was returning to the Super Bowl two short years after getting embarrassed on the same stage.
As Cam Newton was sacked — again — and fumbled the ball — again — the last shred of hope trickled away along with the possession. But hope for an eventual comeback had begun to fade long before Denver extended their lead with minutes to play. Instead, the realization had set in that the Panthers — despite the foregone conclusion that many drew — would not, indeed, brutally dismantle another victim.
Instead, they would lose.
Gravity exists in sports. A fall from a higher point hurts more than one from below. The force is further strengthened when said team had placed itself on such a high pedestal without previous recourse.
The Panthers brought their downfall upon themselves. Not in the loss, but in the sudden wealth of support gained by being the ‘fun team’ that would take pictures on the sidelines and make the sport look easy. Should the game be fun? Of course. But it should not be taken lightly.
Prior to the Super Bowl, the focus shifted away from Cam Newton’s happy antics and more towards his overall appeal. Somehow, the same fun-loving quarterback — and, at the time, the soon-to-be MVP of a 17-1 squad — had irked enough people to trigger the response that he was, possibly, less likable than the public originally believed. Unfortunately for Newton, all the goodwill he had created by handing footballs to fans — he wasn’t the first to do this, but he certainly made it more widespread action — had come undone by the tide shifting away from him.
For Newton and the Panthers, adversity was not something to which they had become accustomed. Be the time the confetti hit the turf, the Panthers had exited the football field defeated.
Passion is taken for granted in sports. As fans, we want our athletes to care as much as we do about the outcome of the game. We yearn for players on our teams to share in our tears. We beg for the same loyalty that we have committed. We see Cam Newton visibly upset, dejected, and flat-out devastated, and we share in his feelings. This lasts as long as the athlete will allow it. When Cam Newton walks away from his press conference prematurely, so ends some our belief in the young quarterback.
There is no doubt that Cam Newton cared about the loss at least as much as any diehard Panthers fan. On an emotional level, Newton should be applauded, as he remains unparalleled. But the reason why he sits in front of cameras while we sit behind televisions is because his life is different than ours. He is the quarterback of the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. He is a professional athlete. He is the leader of his army and the most valuable player to his franchise in the National Football League.
Cam Newton walked away from the responsibility that comes with his role.
He never expected to lose. Carolina never considered the consequences for its action. Sure, the offense could falter here and there, but eventually Ginn would strike for a game-changing touchdown, right? How could Peyton Manning realistically move the ball against the Panthers’ defense, anyway? In the end, the Panthers would win. They always do.
When Newton was questioned after the game, he clearly had no desire to answer. He also had no desire to lose the game. Unfortunately, some things are out of the control of even the quarterback. But wins and losses are attributed to teams. Character is attributed to individuals.
It’s easy to smile after a win. It’s even easier to show up to a room full of people with microphones and cameras and know that they are looking for something good to share about you. Crack a joke, and people will laugh. It will even make it to social media and get recycled for a week. It is not as easy to put forth a terrible performance in the biggest game of your life and answer for it later.
Playing football at the professional level is certainly not as easy as the Panthers made it look, all season. But losing, and the repercussions of such losses, are part of the deal. When Cam Newton signed with the Carolina Panthers, he signed on for everything that comes with being the number one pick in the NFL draft. He signed on for a guaranteed roster spot. He signed on for the keys to the franchise. He signed on to be a leader.
He signed on for the criticism that being the number one pick, a starting quarterback, and the leader of a franchise entails. However, the persona that Newton has now conveyed is one that loves the spotlight when it shines favorably upon him, but is ill-prepared for the darkness. Perhaps he will learn, and take the criticism, questions, and responsibilities in stride. But Cam Newton’s final impression of the 2015 season exemplified the collective tone of the Carolina Panthers based on the difficult lesson learned on Sunday Night.
Football is not easy.