LLANO, Texas — Even a mediocre Super Bowl is a wonderful occasion, worth the investment in time and guacamole dip. The Super Bowl is far more than the grandest finale of the football season. The commercials with singing sheep and the halftime show by increasingly contemporary musicians attract more viewers than the football action.
The pre-game national anthem has become a cherished role for America’s most popular vocalists. Lady Gaga made the most of her shot at the Star Spangled Banner, and Bruno Mars and Beyonce were up to their halftime challenges. But Coldplay left just about everybody cold.
If the music was a mixed bag, so was the game.
Granted, Super Bowl No. 50 (are we finally through with Roman numerals?) had some memorable plays. Such as the longest punt return in Super Bowl history – 61 yards by Jordan Norwood, who during the regular season never returned one more than 14 yards.
He wouldn’t have gotten farther than 14 yards against the Carolina Panthers if they hadn’t made the mistake of thinking he’d signaled for a fair catch. The Panthers made a lot of mistakes like that, and worse.
Which is why they lost 24-10 to a Denver Broncos team that produced a total offense of 194 yards. Cam Newton, the newly anointed Most Valuable Player of the NFL, had the ball most of the time, but he sustained only one touchdown drive.
The Broncos tortured Newton the same way they did Tom Brady in the AFC Championship. They sacked Newton six times and hit him 20. They blanketed his receivers, who couldn’t catch the ball much anyway. Edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware played spinning wheel with Carolina tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers.
If Newton is MVP, then what can we call Miller? MVP of the Super Bowl hardly says enough about a linebacker who at 250 pounds is as big as Newton but with 4.4 speed in the 40 is a step faster.
Wade Phillips, Denver’s defensive coordinator, created the mismatch by assigning Miller to follow Newton everywhere. Mission accomplished: 2 ½ sacks by Miller, 2 forced fumbles, six solo tackles.
It was, if you’ll excuse the expression, Superman meets kryptonite.
By the end of the first quarter Newton was gasping for breath. He should have done like Miller and jammed his nose into an oxygen mask whenever he was on the sideline. But of course Newton has too much pride and ego for that. So here was the player who’s known above all others for smiles and dances and celebrations, now a study in frustration and weariness.
On the other side, Peyton Manning was his usual stoic self, never a superhero, and never less so than now. At 39 he had to strain to push the ball 40 yards downfield.
We were probably watching the most appropriate farewell possible for one of America’s most successful quarterbacks and pitchmen, oldest ever to start a Super Bowl. His second Super Bowl win was not one of his better games, but it was excellent for his age group. The key fact: he committed one turnover, Newton three.
This was not Manning’s game to win, but it was Newton’s to lose.
To be fair, Newton got no support. None from his receivers (anybody see Greg Olsen? Did Ted Ginn see the sideline stripe?) No help either from coaches who spent two weeks of preparation designing no new plays.
But Newton made things worse than they had to be. He was slow recognizing and reacting to the pressure from Denver’s front.
Worst of all, he failed to chase his own fumble in the most decisive play of the game. With four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Carolina was down 16-10 with the ball on its 28 when Miller knocked it loose from Newton, who then hugged the ground. He would not pursue the bouncing ball into a scrum of bodies larger even than his. Denver recovered his fumble. Game over.
Marshall Faulk said on NFL Network: “I am a little confused about why he did not dive for that fumble.”
Perhaps he wanted the play ruled a forward pass, so he acted like he was sure it was. Whatever his thoughts, he didn’t share many of them with the media afterward. For three minutes he sulked and scowled in his gray hoodie and gave short mumbly answers to some rather inane questions and then he left the podium.
This annoyed fans as well as media. America had smiled, for the most part, and celebrated along with Newton and the Panthers all the way to Santa Clara. We could accept him gloating as long as he’s a gracious loser when the occasion arises.
I was not expecting Robert E. Lee. But after his most historic defeat Newton could have behaved with some dignity and forbearance.
His defenders say he was reacting not to the media but to the jubilation of Chris Harris and other Broncos players within earshot of him.
“I don’t know why they had us in the same room or anything close to where they could hear us,” Harris told USA Today.
But Harris went on to assert that leaders respond to the unexpected. “You’ve got to approach things as a man. We’ve been in that situation when we lost the Super Bowl (two years ago), and you’ve got to be able to take things as they come.”
Newton admits he has a history of being a sore loser, though not while he was leading Auburn University to the national collegiate championship in 2010. In the pros, he’s had to experience defeat three dozen times, but he’s still not comfortable with it, and some say he shouldn’t be. Newton is one who says that. “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” he said the day after the Super Bowl.
But whatever excuses are made, his failure to communicate in difficult times undermines his leadership and might prevent him from winning a second MVP.
Players look to their quarterback to answer for them, to be a spokesman for the less articulate and the less secure. As Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said on CBS Sports’ Monday QB: “You have to know how to handle losing, and I don’t think he handled it well.”
Prior to the Super Bowl, Manning said Newton, 26, would be “the Face of the NFL” for the next eight years. Hopefully, for his sake and the millions of youths who model themselves after him, the next time Cam Newton loses a Super Bowl he will handle it better.