I’ll start by putting my bias on the table: I’ve been accused of being a Cam Newton apologist.
That said, I’m not going to defend his post-game press-conference demeanor. I wish he had handled things differently. Not because I was offended by his actions, but because I know how they were perceived and how they’ll be used against him.
I’m not going to defend his play on the field during the Super Bowl, either. Newton came out full of energy and overthrew his receivers. His 10 overthrown passes tied the record for most in Super Bowl history. His mechanics broke down at times—throwing off his back foot. An apparent shoulder injury affected his posture in the pocket.
And yes, his failure to recover his late fumble looked damning.
But the non-recovery to me was a bad choice in a big moment, not a revelation that Newton is a tin man who lacks heart.
You don’t stand in the pocket and take the shots he took or run downfield without sliding if you lack heart. Newton was pressured on 42.9 percent of his passes, the most ever in his career. Nobody questions Peyton Manning’s willingness to win because he gets down before he’s sacked and slides feet-first on the rare occasions he runs past the line of scrimmage.
Stories deeply critical of Newton have already hit the airwaves. They invariably note that he lacks the proverbial ‘it factor’ while omitting another thing he lacked: his No. 1 receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, who had 73 catches for 1008 yards last year before missing the entire season due to injury.
But what was Newton supposed to say in that situation, so soon after having his dreams dashed? Is it all that surprising he wasn’t chipper or upbeat, still in emotional and—very likely—physical pain?
Newton didn’t criticize any one teammate or coach, and he didn’t say anything negative about his opponent.
If anything, it was probably smart of him to remove himself from the situation before saying something he might regret or that could be misconstrued. Leaving the press conference early was one of the smartest decisions Newton made all night.
We can’t expect athletes to pour everything into their athletic endeavors and not be gutted when they come up short. We can’t love Newton’s emotion when he wins and then be surprised when he’s distraught in losses. And we can’t assume he didn’t care enough about winning to dive on a loose ball but then tear him down for showing how much he does care in a press conference.
The headlines either scream that Newton didn’t play with heart or showed us too much when his heart was broken. That puts him in an impossible position.
Did Newton commit a mortal sin by looking human against the Broncos’ defence (the same way Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger did before him)?
No, of course not.
And yet, on Twitter there was constant parroting of the idea that Newton got what was coming to him—paying a penalty for having “MVP” and his stats written on his cleats.
I read countless tweets crowing that he needed to be humbled for showboating. In the NFC championship game, he had his Panthers teammates’ names on his cleats.
The Broncos defenders celebrated pretty hard any time they sacked Newton, nobody seemed to be outraged. CJ Anderson, did a choreographed dance in the end zone when he scored. I have yet to read that Anderson is what’s wrong with football.
We love to force these athletes into two-dimensional molds: Cam Newton is selfish. Cam Newton is a leader. Cam Newton is cocky. Cam Newton is confident. In truth, nobody is completely saint or villain. Nothing is so black-and-white.
Jerome Bettis is remembered for winning a Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit in his final season. Nobody remembers that he fumbled with the game on the line and was saved when Roethlisberger made the TD-saving tackle.
Tom Brady earned his reputation for being clutch when he led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl. Nobody remembers he only threw one TD pass that entire postseason.
Cam Newton played 20 football games this year. He lost two of them.
Somewhere along the way that fact got lost, and I fear he’ll be remembered for how the year crashed to a halt rather than the fact that it included his meteoric rise.
Newton will probably get back to the Super Bowl. It’ll be painted as a redemption, the product of added maturity, if he wins. It will be more evidence of his flawed character if he loses.
Cam Newton is human, despite his ability to play like Superman. And if you’re looking for a Super Bowl takeaway about him, that should be as shocking as it gets.