SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As Cam Newton was giving his postgame press conference, the audio from Broncos cornerback Chris Harris' feed bled into the Panthers' interview room. Newton likely heard Harris say the Broncos defense was "the best ever," because everyone else certainly did. He suffered through just a couple more questions and bolted from the podium well before what anybody would call a reasonable amount of time to talk reporters.
The people who had gathered around his podium were upset because they had jockeyed to see him. Newton was one of the last Panthers players to address media. In a room with eight podiums, we all gathered around the podium marked "No. 1" assuming that's where he would sit. When Devin Funchess sat down instead, a camera man from a local station said "this is fucking ridiculous" and we moved en masse to No. 6, and when Ryan Kalil sat there we tried our luck at podium No. 4, where Newton finally shuffled on stage.
Missing from the short transcript of Newton's presser was his faraway look. When Newton sat down, he stared past his microphone, but his gaze didn't reach the camera lenses or the outstretched hands holding digital recorders. He stared for a long time. He wanted to be left alone, yet knew that wasn't an option. He was caught in an ambiguous place. He tried to do what he was supposed to do then decided he couldn't.
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Cam Newton took a long time to settle in to Super Bowl 50. A wildly high pass to a wide open Philly Brown on the Panther's opening drive was a bad sign. It didn't help that teammates dropped passes and also fumbled. The NFL MVP completed just 44 percent of his passes and didn't score a touchdown. He had weathered strong pass rushes before, but Von Miller and the Broncos' pass rush was another measure better than anything he had seen. It made him look less than mortal, just as it had Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Together, the three were hit 36 times and sacked 14 times by the Broncos during the playoffs. Their combined passer rating was 66.57.
But Newton is a different player than those two. Roethlisberger and Brady were good players who got beat. Newton symbolized something. He put the pressure on himself when ahead of Super Bowl week, he said: "I'm an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to.''
Newton's success bothered a group of people who believe he is a selfish player who celebrates too emphatically. The only other black quarterback in his stratosphere, talent-wise, is Russell Wilson, who is so polished and so on-message that he has become the exception that proves a rule to that certain group.
Newton has critics, and as soon as a player is encumbered with critics he will spend his entire career trying to silence them. If the Panthers had won, Newton would have been happy and would have been too much to abide. If Newton had answered questions dutifully, then his critics would have been quiet only until the next time he enjoyed himself on the field or after a win. His presser Sunday evening just ushered in the backlash more quickly.
Even if Newton wasn't being himself, he could never win.
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The Super Bowl puts abnormal stress on players. While more eyes are on them more than anyone else in the entire world, their new routine changes a lot of things responsible for their success. The final week is monotonous, filled with hundreds of interviews. Players have to wait two weeks after the conference championships to play the one game they've dreamed about since they were kids.
It's surreal to be in its presence, and that can't possibly speak enough for those actively involved. And in the brief periods when we got to see the players up close, it seemed as if the Broncos handled the stress better. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera lets his players be themselves, and that philosophy created a camaraderie that made his team the best in the NFL up until the final game of the season. But for the Broncos, the used-up adage that experience matters was, in this instance, proven true.
Denver had 16 players who had played in the Super Bowl compared to seven for Carolina. It had its biggest edge at quarterback -- the 13-year, 48-day age difference between Manning and Newton was the largest in Super Bowl history. Manning had played in three Super Bowls to Newton's zero. The difference may explain why Manning could still give a poised press conference and why, by Wednesday, Newton was exasperated. He shuffled up to the microphone and deflected the umpteenth question about what it means to be playing in the Super Bowl.
You know what’s confusing? How can I reword questions I’ve been asked so many times? Golly. Nothing pretty much has changed since I’ve seen you guys 24 hours ago. I had an unbelievable sleep, but yet I’m up here again. It’s cool. It’s like I don’t know how you want to say it. I sound like a broken record ...
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Newton cannot exist in a vacuum, much to his chagrin. He explained everything he should have needed to with his answer to the opening question after Sunday's game -- his only answer that was more than seven words.
They just played better than us. 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 score more points than we did.
Newton was upset that his team had lost its biggest game of the season. The only point he had to make was that the Panthers did not play as well as the Broncos.
Two podiums over, safety Roman Harper said a little more. He put the team into context, and indirectly explained why it isn't enough if Newton just talks about the game:
We had a player of the year, we had a coach of the year. We won 17 games, which is extremely hard to do in this league. The culture of this team kind of changed and caught fire around the whole world. I think are some of the positives we will take from it. We had college coaches dabbing. It was crazy. It was a phenomenon.
Newton made the 2015 Panthers a phenomenon. They were one of the best teams in NFL history. Only five teams had ever won 15 games or more during a regular season, and the way in which they did it -- with a turnover-dependent defense and a hodge-podge offense centered on a bludgeoning quarterback -- made them unlike anything we had ever seen.
Newton will always be a singular player, especially in a game that is shading ever more towards uniformity. He is one of the few players in the NFL who are so physically gifted that he, at times, seems a league above his opponents. That potential makes his struggles more jarring.
As a superhuman and a quarterback, Newton doesn't get to step out of the spotlight. He isn't the first player to ever dip out of a press conference early. 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman almost did it after losing to the Ravens during the 2013 Super Bowl. Bowman was obviously bothered that Ray Lewis' voice was interrupting his own, and he nearly left. Unfortunately for Newton, his incident won't be forgotten as quickly.
Newton should have handled the appearance better than he did. Enough NFL players have successfully managed media exposure over the years to expect that even a heartbroken enigma of a losing Super Bowl quarterback should be able to give reporters his allotted time.
But the fact that Newton didn't -- perhaps couldn't -- isn't surprising. No player in the NFL -- with his combined charisma, background and physical gifts -- creates as much demand, and after a wearing week and a forgettable performance, for once he was struggling to fill it.
So, he stared off into a void for a while, wondering something we'll never know, while the voice of his vanquisher spoke louder than he could. He ran away after two and a half minutes, but men like him can't disappear even if they want to.
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