There was no poofball hat, no Louboutin loafers, no dabbing, no megawatt grin. Just a hoodie pulled high and a chin slung low. He was still in his sod-besotted game pants.
The regular-season MVP sat down, sighed, looked down, and then mumbled a few short answers to unassuming questions. A microphone was adjusted, pulled closer to his face, but Newton sat back in his chair. He peered out from under his hoodie as he spoke, his shoulders slumped and his words barely audible. Superman had morphed into the Incredible Sulk.
He was asked whether head coach Ron Rivera said anything in the locker room.
"He said a lot of things," Newton droned.
He was asked if Denver did anything special to take away his running lanes.
He was asked if he could put his disappointment into words.
Finally he was asked about how difficult this defeat was for his team.
He stood up and left.
It was Newton's version of "The Decision," an image self-sabotage that hurt him and the league. It was more unsightly than his performance on the field, worse than the split-second when he failed to jump onto a loose ball he had fumbled in the fourth quarter of a 24-10 loss to Denver.
Newton was supposed to be big enough for any moment. Instead, on Super Bowl Sunday, he was steamrolled by a moment he created.
He has never taken losing well, and he's not alone in that. He sulked at his locker after losses as a rookie, and he sulked at his locker in December after his team's lone regular-season defeat in Atlanta. That doesn't undo all the good – the winning, the handing footballs to kids, the excitement he has stirred around the world. But in a postseason when Blair Walsh can take every postgame question about his on-field failure with aplomb, the newest football supernova can and should do better. He gave some credit to the Broncos – "They just played better than us" was the first thing he said – but Newton has always wanted attention and that means dealing with attention during more than the happy times. Leadership is not a sometimes thing or even a most-of-the-time thing.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this loss. The offensive line didn't block, the receivers didn't catch, the running game never picked up speed. Most of all, the Panthers faced an incredible defense. But Newton sets the tone for this team and he didn't set it when it mattered most. He was overexcited from before the game – even many of his pregame practice throws were high – and he didn't settle down. Rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess said it best: "Things were going crazy, haywire. You have to have controlled energy, and it wasn't controlled out there."
Unfair or not, a lot of this is on Newton. He calmed the waters all season, all throughout the playoffs, but didn't in the Super Bowl. He certainly didn't do it after the game, even if he did make sure to congratulate Peyton Manning on the field.
The Panthers' locker room was silent after Newton returned from the media area. Many of the offensive players lined up against the wall, standing next to each other, saying little as they waited to walk to the bus. Tight end Greg Olsen stood next to offensive coordinator Mike Shula, and the two of them spoke somewhat animatedly. At one point Shula turned his palms skyward and shrugged.
There was no answer to Denver, not for Shula or Olsen or Kalil.
"We were just off on some things," Shula had said. Asked why, he said, "I'm not sure."
The Panthers knew Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were coming. Shula said there was nothing on the field that they didn't see on tape. Of course, a championship defense that stifled the New England Patriots is going to present problems, but the best players figure it out. Newton didn't.
That doesn't mean he never will. He is 26 and already an MVP who was playing in the Super Bowl. This is the beginning, not the end. Counting Newton out now is like counting LeBron James out after his first NBA Finals loss to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. But wearing an S on your chest during pregame means you expect to do superhuman things, and the label didn't fit during the game or afterward.
The hatred will pour in now, and it filled up social media even before Newton changed out of his uniform. All the labels Newton warded off – "selfish," "arrogant," "petulant" – will come rushing back at him like Miller and Ware did. A lot of the gleeful backlash will say more about the accusers than it will about Newton, but more of it will come and more of it will stick.
He doesn't care what the outside world says, but it may be time for him to care a little bit more. He's more than the star quarterback of an upstart team now; he'll be on prime-time TV a lot next season. He will be pressured on and off the field to a new extent, and everyone will be looking to see if the sulk returns. That "everyone" might include some coaches and teammates.
Newton walked out into the night on Sunday with his headphones on. He stared straight ahead. All of his teammates had boarded the buses and waited on him and Josh Norman before leaving. One fan yelled for him, but he didn't hear and didn't respond. He boarded the bus and said nothing to anyone. He sat down in the front row and looked down at his phone.
He made so much noise all season, and in the end there was just silence.
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