CHICAGO – The Carolina Panthers suffered yet another frustrating loss and, given the events leading up to it, may have opened wounds that run all the way to the top of the organization.
But the one thing that may have come out of the latest letdown is that their most important player hit rock bottom and seemed to cope with it. In the aftermath of a 23-22 loss to the 6-1 Chicago Bears on a game-winning field goal as time expired, there were plenty of guesses about which emotional state Newton might put on display.
Would he be defiant? Would he be melancholy? Would he be searching for suggestions? Would he do something that would cause owner Jerry Richardson to throw another employee under the bus?
Richardson did that earlier in the week when he fired general manager Marty Hurney – a move that one veteran employee of the Panthers after another said was done simply to appease the fans.
Newton responded with determination in the face of his team falling to 1-6, five of the losses by six points or less. On display was a leader who hinted at his emotions, but never put them on display. And make no mistake, he showed himself to be a leader. A flawed one, no doubt, but a leader nonetheless.
"There are a lot of emotions I have right now, but I'm not going to get into that," Newton said following Carolina's fifth-straight loss. "I could care less what they decide to do. My job is to be the best player that I can be, whatever they put in. I'm just going to go back doing the things they coach up on. Whether it is [offensive coordinator Rob] Chudzinski, [head] coach [Ron] Rivera, [quarterbacks] coach [Mike] Shula, and get prepared for Washington."
Carolina's loss could be pinned on Newton. There were two possible touchdown passes that he clearly missed and other throws he didn't make. There was an interception he threw that was returned for a score, although that one was more because teammate Steve Smith fell down.
Still, this game was more about what Newton did than what he didn't do – whether that was during the game or afterward. Between his 314 yards passing and another 37 on the ground, he came up with enough plays to beat the NFL's best defense.
Instead, he was let down by a coaching staff that didn't match his willingness to be great. At the critical moments, Rivera played this game not to lose. And whether that was a shanked punt or a soft defense at the wrong time, Rivera's strategy smelled of fear rather than daring.
Example A was Rivera's game-long strategy to kick away from Chicago return man Devin Hester. That's not necessarily a bad idea, but it eventually backfired in a big way. Up 19-7 with 10:18 remaining in the game and holding momentum, Carolina punter Brad Nortman hit a 6-yard punt that put the ball at the Panthers' 38-yard line.
That was the break Chicago, which had scored on only one of its first nine possessions and had only two drives of longer than 24 yards to that point, badly needed. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who had struggled throughout the first three quarters, finally got going. He completed three of four passes for 32 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown to tight end Kellen Davis.
Still, Carolina had a five-point lead with 6:52 remaining. One long drive to either get a field goal or at least change field position would have been enough. That's when Smith slipped on an out route and cornerback Tim Jennings snagged the interception, returning it for a score and a 20-19 lead.
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Smith finished with seven catches for 118 yards, was open throughout the game and still had plenty of defiance in his voice even though he was clearly worn by the loss.
"That was his only play," Smith said of Jennings. "I know you want to pump them up, but I've been kicking their [butt] every time I've been here."
To his credit, Newton fell on the sword for the play, declining to even take the opportunity for an excuse.
"I shouldn't have [thrown] the ball," Newton said, somehow suggesting it's possible to stop a throw in the middle of a timing route.
More important, Newton reacted positively after the mistake. He led the Panthers on a 53-yard drive, leading to a go-ahead field goal.
Sadly, that wasn't enough. Rivera's decision to play a soft, two-deep defense allowed Cutler to make once short toss after another. Four of his six completions on the 55-yard drive went to wide receiver Brandon Marshall as the Bears simply lined up two receivers to one side and manipulated the Carolina coverage.
"We wanted to keep things in front of us," Rivera said.
Sadly, the only thing in front of the Panthers right now is a lot of uncertainty. Will players such as running back DeAngelo Williams or even Smith be traded by Tuesday? Who will be the next GM? Will he want to keep Rivera?
That is all to be decided. At least Newton took a step in the right direction.
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