Last December, I walked into work to log play-by-play for the Carolina Panthers/Atlanta Falcons football game for NBC Sports. Atlanta ended up handing Carolina their first loss of the season by a 20-13 score, and all the questions seemed to fall at the feet of Panthers' star quarterback, Cam Newton. The usual talking points came up during his postgame press conference concerning disappointment, questionable decisions, and botched plays. Yet, as I was transcribing Newton's answers, I was surprised by how he handled the critics. He took responsibility for the loss, gave his teammates credit, and insisted that he'd play the following week despite calls to rest before the playoffs.
From that moment, I became a Newton fan. I loved the energy and enthusiasm he had for the game. I loved that after every touchdown he scored, he'd hand the ball to a young fan in the stands. He played the game with a fan's mindset, incorporating infectious dancing and "dabbing" after a touchdown or a big play. In a league of strait-laced, "act-like-you've-been-there-before" personalities, his youthful exuberance was refreshing to see. I didn't understand why some people had a problem with his celebrations, and I reveled in his response of "If you don't like it, keep me out [of the end zone]."
With his stellar play on the field, and charitable giving off the field, I felt that Newton was the perfect leader for his team, and a great role model for the kids who looked up to him.
That's why I was so discouraged when I watched his terse, yet tense, post game press conference after the Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 last Sunday. Newton, visibly dejected, his face somewhat obscured by his hoodie, gave largely one-word answers to reporters' questions. A little over two minutes in, Newton said, "I'm done, man" before getting up and leaving the presser. I'm sorry, Cam, but that's not how a leader should act, at least not in that moment.
I get it. Newton was frustrated. Fresh off league MVP honors, he had just lost the biggest game of his life. After winning 15 games during the regular season and cruising through the playoffs, he just couldn't muster that final star performance that every ESPN analyst and sports personality thought was inevitable. Newton looked like a shell of himself on the field at Levi's Stadium, completing just 18 of 41 passes, throwing an interception and losing two fumbles. He seemed frazzled from the start, and his teammates weren't of much help, dropping passes, and allowing the vaunted Broncos defense to sack Newton several times.
I'm sure the last thing that anyone would want to do is talk to a bunch of reporters who just want a soundbyte about how you didn't get the job done, how great the season was in spite of it, and your plans for next year. However, as the face of the Carolina Panthers franchise, and the presumptive face of the NFL going forward, Newton has a responsibility to take questions throughout the entire press conference. I don't mind the one-word answers. Even the pouting and sulking, while immature, is understandable. It's the storming out of the press conference before it ended that is disappointing. It puts the onus on Newton's teammates to answer the questions meant for him. It shows the kids who look up to him that character and humility take a backseat when you lose.
I realize that much has been said about Newton's demeanor during and after the game. Former NFL greats like Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders were critical of his actions, while his opponent that night, Peyton Manning, praised his skill, and guaranteed that Newton would be back in the Super Bowl in the near future. The fact is that Newton can't have it both ways. He needs to take responsibility and be as gracious in defeat as he is joyful in victory.
I'm not saying that Peyton Manning is any better in these moments. In fact, it was Peyton Manning who stormed off the field in a huff after losing Super Bowl XLIV to the New Orleans Saints back in 2009. Newton showed tremendous sportsmanship in congratulating Manning on the field in the flurry of post-game confetti. It would've been great if he brought that into his postgame presser, even if only for five minutes.
I'm not a huge fan of post-game press conferences myself. They're full of scripted answers and hackneyed clichés. Heck, Manning gave practically the same post-game interview twice after the game ended, talking about "kissing his wife," "drinking Budweiser," and "thanking the man upstairs." At least we could tell Newton wore his heart on his sleeve and gave "real" answers. However, it's still part of the job to complete the press conference.
In the following days, Newton attempted to clarify his remarks, saying "You show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser... I'm human. I never once said that I was perfect."
Newton is right; no one is perfect. However, being gracious in defeat does not make you a loser.
Overall, I was discouraged by Newton's actions, especially in light of how well he handled the press after that loss to the Falcons back in December. Yes, the Super Bowl is a much bigger stage, with over 100 million viewers. Besides, the pressure of winning that Vince Lombardi trophy after such a successful season can be overwhelming. At 26 years of age, Newton is still a young player. He'll learn from this experience, and come back all the better because of it.
Right now, though, if he's going to dab, dance, and dish it out when he wins, he needs to own it when he loses. This situation is all the more frustrating given all the critics who will jump on Newton for anything little fault they can find.
Newton noted he doesn't care about his critics. Yet, whether he cares or not, they matter to some degree in that they drive the conversation around him and his team.
So, my advice to the Panthers' star quarterback is to take humility in this loss, learn from it, and come back stronger next year. I agree with Peyton Manning that Newton be back to the Big Game soon. Taking the losses in stride will make that journey easier. As the Carolina fans say: Keep pounding, Cam.