DENVER — The Denver Broncos talked all week about being physical. And players said they could tell as the season-opening Super Bowl 50 rematch went on Thursday night that the hits were adding up on Carolina Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton.
“I could in the second half, yeah,” Broncos safety Darian Stewart told USA TODAY Sports after the defending champs rallied for a 21-20 triumph. “With two minutes left, man, and that rush get on him, you could tell then. I think that’s our moment.”
Now, there’s a difference being physical and being reckless. Some of the hits the reigning NFL MVP took — including at least four apparent helmet-to-helmet shots — were over the line, even though referee Gene Steratore and his crew threw only one flag.
That call was offset by intentional grounding in the final minute against Newton, who got utterly blasted on the side of the chin by Stewart, yet rose and completed two passes to get the Panthers in range for the winning field-goal attempt Graham Gano missed wide left from 50 yards.
Newton said he didn’t feel he was being targeted and dodged a question about whether he received fair and adequate protection from Steratore’s crew. “It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton said. “I really like this officiating crew. So, it wasn’t something that I know they did intentionally. But it’s not fun getting hit in the head.”
That’s far softer than Newton’s criticism last September of referee Ed Hochuli, whom Newton accused of saying the now 27-year-old quarterback is “not old enough to get that call” for roughing the passer after a hit. (Hochuli denied it.) Newton wouldn’t say why he bit his tongue Thursday, but emphasized he knew people were going to be scrutinizing his interaction with the media after an infamous, abbreviated session with reporters following the Super Bowl.
Newton was later than usual to the podium because he was receiving treatment, according to the Panthers. Asked if he felt any differently than after a normal loss, Newton said: “I feel s----y. That’s what I do feel. I just don’t like to lose. I know you guys are anticipating so much, and I’m trying my best to keep it together.”
There were no signs the Panthers’ medical staff evaluated Newton after the hit from Stewart or the ATC spotter intervened. Newton was asked “a couple questions, but nothing too serious” after the game, though he said there was too much going through his head to remember what the questions were. All of which will trigger some questions from the league and players’ union, which jointly announced in July potential discipline for teams violating concussion protocol.
Stewart insisted his brutal blow wasn’t intended as a shot to Newton’s head and said he’d appeal any fine. “I thought I (led) with the shoulder,” Stewart said. “But he’d been running the whole game, so I was unsure if he was a passer or if he was going to run. I just took the shot, man.”
Right or wrong, the pounding the Broncos planned and delivered had an effect – not just the apparent headshots from Jared Crick, Brandon Marshall, Von Miller and Stewart, but consecutive, legal hits from Shaquil Barrett and DeMarcus Ware midway through the third quarter than had Newton talking to doctors and grabbing his right lower leg on the bench.
After running for 36 yards and a touchdown on six carries (mostly designed) on the way to a 17-7 halftime lead, Newton had just 18 yards on five carries in the second. He was also was less effective passing, completing just 7 of 16 passes for 83 yards with an interception after halftime.
“We wanted to make sure it got to him, so every time he ran, we tried to put a helmet or shoulder pads on him,” said the Broncos’ other starting safety, T.J. Ward. “If he’s not going to slide, then we’re really going to put something on you. We’ve seen him limp throughout the game. So, that run stuff — you can’t do that all game with your quarterback.”
The run threat with Newton is a big part of what makes the Panthers’ offense go, though. As usual, coordinator Mike Shula turned loose his 6-foot-5, 245-pound tank Thursday on plays no other QB would run: inside draws, seal-the-edge plays near the goal line, etc.
Veteran tight end Greg Olsen called Steratore a great ref, but echoed other Panthers teammates when he said: “We’ve got to treat Cam like a quarterback. I know he’s the biggest guy on the field, but he’s still a quarterback.”
An undoubtedly sore quarterback after the game, though Newton went out of his way to say repeatedly the officiating was no excuse for the Panthers’ offense going limp as their small bit of revenge slipped away.
“I try to warn the refs every time I do get hit in the head. But if the flag is not called, then it’s OK,” Newton said. “We just have to find ways to move the ball and not stay so stagnant for so long periods of time.”
Copyright 2016 WCNC