CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Carolina Panthers lost in the NFC Divisional Round to the 49ers on Sunday, it meant that Tim Tebow would remain the only former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback since 1987 to win a playoff game.
A pretty staggering statistic, but it’s not like every Heisman recipient goes on to NFL success. Or even most, for that matter.
Winning the Heisman, winning the national title at Auburn and just generally being an enigmatic persona off the field — not to mention electric on it — has meant that Cam Newton would be more heavily scrutinized, perhaps, than other franchise quarterbacks.
One of the biggest questions involving talented quarterbacks is how they’ll respond in big moments. And in the first half against San Francisco, one of the best defenses in football, Newton — the No. 1 overall pick three years ago — gave the NFL universe a glimpse of what makes him so special.
It was the best of both worlds of Newton’s dueling personas: he was calm, deliberate and fearlessly in charge while making accurate medium- and long-range throws.
Newton was 8-of-10 for 136 yards, one touchdown and one interception (and a sack) in the first half. He also rushed seven times for 40 yards. His one interception, targeting Bradnon LaFell, was deflected it into the air and into the waiting hands of 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.
Those plays seemed like a distant memory during the post-game media address, when Newton wearily trudged up to the podium, dressed nattily in a brown suit and tie.
"We just, offensively, we didn’t put enough plays together to win the football game. It’s hard as a person, it’s hard as a man, it’s hard as an individual, it’s hard as whatever you want to call yourself when you put so much into it and you don’t get the production that you want out of it," Newton said.
Even as Newton talks, he doesn’t look up. He doesn’t make eye contact with the assembled media.
In case you hadn’t heard, there are a few off-field knocks on Newton. One is that he’s too distant on the sidelines, a bad teammate. That myth has seemingly been dispelled a number of times, but even Newton would admit his body language hasn’t always been great.
Another is that he’s pouty and sulky in postgame press conferences, a bad loser.
There’s certainly truth to that, and he’s not any better of a loser than his rookie campaign. Although, when the 2011 Panthers went 6-10 and Newton put up video-game numbers, no one cared the team was losing.
After dropping his first-ever playoff game, as part of the Panthers’ 23-10 loss to the 49ers at Bank of America Stadium, Newton was equal parts measured and deliberate … and angry and disappointed.
"No," answered Newton when asked if Sunday was the toughest loss of his career. "A loss is a loss, but being that the preparation going into it, I felt as if I was ready more than any other game. Being that we took a loss, it’s kind of hurtful."
He took the blame for it. In the second half, he wasn’t his typically dynamic self. Of course, neither was the Panthers defense, but ultimately, it’s on him and he knows that.
That wasn’t what was haunting him, though.
The Panthers reached the red zone for the first time late in the first quarter, advancing to the 49ers’ 1.
Head coach Ron Rivera has been going for it quite a bit on fourth down all season, putting the ball in Newton’s hands with the intention of barreling over defenders with his size and strength, or make the proper throw.
After the game, Newton said he had lobbied Rivera to let him sneak it across the goal line on 4th and 1.
"I take a lot of pressure on myself to perform in situations and when I don’t do it, I wear my emotions on my sleeves. I can’t help that. That’s who I am," Newton said, eyes flashing defiantly. "I put a lot of pressure on (Rivera) to call the play. He put it in my hands to call it. The play didn’t work out the way it was planned, so I felt as if I failed him in that type of way."
Moments like that, those key moments that pass an elite quarterback by, there’s no telling when there will be more. Ultimately, Newton knows he’ll be remembered for his postseason success, or lack thereof, as a quarterback.
Any time the Panthers get a big win or Newton hits another personal milestone — like a comeback victory in the fourth quarter or a goal-line run that seemingly no one could stop (until today) — it seems as if everyone demands more and more from him.
In Peyton Manning’s first playoff game, he was 19-of-42 for 227 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions (he did have a rushing score — go figure).
Tom Brady? Well, he might be a bad example since he didn’s lose a playoff game until 2005 (fourth playoff appearance). His first playoff game was the infamous ‘Tuck Rule’ Game. He was 32 of 52 for 312 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
Drew Brees? He passed for 319 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in his playoff debut (2004 season with San Diego), but his team lost.
Heck, even second-year quarterback Andrew Luck completed 20 of his 41 passes for 331 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions against the Patriots in an AFC playoff loss on Saturday.
No one would argue that Luck isn’t a franchise quarterback, and no one should argue that with Newton, either.
This year gave everyone the chance to see what Newton is capable of when he isn’t asked to carry the offense on his own. The result was a decrease in rushing yards (probably a good thing), but 24 touchdowns (a career-high) to 13 interceptions and a career-high completion percentage (61.7 percent).
One fair knock on Newton is that he takes too many sacks and needs to get rid of the ball. Even Rivera mentioned it after the game.
"I thought Cam had his moments. Did some really good things. We’ve got to protect him and give him opportunities," Rivera said. "A couple times, you’d like to see him dump the ball and not take some sacks. He protects the ball as best he could."
Rivera, Newton, this team — they’ve all been doubted, dismissed, all season long. Even by their own fans. As Newton said, they know what it’s like to be booed at home.
"We’re not going to hold that against whoever booed us, because this is a league that is built off performance. We have to win, and we didn’t do that today.
"Playoff football is a different speed than the regular season. I learned that firsthand (Sunday). You have to seize the moment when the moment allows. We had too many opportunities that we let slip through our hands, and that was just the story of the day."
Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, Newton’s favorite target, said as much after the game. He never assumes he’ll be back in the playoffs, hearkening back to Carolina’s five-season drought from 2008-12.
Smith wouldn’t share what he said to his young quarterback after the game. And he doesn’t know what the future holds for himself yet, regarding next season.
But he feels pretty confident about the Panthers’ future.
"This is one of the best teams I’ve been around, and we’ve got some young players that are going to be dynamic," Smith said. "I take out of this a team that fought through adversity, that did not listen to the naysayers, that proved a lot of people wrong.
"And it showed we have a foundation, a strong foundation."