ATLANTA — Cam Newton’s grey suit, checkered dress shirt and purple sweater were the final articles of clothing hanging in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room Sunday evening.
They hung in perfect unison above the second-year quarterback’s head, which was covered with a dark blue towel for 25 minutes following his team’s 30-28 last-second loss to the Atlanta Falcons. They hung there as teammates filtered out of the locker room toward idling buses prepped to take them back to Charlotte.
The suit did not move when the Panthers’ communications director offered his condolences and reminded last season’s NFL Rookie of the Year of his media responsibilities. It did not move when offensive lineman Ryan Kalil came over to voice some words of encouragement to Newton.
When Newton finally emerged from his toweled haven, his eyebrows were furrowed with the look of a man who had suffered severe emotional pain. His cheeks were stained with remnants of tears. It was time to face questions about a loss, about a fumble that left his team vulnerable, about a fourth-and-1 decision that offered Atlanta one last prayer, about a secondary miscue that sent him to a 7-13 record in his short NFL career.
When Newton walked out to the podium, the locker room was empty. His teammates were on the bus. His coaches were long gone.
He took the stage alone.
“It all comes down to people making plays, but personally, we shouldn’t have even been in that situation. That’s how I feel,” Newton said of the loss on Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant’s field goal with five seconds remaining. “So there’s no finger-pointing in this game, or especially not on this team, so if you’re expecting me to point somebody out or anything, you can point the finger at me.”
Such a blame game would appear justified, as it was Newton’s fumble on a fourth quarter drive that left the door open for loss to enter. With just under two minutes remaining, on a third-and-2 run, the 6-foot-6 hulk of a signal caller plowed across Atlanta’s 44-yard line, which should have sealed Carolina’s victory. But he didn’t have the ball. Although the Panthers recovered his fumble, it bounced backward one yard shy of first down territory.
“It shouldn’t have even got down to that point. You know, in this league you have to protect the football. That was a key focus going into this game,” Newton said. “There’s a lot of guys that’s trusting the ball carrier … to get the job done, and I feel I dropped the ball on that.”
In that moment, it was coach Ron Rivera’s turn to make a decision. Should he try to capture the win by going for it on fourth down — with one yard to go and one the toughest quarterbacks to tackle in NFL history, one who has become synonymous with short-yardage efficiency — or should he punt? Rivera chose the latter.
“Well, because if you don’t get it right there, they only need 30 yards to try a field goal. And that’s why we decided to punt,” Rivera said. “And we got the ball where we wanted, right on the 1-yard line.”
“I’m a player on this football team, and I listen to coaching,” Newton added of Rivera’s decision. “And Coach decided not to go for it on fourth down and I back Coach 110 percent. So he decided not to do it, so we didn’t do it.”
So with just 59 seconds remaining, Newton watched his defense take the field as opposing quarterback Matt Ryan faced 99 yards of turf. The plan backfired immediately, and Newton, standing on the sideline with a white towel draped over his head, could only look on in helplessness.
Ryan’s first pass sailed 59 yards to star wideout Roddy White, right through the hands of Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura, who, in turn, took his own share of blame for the letdown.
“It’s nobody else’s fault but mine. There’s no responsibility on anybody else’s part, he got behind me. That’s my fault, that’s nobody else’s fault,” Nakamura said. “I should have intercepted that ball. I had the ball in my hands, and he just took it from me. It’s horrible.”
After that, everything else seemed inevitable. Ryan completed two more passes to create a more manageable kick for Bryant, who, of course, knocked in the 40-yarder. As the Georgia Dome crowd reveled in the unexpected moment of victory, the Panthers filed toward the team tunnel with heads bowed. The team is now 1-3, and despite its defensive pressure on Ryan and a strong performance by its own quarterback, a shot at improving on last year’s 6-10 mark is even farther out of reach.
“It doesn’t fall onto one play. If we need to, put it on my shoulders. I’m the head coach,” said Rivera, taking his part in the postgame clinic in accountability.
Should the team have gone for the win on fourth-and-1 instead of playing it safe? Probably. Does Newton need to protect the ball better in key situations? Certainly. But in spite of football being a game of inches, the big moments piled up for the Panthers Sunday afternoon. And each of those moments seemed to weigh on Newton’s slumping shoulders in the aftermath.
After filing into the locker room with his teammates, he stripped off his No. 1 jersey and shoulder pads, then sat motionless as everyone packed their bags to leave the misery behind. There was no Superman undershirt, only dejection. His blue UnderArmour cleats remained laced; his ankles remained taped.
After showering and fulfilling his media requirements, Newton was a singular figure walking along the corridors below the Georgia Dome’s seating. He never lifted his eyes from the concrete below his feet. He ignored a few lingering fans who offered him cliché condolences like, “Good game.” He wheeled his three bags out to the team bus without uttering a word, handing them over to a driver before smoothing out that grey suit.
He then stepped onto the bus a 1-3 quarterback, a lone figure in the most scrutinized position in sports.
Plenty of Panthers took the blame for Sunday’s loss, but only one physically shouldered the burden.