In an NFL season filled with bizarre moments, plays and stories, the opening to the Panthers-Seahawks Sunday Night Football game might take the cake. Carolina took the opening kickoff and then, without any fanfare or notice, backup quarterback Derek Anderson walked onto the field for the opening series while a healthy Cam Newton stood on the sideline watching.
Coach Ron Rivera later revealed that he benched the reigning NFL MVP for the start of the game because of a dress-code violation, specifically for a failure to wear a tie. Whether Newton was benched for a single play or a single series was initially unknown — Anderson threw an interception on that first play and after a quick Seattle field goal, Carolina got the ball back again and Newton was back in his usual spot. (Rivera later revealed the suspension was for the first offensive series of the game.)
Ignoring the hilarity and irony of Cam Newton getting a dress-code violation — no, strike that, we can’t ignore it. Newton is, according to my Word Of The Day calendar, a Beau Brummell. (He was a 19th century "arbiter of British fashion" who became famous for his flashy duds.) For news conferences, Newton has dressed like Mr. Peanut wearing a T-shirt bought from the MOMA gift shop. He owns a camouflage tuxedo, ideal for blending into the dangerous environment of parties at The Plaza thrown by Anna Wintour. Newton has literally stuck a feather in his cap. Overall, he dresses like a 1950s traveling salesman who’s part of a barbershop quartet that exclusively performs songs from Fred Astaire movies. So the idea that he could get a dress-code violation from anything but the back page of Us Weekly is staggering.
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But fedoras aside, the decision to bench Newton in a crucial, must-win game against one of the best teams in the NFC is remarkable. Token suspensions are for Steve Spurrier players in a bowl game (although when he benched Rex Grossman in the 2002 Orange Bowl for missing curfew, Spurrier sat his star for six series). They’re what schools impose on their basketball players to assuage the NCAA. In the pros it’s almost unheard of.
We’re never going to really know what led to the suspension. I buy that the tie was the catalyst but can’t believe it was anything but the proverbial straw that broke the riverboat’s back. In the next 48 hours we’ll get different explanations both on and off the record and from a whole bunch of sources from the front office, close to the players or with knowledge of the situation. It’ll all be damage control and impossible to separate fact from fiction, like scrolling your Facebook news feed or figuring out why these same Panthers let All-Pro Josh Norman leave for no good reason in the offseason. (That decision seems more germane to this conversation than anything you can buy at Macy’s.) In the postgame pressers, no one said much of anything though. "I’m not going to get into our dress code," Rivera said after the game. "Completely my decision." Newton just said the loss wasn’t about the tie. Cue furrowed brow and exaggerated eye roll.
Rivera may be known as an off-the-cuff gambler but one doesn’t decide to make a move with such possible far-reaching implications without weighing the pros and cons. An NFL coach has little in the way of disciplinary options but enough juice to make any such measures stick (it’s not like the NBA where you bench a star and the team turns on you and suddenly you’re out of work and two years away from coaching the Pistons). During training camp, sure, you can get away with light discipline of big players. In the regular season though? When every play matters and seasons hinge on a single interception like, say, one that opens a game between the past two NFC champions? It’s just not done.
With a 15-1 season and Super Bowl appearance under his belt as well as a reputation as a player’s coach, Rivera might feel like he could take the hit if there were a backlash, though you get the feeling he’s not sitting Newton if he thought it would cause a mutiny. Maybe Newton has had it coming for weeks — knowing he was above the law and flirting with that line — and Rivera decided that sending a message this big (it may have been only a series but this was a huge game against a major opponent in front of a national audience) was the wake-up call his quarterback needed.
But, unless the other 52 guys in the locker room are on board (and you can’t get 52 people to agree that ice cream is good so it’s doubtful the whole team is on Team Ron for this one), there’s always going to be a risk like, say, going out after the benching and getting waxed 40-7 in a primetime game in a listless, embarrassing performance in which the team had the interest and effort as a 12-win NBA team playing the last night of a back-to-back-to-back. If the point was to fire up the team, to show them that no one’s above the law and that their coach is so confident in them that he can afford to sit his star for a series to make his point, it failed miserably.
If I had to guess though, this was a short-term move meant to have long-term impact. There are many reasons teams that lose in the Super Bowl have, more often than not, disappointing follow-up seasons: the schedule, the fact that you’re now the hunted, the attrition of players who can get bigger deals. But there’s also the complacency that sets in. That would be far from the only reason for Carolina’s 4-8 record but it’s surely a factor. Thus, sending a message to your team leader could be a veiled attempt to send one to the whole team.
Maybe Cam had it coming, maybe he didn’t. Maybe Rivera had ulterior motives for his move or maybe he made a snap decision that’ll dominate a news cycle. Maybe it was a move that will help the team down the road or maybe it’ll blow up in the team’s face. Perhaps it’s none of those things though. After all, sometime a tie is just a tie.