It’s December, and you’re the coach of an NFL team on the edge of mathematical elimination from the playoff race. Your next opponent: A first-place team that has made two of the last three Super Bowls, out for revenge after you swept them in dramatic fashion last season. What’s the worst possible way to start that game? How about benching your franchise quarterback, who happens to be the reigning league MVP, for the first drive?
That’s the call Panthers coach Ron Rivera made on Sunday night, the most stunning gamble for a coach whose entire personal brand is built on unexpected risk-taking. But sitting Cam Newton at the beginning of Carolina’s 40–7 loss to the Seahawks for not wearing a tie is much different than going for it on fourth down at midfield.
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Newton stayed on the sidelines when the Panthers came out for the opening drive of the game, and before anyone had time to process that Derek Anderson was under center, the backup QB’s first pass was bouncing off the hands of Mike Tolbert and right to Seahawks linebacker Mike Morgan. Newton was back in the game on the Panthers’ next series, but the sidestory gained steam from there as word leaked out that he had been punished for a team dress code infraction—specifically for not wearing a tie with his travel outfit.
It may merely be a minor rules violation, but like all minor rules, this one seems extremely easy to follow—and that goes double for a very visible player who puts as much thought into his outfits as Newton does. After the game, Newton said that he hadn’t packed a dress shirt, and with the Panthers staying on the West Coast after last week’s loss to Oakland, he couldn’t get one that would fit with the last-second addition of a tie to his ensemble.
“In my opinion, it was a lack of communication on my part, especially a team captain, a person that I feel has his ear,” Newton said. “I should’ve just cleared it first.”
Was this punishment a rules-are-rules formality, or did Rivera lay down the law on Sunday to send a message to his franchise player that as the team slides out of playoff contention, his zany postgame looks get less and less entertaining? Rivera maintained after the game that he would have treated any other player the same way, but after going 15–1 in the regular season and reaching the Super Bowl a season ago, it’s hard to blame him for bristling at the notion that this year’s Panthers have kept their fun-loving persona but lost the laser-focus that earned them all that success. The player who spearheaded both of those traits last year just gift-wrapped a teachable moment for his coach.
Rivera didn’t pass up what might be his last chance to take control of his team before the season loses all meaning down the stretch, but the implications of his choice of target may follow the Panthers all the way through Week 17, even if they brush the matter aside this week.
Newton’s benching elicited the first double take of the night, but not the last. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas suffered a cracked left tibia on a collision with fellow safety Kam Chancellor as he skied to defend a pass, and moments after he was carted into the Seattle locker room, Thomas’s Twitter account sent a pair of cryptic tweets in which the 27-year-old indicated he was thinking about retirement.
Those words sent fans into a panic, though it’s important to read them in the context of Thomas’s cerebral, sometimes enigmatic personality. He had started 106 consecutive regular season games before he missed last week’s 14–5 loss to the Buccaneers with a hamstring injury. His passion for the game is unquestioned, and it’s impossible to predict where those facts might lead the mind of a player given access to his social media accounts minutes after suffering a season-ending injury.
The fact that neither of Sunday night’s bizarre plot twists could throw the outcome off script is representative of both team’s seasons. Anderson’s pick led to just three points after the Carolina defense held fast in the red zone—small potatoes compared to the thrashing Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense delivered the rest of the night. Wilson finished 26 of 36 for 277 yards and a touchdown, contributing 29 rushing yards to the Seahawks’ eye-popping team total of 240.
And aside from Newton’s 55-yard touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr. immediately after Thomas was carted off, the Panthers couldn’t crack the Seahawks’ shorthanded secondary. That might seem like a good sign for the a Seattle stretch run without Thomas patrolling the middle of the field, but it’s dangerous to draw conclusions from a game that was arguably over after one offensive play—or after one offending sartorial choice.