SANTA CLARA, Calif. – For 17 of 18 weeks, the Carolina Panthers’ offense was a crushing force of nature. This celebrating, selfie-taking unit featured the league’s MVP at quarterback, two human bowling balls at running back, a prolific tight end and wide receivers that burnt secondaries deep.
Then, in Super Bowl 50, the engine broke down.
This didn’t resemble anything close to the group that led the NFL with 31.2 points per game in the regular season. They looked lost, confused, anemic.
Afterward, head coach Ron Rivera lamented what could have been – a rusty Peyton Manning gave Carolina chances yet Carolina still lost this Super Bowl, 24-10.
“We had opportunities,” Rivera said. “We didn’t take advantage of it. They took advantage of their opportunities. They made some plays on the defensive side that put their offense in position to score points. That’s what it came down to.”
First, Newton was brutal. A quarterback who decimated defenses by air, by ground, by any way he pleased had a 55.4 passer rating and threw an interception at Denver’s 10-yard line. Outside of two 11-yard runs on the Panthers’ lone touchdown drive, he was out of rhythm all night.
Jonathan Stewart’s night started OK – he scored and had a “Grease” hand-jive dance ready. Then, he finished with 29 yards on 12 carries. This looked every bit like a running back with 1,300-plus career carries.
No, it wasn’t pretty at wide receiver where Jerricho Cotchery will go down as one of this game’s goats. The veteran grew up a diehard Buffalo Bills fan in Alabama – he cried after Scott Norwood’s kick sailed wide right. He certainly had every reason to shed a tear this night. By the first drive of the third quarter, Cotchery already had three drops.
This receiving corps’ lack of talent was severely exposed against Denver’s suffocating secondary.
And Greg Olsen? MIA. A non-factor. Targeted nine times, he caught four passes for 41 yards.
While Denver was the team with weathered, salty veterans hungry for overdue rings and Carolina was the youthful upstart, Rivera doesn’t believe nerves were a factor. Heck, during pregame warm-ups, players were dancing to the hip-hop blasting over the speakers.
Rather, they dropped an egg at the worst possible moment.
That’s what hurts, Stewart explained.
“The whole time, we were very confident that we just had to do our job,” Stewart said. “There wasn’t anything I think they were doing that was new or caught us off guard. It was just more of us picking things up and getting things moving.”
And they never did get moving. The running game was stuck in neutral and Newton couldn’t take advantage downfield.
“At the end of the day,” Stewart said, “we wanted to reach the peak and we didn’t reach the peak tonight and that hurts.”
With Newton under center, Carolina should have many more realistic chances at returning to this game. After the game, Rivera told his team that this same Broncos team lost a Super Bowl to Seattle just two years ago – a Super Bowl loss can be harnessed into powerful energy.
But this one will sting for a while.
“We need to learn from this experience,” Rivera said, “and give ourselves an opportunity to get back here.”
The Newton postgame interview session didn’t last long. The MVP set up at his assigned table, quickly answered seven questions in all, and was gone in two and a half minutes.
“They just played better than us,” Newton said. “I don’t know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us, and that’s what it came down to. We had our opportunities. There wasn’t nothing special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That’s it. They scored more points than we did.”
As for that Panthers offense that was out of sync? “They outplayed us.”
Can he put his loss into words? “We lost.”
Did Denver do something to take away rushing lanes? “No.”
And Newton was gone. A quarterback who threw for 3,837 yards and scored 45 total touchdowns with only 10 interceptions was shut down.
Mike Tolbert is listed at a hilarious 250 pounds, a number that simply cannot be true. Darian Stewart is all of 5 foot 11, 214 pounds.
Yet he had no problem taking Tolbert on all alone and forced a fumble.
“That’s part of just being physical,” Stewart said. “I saw that he wanted to duck his head and run me over and I just got lower than him and lodge the ball from him.”
Stewart was the unsung hero Sunday night, adding a sack and two pass break-ups – this Denver team has been much different with him in the lineup. And he helped add to the surly attitude driving the defense against Carolina.
“We felt disrespected and we didn’t want to let all the hard work we put in go to waste,” he said. “This was the way to go prove everybody wrong.”
Buddy Nix, the former Bills general manager, still believes EJ Manuel will be an NFL success.
Nix last week said “there’s a lot of reasons” Manuel’s career has not gone to plan since Buffalo took him 16th overall in the 2013 draft. Yet those reasons, to him, are what’s happened around the Florida State QB more than anything.
“One of the things when we drafted EJ, we were going to draft him and let him sit behind Fitz or a veteran for a couple of years and learn the NFL game and grow into it,” Nix said. “We knew he wasn’t ready when we first drafted him but EJ has all the talent. EJ will be successful somewhere, some time. But he got thrown into it because of injuries and had to start as a rookie. He had some success and then he got hurt. There are just so many things that have to happen, have to fall right at that position. And they haven’t. They fell the other way for EJ.
“But I think he’s a resilient young man. Very intelligent. A physical specimen that – when he gets in the right spot and hopefully it’s Buffalo – if it’s some place, he’ll be successful.”
Three seasons into his pro career, Manuel has gone 6-10 as a starter, completing 59.1 percent of his passes for 3,371 yards, 19 touchdowns, 15 interceptions with a 78.5 passer rating. When Tyrod Taylor suffered a knee injury last season, Manuel lost a pair of games, to Cincinnati and to Jacksonville in London.
That game, of course, Manuel had a string of turnovers that put Buffalo in a 27-3 hole. He did lead a rally back before the Bills fell, 34-31.
Nix said the Bills actually wanted to keep Ryan Fitzpatrick that 2013 offseason, though they released him in March. At the time, Nix said, “Our focus remains on adding another quarterback to our roster and we will continue to explore every option available to us.”
They signed Kevin Kolb, but yet another concussion that following preseason ended his career in scary fashion.
So Manuel was the Day One starter when Buffalo didn’t want him to be the Day One starter.
“We tried to keep Fitz,” Nix said. “We wanted to keep Fitzpatrick to be his mentor – we wanted somebody to be there that he could learn from. We did the same thing with Philip Rivers in San Diego, which is the ideal thing. It’s like Denver or anybody else right now that has a quarterback who’s reaching the end … and a lot of them look like they’re going to play until they’re 60 or 70 but listen, Father Time is undefeated. Age will get them all. And you better have somebody sitting ready when it does.”