Between the red-eye home from Denver and the follow-up on the NFL’s response to the helmet-to-helmet hit Cam Newton took near the end of the Carolina Panthers’ season-opening loss to the Broncos, I hadn’t had much time to dive into the game tape.
But I did Saturday, focusing on the Panthers’ final drive, which ended with Graham Gano’s 50-yard field goal attempt hooking wide left.
The drive had a little of everything:
▪ A penalty involving one of the league’s officiating points of emphasis;
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▪ More struggles for Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers against the Broncos’ pass rush;
▪ The Darian Stewart hit that rocked Newton and brought intense scrutiny to the NFL’s concussion protocol;
▪ And, ultimately heartbreak for the visitors in the Super Bowl rematch.
The Panthers took over in good field position after a short punt by Broncos rookie Riley Dixon. Here’s what followed:
First and 10, Carolina 40, 3:06 left: Flags fly as Broncos edge rusher Von Miller and/or wideout Kelvin Benjamin jump the gun. Instead, the false start is on center Ryan Kalil. The Pro Bowler quickly turned his head in what the officials considered an effort to simulate the snap, one of their points of emphasis.
First and 15, Carolina 35, 3:06: The Broncos sack Newton on one of their green dog blitzes, which were critical to Denver’s success in Super Bowl 50. Linebackers Todd Davis and DeMarcus Ware take down Newton.
Second and 20, Carolina 30, 2:23: Miller beats Remmers with a speed rush and flushes Newton to his left. Cornerback Bradley Roby drills Newton in the head – one of at least four helmet shots he absorbed in the game – but Newton stays on his feet and goes out of bounds for a short gain.
Third and 15, Carolina 35, 2:15: In what looked like a replay of the previous play and his second Super Bowl strip-sack, Miller again blows past Remmers to sack Newton for a loss of 6.
It’s the only sack for the Super Bowl MVP, who had a lot of different looks thrown at him by offensive coordinator Mike Shula. The Broncos, who had seven sacks in Super Bowl 50, finished with three Thursday, including two on the final drive.
“I thought the execution of the game plan was pretty doggone good,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The hard part is whenever you get to a certain situation, you do become one-dimensional and they got an opportunity to pin their ears back a couple times.”
Fourth and 21, Carolina 29, 2:00: The 6-5 Benjamin and 6-4 Devin Funchess both line up to the right. Benjamin runs a 22-yard route and Newton tries to thread the ball between defenders. It’s incomplete, but Chris Harris Jr. had put his hand on Benjamin’s facemask early in the pattern. Five yards and an automatic first down. Drive alive.
First and 10, Carolina 34, 1:54: The Panthers’ only running play of the drive – an inside handoff to Mike Tolbert – is good for 5.
Second and 5, Carolina 39, 1:24: Shaquil Barrett, giving Miller a break, gets around Remmers with a speed rush and hits Newton’s arm as he’s releasing. The pass falls well short of intended receiver Funchess.
Third and 5, Carolina 39, 1:19: Newton is forced to call a timeout to avoid a delay of game. It’s the last timeout for the Panthers, who tore through them Thursday at an alarming rate. After the break, tight end Greg Olsen beats safety T.J. Ward on a nice inside move and catches an 8-yard pass to convert.
First and 10, Carolina 47, 51 seconds: Newton gets good protection and looks left along the sideline for Benjamin. Harris isn’t covering Benjamin, but leaves his man to dive for the ball and nearly come up with his second interception of the second half.
Second and 10, Carolina 47, 42 seconds: This is the play everyone will still be talking about next week, while waiting to see if the NFLPA will choose to investigate the league’s handling of the events following Stewart’s hit on Newton.
The Panthers’ protection breaks down and it’s unclear whether they identified the Broncos’ scheme and front correctly. The Broncos rush five, but Kalil doesn’t have anyone to block.
Running back Fozzy Whittaker, flexed in the slot a few yards from Remmers, tries to chip Barrett but barely gets a piece of him. Barrett chases Newton out of the pocket to the left and Newton throws the ball away before Stewart arrives with a full head of steam.
Stewart says later he thought he’d hit Newton with his shoulder, but it was a hard, helmet-to-helmet collision that happened directly in front of umpire Bill Schuster. Schuster immediately looks to referee Gene Steratore and points to head, prompting Steratore to throw the flag or the personal foul.
Schuster then bends over at the waist to check on Newton, who writhes on the ground and rolls over on his back. Once Newton gets on his hands and knees, Schuster walks away and Olsen and left tackle Michael Oher check on him.
As has been reported extensively, no one – game officials, booth spotters, Panthers trainers or doctors or the unaffiliated neurotraumatic consultant – decides to evaluate Newton for a concussion.
Steratore announces offsetting penalties – the personal foul on Stewart and an intentional grounding on Newton, whose pass never made it to the line of scrimmage.
Second and 10, Carolina 47, 36 seconds: Newton has a good pocket to throw from, but Ward’s coverage on Olsen’s corner route is better. Incomplete pass.
Third and 10, Carolina 47, 29 seconds: Confusion reigns before the snap. Newton is trying to get his receivers lined up correctly, the play clock is winding down and the Panthers are out of timeouts.
Kalil hikes the shotgun snap with one tick left on the play clock. After all that chaos, Newton zips a laser to a wide-open Benjamin on a deep slant for 16.
First and 10, Denver 37, 14 seconds: The offensive line hustles down field and Newton spikes the ball to stop the clock.
Second and 10, Denver 37, 14 seconds: Hoping to get a few more yards for Gano, Newton slings a pass to the left sideline for Ted Ginn Jr., who hasn’t had a ball thrown his way all night. Ginn makes a beautiful catch, getting both feet in as he falls out of bounds. The 5-yard gain stands after a replay review and out comes the field goal team.
Third and 5, Denver 32, 9 seconds: Broncos coach Gary Kubiak calls timeout. But as they always do in those situations, the Panthers’ specialists go through with their routine just in case. Gano’s kick – which doesn’t count – drifts a little right but goes through the uprights.
NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth will later erroneously say Gano’s practice kick hit the right upright and went through.
On the NBC broadcast, Gano is shown staring at the ground during the 30-second timeout. He then adjusts his socks on his kicking leg.
Jansen’s snap is a little high, but punter Andy Lee – Gano’s fifth holder since the Super Bowl – catches it cleanly, gets it placed and spins the laces away from Gano.
Gano plants and swings his right foot through and it’s clear the ball is headed left from the moment of impact. Asked later if the snap and hold were OK, Gano said they would look at it on film.
But Gano wasn’t throwing anyone under the bus.
“I just missed it,” he said. “I wish I could have it back. But reality is you can’t.”