Every time you think the Carolina Panthers’ lost season can’t sink to new lows, something like Sunday night happens.
National TV. The eyes of the NFL on the Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.
And Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was benched for the start of a game the Panthers would go on to lose 40-7 ... for violating the team’s travel dress code.
Never miss a local story.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it was his decision to discipline Newton, who showed up for Saturday’s flight from San Jose to Seattle without a tie. Newton wore a dark jacket over a dark turtleneck – “and that was the big no-no,” he said.
It was also the moment when the Panthers’ 2016 campaign reached the absurd level and came completely off the rails.
That the sartorially minded Newton, who doesn’t show up to press conferences until his pink suits and feather-trimmed hats are perfectly in place, was disciplined for a wardrobe malfunction is karma, as Richard Sherman might say.
But when you’re the reigning league MVP, a team captain and one of the faces of the NFL, there’s no such thing as a minor team violation – dress code or otherwise.
Newton conceded he let his team down “in a sense,” and blamed his benching on miscommunication.
“Long story short, (Rivera) has rules in place. In my opinion, it was a lack of communication on my part, especially as a team captain, a person that I feel has his ear. I should’ve just cleared it first,” Newton said. “But we didn’t lose this game because of a tie.”
Newton’s right, of course.
The Panthers (4-8) lost because of their continued inability to shed blockers, make tackles, open up running lanes, catch passes and otherwise resemble a winning football team.
But Newton giving a play-by-play rundown of his travel wardrobe – after the Panthers had been clobbered by 33 points – was their latest rock-bottom point.
It was the first time in Newton’s six-year career he didn’t start a game for a reason other than injury.
Newton went out for the coin toss and had his helmet on as he warmed up on the sideline. But it was Derek Anderson who ran on the field for the first series.
It couldn’t have started any worse for the Panthers.
On the first offensive play of the game, Anderson was intercepted by linebacker Mike Morgan on a pass that bounced off the hands of fullback Mike Tolbert.
The Seahawks took over at the Panthers’ 8, Steven Hauschka kicked a short field goal four plays later and the Seahawks had a 3-0 lead before the game was 90 seconds old.
Newton was back in the game for the Panthers’ next offensive series, which tied the record for shortest benching in history.
Rivera’s plan was to sit Newton one series, but “I didn’t anticipate the series lasting one play.”
Rivera has benched starters for breaking team rules in the past – defensive ends Kony Ealy and Greg Hardy, for instance. But there are other ways for an NFL coach to discipline players behind closed doors, namely fining them.
That Rivera felt strongly enough to sit Newton down for not wearing a tie means the sixth-year coach believed it was time to send a message to the quarterback the Panthers took with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 a few months after Rivera was hired as head coach.
The message also is one that will also resound loudly in the Panthers’ locker room: No one player – no matter how important – is bigger than the team.
“It was a travel dress-code violation,” Rivera said. “So we said let’s treat him like I do all the other players on the team, and he didn’t start.”
Newton said he and Rivera “got on the same page,” despite Newton saying he wore a similar outfit on a previous trip without incident.
“He has rules in place and we have to abide by them,” Newton said. “And no person is greater than the next person.”
Rivera has always erred on the side of defending his franchise quarterback.
After Newton’s pouty Super Bowl press conference, Rivera suggested players from the losing team should not be required to do media interviews after the Super Bowl.
When Rivera was asked specifically about Newton’s first-half performance last week in a loss at Oakland – during which Newton posted a 1.7 passer rating – he maintained that Newton played well.
But Rivera reached his breaking point Sunday night at the end of a 10-day, two-game trip. The West Coast swing became a road to nowhere for the hapless Panthers, who have turned in one of the worst follow-ups to a Super Bowl season in NFL history.
Newton indicated several people offered him a tie before the trip to Seattle. But he didn’t have a dress shirt.
“When you’re 6-5 trying to get a shirt, I was away from home for a week. I didn’t pack a shirt. It was a lot of ties that was given, but I can’t wear a tie with this, said Newton, referring to his turtleneck.
Newton’s benching had no bearing on how the rest of the game played out. The Panthers were thrashed by a better team.
But it could have implications on the rest of the reason.
Tolbert and several other players refused to discuss Newton’s situation.
“I got nothing to say,” Tolbert said. “Because what I’ve got to say wouldn’t be good.”
Rivera took a strong stand in benching his most important player. He has a month to keep his team from fracturing further – one of the toughest coaching tasks he’s faced.