The morning after one of the worst losses of his life, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil hadn’t watched the replay from Super Bowl 50 the rest of the world is commenting on: the fourth-quarter fumble that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton did not dive on.
But Kalil didn’t need to see the replay to know the play that sealed the Denver Broncos’ 24-10 win was not a character indictment of the Panthers’ franchise quarterback and league MVP.
“Cam’s not the quitting type. So this idea or this notion that he quit on us is garbage. I think it’s absolute garbage. That’s not who he is,” Kalil said Monday during a phone interview before the Panthers returned to Charlotte.
“We just didn’t play good enough. And as an offensive line group, didn’t give him enough confidence to do what he does best,” Kalil added. “And really we just didn’t get in a rhythm. That’s what killed us. Any time we had any kind of momentum, we killed ourselves in penalties and not taking care of the football.”
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Several Broncos players said after the game that Newton wanted no part of getting in the scrum for the loose.
“If he would have touched that ball, I was gonna hit him right in his face, and I wasn’t the only one,” Broncos safety T.J. Ward, who recovered the fumble, told NFL.com. “We were hungry for that one. We saw that ball and it was like hyenas on an antelope.”
Ward then fired a verbal shot at Newton: “And I don’t know, maybe he needed to stay healthy for next year.”
The public doesn’t know what was going on in Newton’s head. When asked the play after the game, Newton put up his hand and said, “I don’t know.”
The play came at a crucial moment, with the Broncos clinging to a 16-10 lead with 4:16 remaining. The Panthers’ defense was dominating Denver, which had not scored an offensive touchdown and had gone 3-and-out in 8 of the 13 possessions following a field goal drive to start the game.
As poorly as the Panthers (17-2) had played offensively to that point -- receivers dropping passes, running backs fumbling -- they still were within one score with just more than four minutes left.
But they were facing a third-and-9 from their 25, an obvious passing situation that would require the linemen and backs to give Newton time to throw. Denver had already sacked Newton five times, including a strip-sack by outside linebacker Von Miller that the Broncos had recovered in the end zone for their only touchdown.
On the decisive play in the fourth quarter, Miller again beat right tackle Mike Remmers with an outside move. Remmers tried to ride Miller past Newton, but Miller reached out with his left hand and knocked the ball loose from Newton.
The ball bounced forward 2 yards in front of Newton, who took a couple steps toward it before backing off as Kalil and defensive end DeMarcus Ware dived for it. Newton then went to his knees as several players converged on the ball, which squirted backward and was eventually recovered by Ward at the Panthers’ 4.
Three plays later, C.J. Anderson’s 2-yard touchdown run and a successful 2-point conversion gave the Broncos a 14-point lead with 3:08 remaining.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton was looking for a chance to grab the loose ball.
“He’s trying to stay alive and get a chance to pick it up. And someone came diving in so he backed up and tried to see where it ended up, and then seeing it go flying out,” Rivera said. “Again, he’s just trying to find an opportunity to pick it up.”
Kalil was blocking on the play and had his back to Newton. When he turned around and saw the loose ball, he immediately dived toward it.
But Kalil didn’t fault Newton for not doing so.
“There were two times I tried to jump on a football and it didn’t work out for me, either. So I don’t know think I quit on anybody,” Kalil said. “That’s not our nature. This is a team that very much cares about one another and wanted to win that game. We fought our tails off. Unfortunately we just didn’t play disciplined enough to win.”
The Panthers allowed seven sacks, lost four turnovers, dropped five passes (three by Jerricho Cotchery) and had five pre-snap penalties.
"They just played better than us. I don't know what you want me to say," Newton said. "It 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 us."
Panthers offensive linemen said the crowd noise at Levi’s Stadium contributed to the sacks and penalties.
With Broncos fans outnumbering the Panthers’, Kalil and Newton were forced to use a silent snap count. The Broncos’ pass rushers picked up on it and were able to get good jumps off the line of scrimmage.
“The silent count you can only do so long before everybody -- you kind of figure it out,” Kalil said. “It’s tough. When the (play) clock’s winding down, you can’t really disguise it because you’ve got to snap the ball and get going.”
Kalil didn’t sleep much Sunday night. He called the loss “the ultimate deflation,” saying he felt bad for Rivera and his staff, general manager Dave Gettleman, Panthers fans and especially owner Jerry Richardson.
But Kalil said to question Newton’s desire to win or to blame the loss on him is wrong.
The Panthers, the league's highest-scoring team, were held to 10 points and finished with season highs in turnovers and sacks allowed.
And while Newton's 43.9 completion percentage (18 of 41) was the third-lowest of his career and his 55.4 passer rating was his seventh-lowest, he was the Panthers' highest-graded offensive player, according to Pro Football Focus.
“There was a handful of series that we had opportunities to put ourselves in a winning situation and we didn’t take advantage of it as an offense. I don’t think that’s all on Cam,” Kalil said. “Our defense played unbelievable and they kept us in the game. We had opportunities and we just couldn’t get our momentum.”