With Super Bowl 50 on the line and a loose ball on the ground a few feet away, Superman played it safe.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton indicated Tuesday he didn’t dive for his fumble in the final minutes Sunday against the Denver Broncos for fear of risking injury.
The Broncos recovered inside the Panthers’ 5-yard line to set up the game-sealing touchdown in Denver’s 24-10 win at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“OK. I didn’t get the fumble, but we can play tit for tat,” Newton said Tuesday. “I’ve seen numerous quarterbacks throw interceptions and their efforts afterward … they don’t go. I don’t dive on one fumble because the way my leg was, it could have been (contorted) in a way.”
Newton took three steps toward the ball after outside linebacker Von Miller stripped him of it with about four minutes left and the Panthers trailing 16-10. But Newton backed off as outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Panthers center Ryan Kalil dived for it.
Slow-motion replays show Newton having a shot at the ball initially when Ware was still engaged with Kalil.
Denver safety T.J. Ward recoveredthe fumble at the Panthers’ 4. A few plays later, C.J. Anderson’s 2-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion gave the Broncos a 14-point lead with 3:08 remaining.
Critics blasted Newton for not going for the ball, and his comments Tuesday will do nothing but fan the flames among those who believe Newton put himself above his team.
“OK, you say my effort. I didn’t dive down. I fumbled. That’s fine,” Newton said. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t lose that game because of that fumble. I can tell you that.”
Not a lot of help
The league MVP didn’t get a lot of help Sunday. His offensive teammates dropped five passes, committed five pre-snap penalties and allowed seven sacks, including two strip-sacks by Miller (against overmatched right tackle Mike Remmers) that resulted in 15 points for Denver.
Even if Newton had fallen on the ball and recovered it, the Panthers would have faced a fourth-and-16 with four minutes left. With three timeouts remaining the way their defense was dominating Peyton Manning, the Panthers almost certainly would have gotten the ball back with a chance to drive for the game-winning score.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers would have won. But they might have at least had a chance.
“You can condemn and say, ‘He gave up, this, that and the third,’ ” Newton said. “But hey, as long as my teammates know, as long as my coaches know, as long as anybody that’s following my team knows ...”
‘Not the quitting type’
Newton’s teammates and coaches have defended him. Kalil told the Observer on Monday that Newton is “not the quitting type,” saying it was “absolute garbage” to suggest otherwise.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera hasn’t talked with Newton about the play, but said he was OK with the explanation Newton gave the media.
“If that’s his explanation, then that’s his explanation,” Rivera said. “I’m not going to worry about that. It’s over. It’s done and we are going on to the 2016 season.”
Rivera might be ready to turn the page, but many outside the organization will continue to debate why the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Newton – who has never had a problem leaping/somersaulting/flipping into the end zone – was not willing to sprawl out on the turf in the biggest game of his life.
Trent Dilfer, a former NFL quarterback, said it’s a fair question. Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, said quarterbacks are told not dive into piles for loose balls at practice so as to keep their fingers, thumbs and appendages intact.
“At practice you’re taught to never go after it for all the (injury) reasons you mentioned,” Dilfer said in a phone interview. “And in games you’re expected to go after it no matter what.”
‘No matter what’ proposition
The Super Bowl would seem to be the ultimate “no matter what” proposition for most players.
Witness Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who played 60 of a possible 60 defensive snaps with a metal plate and screws in his right forearm two weeks after breaking it. Davis posted a picture on social media after the game of his arm: It was swollen and stitched up like a 1950s-era football.
Dilfer said it was tough to figure out what Newton was thinking, but he’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m going to take Cam’s word for it,” he said. “It was hard to understand. But it’s a logical explanation considering he’s as tough as they come and that he’s as competitive as they come.”
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton broke his thumb and was lost for the season while trying to make a tackle following an interception. In a game at Arizona a couple years ago, Newton ran at least 40 yards to walk down then-Cardinals cornerback Antoine Cason after he’d intercepted Newton.
Newton did the same thing against Panthers corner Josh Norman at training camp in August, prompting the infamous fight that could have resulted in one or both players getting hurt.
But Newton wasn’t assessing the injury risks in Spartanburg when he chased after Norman, and he certainly didn’t have time Sunday to weigh the pros and cons of going headlong after the Super Bowl 50-stamped game ball.
“Everybody can say what they would have done at that moment or wouldn’t have done at that moment. It’s split-second. Do we dive on it? Do we not dive on it?” Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said. “I can’t be the judge of it and say he should have or could’ve. We trust his judgment. Was that one play the difference in the game? No, not at all.”
But it’s the play that is most likely to go down as the most-discussed in the Super Bowl’s golden game – fairly or not.
“Look at all the other quarterbacks. Do you see Peyton Manning – you don’t see them diving on the ground with O-linemen and everything like that. It’s throughout the league,” Dickson said.
“I get it. It’s the Super Bowl. You want him to do that and everything like that. But it’s engraved on a lot of quarterbacks’ minds not to dive on the ball. You can’t just change that in a split-second.”