Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery waited 12 years to get to the Super Bowl.
He spent all season catching just about anything Cam Newton threw his way. Forty-four catches with zero drops in the 2015 season.
But he was on the bad end of three key plays in the 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, and those will – admittedly – haunt him for years to come.
The first came midway through the first quarter. Newton had Cotchery in the deep middle of the field on first down, but Cotchery bobbled the pass with Darian Stewart on his back. Cotchery went to the ground and attempted to secure it, but it was ruled incomplete on the field.
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Panthers coach Ron Rivera challenged, arguing that while Cotchery did bobble it, he controlled it going to the ground and that the ball did not move when he hit the ground.
“Initially I didn’t grab it clean but I thought I brought it in. I knew I brought it in,” Cotchery said. “If it’s something where I’m not sure, I don’t go over to coach and make him waste a timeout – if I’m not sure. I felt like I brought it in. I got my arm under it and it never did hit the ground after that. Whatever call you go with it’s going to be hard to overturn.”
Referee Clete Blakeman emerged from the replay booth saying the ruling stood – not confirmed (which would mean indisputable evidence the ruling was correct).
Two plays later, Newton was strip-sacked and the Broncos recovered in the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.
The second Cotchery drop came on the ensuing drive. The Panthers, down 10-0, were trying to get something going in the franchise’s second Super Bowl trip.
Newton took the offense from the 21 to midfield, and on third-and-4 he looked back to Cotchery to make the first-down conversion.
Newton, who calls his veteran receiver Uncle Jerricho Clutchery, has long had a tendency to go back to his receivers even when they’ve proven untrustworthy. Look at the preseason with Philly Brown or the entire regular season with Ted Ginn Jr.
But Cotchery had another drop with Bradley Roby in coverage. The Panthers were forced to punt.
“Yeah going against their secondary, they have a great secondary,” Cotchery said. “All of the catches basically are going to be contested. You have to do whatever you can in that point in time to reel the ball in, squeeze it as tight as you can. I had a few contested ones.”
The third Cotchery drop would have put the Panthers deep in the red zone. On second-and-11 from the Denver 26, Newton dropped a beautiful pass into Cotchery’s breadbasket. Von Miller was with Cotchery step-for-step, but the ball was placed perfectly.
“Bringing it in I had two hands on the ball. He just raked one of my arms away from me. I couldn’t bring it in after that,” Cotchery said. “I’m going to be replaying that for the rest of my life. I could have switched it over to the other hand quicker. We weren’t able to make that play. That’s one of those deals.”
Two plays later, Graham Gano missed a 44-yard field goal attempt when it doinked off the right upright. A make would have brought the score to 13-10 in favor of Denver.
The Broncos then went down and tacked on a field goal to go out in front by nine points, or two scores.
“The hard part is when you’ve got opportunities to make a play you have to make it, whether it’s Jerricho or any of the other players out there,” Rivera said. “You get a chance to make a play you make it, and it helps keep the momentum going, convert first downs, stuff like that. Those things hurt.”
Cotchery wasn’t alone in making mistakes Sunday for the Panthers. But his were so uncharacteristic they stood out among others.
“When you have those self inflicted wounds, it just takes away all momentum,” Cotchery said. “That seemed to be the theme tonight.”