About 30 minutes after Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera stopped at the locker of Kony Ealy and gave the second-year defensive end a hug.
The two haven’t always seen eye to eye, especially during Ealy’s rookie season when he was a little slow to take to NFL coaching.
But if there were any silver linings in the gold edition of the Super Bowl for the Panthers, Ealy’s breakthrough performance had to be at or near the top of the list.
Not that Ealy was ready to celebrate his success a half-hour after Denver’s 24-10 victory at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
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“It’s bad. It sucks. Nobody plays to lose a game,” Ealy said. “Nobody plays to come in second, and we didn’t do that. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of the mistakes that we made, everyone wanted to win. Period. And it feels bad. It’s a terrible feeling.”
Ealy turned in tour de force in the biggest game of his life.
He was the Panthers’ answer to Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller – one-man wrecking crews who turned Peyton Manning and Cam Newton into turnover machines.
Ealy filled up the stat sheet like no defender in Super Bowl history. He became the first player to record multiple sacks and an interception in the same game, and his three sacks tied Reggie White and Darnell Dockett for the Super Bowl record.
He also forced a Manning fumble (and recovered it) for good measure. As such, Ealy was the first player since San Diego’s Leslie O’Neal to finish a postseason game with multiple sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
That he did it despite playing just 23 of a possible 60 defensive snaps – against a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in Manning – made Ealy’s night all the more remarkable.
“Peyton is a great player. ... My mindset was not thinking about who he was and what he has accomplished,” Ealy said. “My mindset was to go in the game and make him very, very uncomfortable as a defensive line and a defensive group.”
Had the Panthers won, it’s reasonable to believe Ealy would have brought the MVP trophy back to Charlotte.
His interception near the end of the second quarter was a thing of beauty. Ealy lined up in a three-point stance and then dropped in coverage, snaring Manning’s pass for Emmanuel Sanders with one hand before corralling it and returning it 19 yards.
Ealy said it seems like the action came at him in slow motion on the interception.
But there was nothing slow about the speed rushes he used to blow past Broncos offensive tackles Ryan Harris and Michael Schofield to get to Manning in the pocket.
Ealy’s sacks during his first two seasons have come in bunches, but never quite like the Super Bowl. He had a sack in three consecutive games near the end of his rookie season, then had a streak of five consecutive games with a sack (one in each of them) this season while Charles Johnson was on short-term injured reserve with a hamstring issue.
Ealy just hasn’t been able to get on the field enough. After Johnson returned from injured reserve, Rivera stuck with veteran Jared Allen and Johnson as the starting ends even though neither had been productive.
Ealy was reduced to a reserve role and had gone seven games (including the playoffs) without a sack before his Super Bowl break-out.
“Everything happens for a reason. My time will come. I’m a firm believer in that,” Ealy said after the game. “I’m going to follow that man, coach Rivera, until he says it’s done, it’s over.”
‘Josh Norman all over again’
Ealy’s attitude seems to have impacted his playing time, as well. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman once told Rivera that Ealy reminded him of cornerback Josh Norman, who stayed in Rivera’s doghouse early in his career for his freelancing ways and stubborn demeanor.
“(Gettleman) said to me, ‘This is Josh Norman all over again,’ ” Rivera recalled this week. “I said, ‘Great, just what I need.’ ”
But implicit in Gettleman’s comment was the fact that he thought Ealy – like Norman – had the talent to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player if he figured things out. When Gettleman took Ealy in the second round of the 2014 draft, he said he had a first-round grade on the former Missouri standout.
“It’s very gratifying to see what Kony did. ... He just blows it up Sunday night. I can’t wait to watch the film,” Gettleman said. “Obviously what he did excited all of us and certainly bodes well for the future for him and for us.”
The future could be now for Ealy.
Rivera seemed to suggest Allen is considering retirement, and Johnson has seen his productivity fall off and injuries mount the past two years.
Meanwhile, less than an hour after his MVP-like Super Bowl showing, Ealy was already talking about next season.
“I’m going to take these couple weeks off, get my mind right and my body healed up. And we’re getting right back at it again for next year,” Ealy said. “We will be back in this position. We will be back. There’s no doubt in my mind.
“With the players and the chemistry and the leadership of the team, all the coaches we’ve got, there’s no reason why (not). We’ve shown that. We’ve just got to come out here and do it again.”