Cam Newton didn’t show up for the first offensive play of the game.
Then the Carolina Panthers didn’t show up for the rest of it, getting blasted 40-7 by Seattle in an embarrassing performance that featured their star quarterback getting publicly disciplined for a wardrobe malfunction.
A healthy Newton did not run out with the offense for the game’s first play – NBC’s Michele Tafoya reported on its telecast he was benched for a dress-code violation – and the Seahawks started piling on immediately. Derek Anderson threw a pass on that play and was intercepted when the ball glanced off Mike Tolbert’s hands. The rout was on.
Coach Ron Rivera and Newton have long been linked at the hip – they each joined Carolina in 2011 – and this was one of the few signs of public discord they have ever displayed.
Rivera quickly inserted Newton into the game after what turned out to be only a one-play punishment, but even with their first-string quarterback the Panthers had no real chance in this one. Even on Carolina’s best day, Seattle is one of the hardest places in the NFL to win. In this lost season, the Panthers (4-8) were not going to beat one of the NFC’s elite teams with the injury-ravaged, penalty-prone squad they fielded Sunday.
So it was another brutal day in a season full of them for Carolina, as the Panthers took a beating that had all sorts of auxiliary headlines. Seattle lost safety Earl Thomas to a broken bone in his leg, and he tweeted that he was thinking about retirement.
Carolina’s one ray of hope came when the Panthers scored on a 55-yard TD pass from Newton to Ted Ginn Jr. Less than a minute later, however, the Panthers defense (missing middle linebacker Luke Kuechly badly) gave up a 45-yard TD run to running back Thomas Rawls.
Looming above all of that, though, was Newton’s benching for one series – or one play, depending on how you look at it. Was it too harsh? Too soft? It was hard to know immediately without hearing from Newton and Rivera exactly what this dress-code violation entailed. Rivera – long a staunch defender of Newton, no matter the circumstances – must have been pretty miffed to have made this public a show of the punishment.
It wasn’t a good thing, that’s for sure. In a must-win game for Carolina, when you don’t have the reigning NFL MVP in the huddle to start with, that’s not a small thing no matter how small the violation was. That’s bad news on several levels.
So was the game itself. Atlanta (7-5) lost Sunday as well, so Carolina remains three games behind the Falcons and Tampa Bay (also 7-5) in the NFC South with four to play. The Panthers aren’t technically out of the playoffs, but that’s like saying Terry Bradshaw technically isn’t bald. The Panthers dwell in the divisional cellar, and they have earned that spot with one uninspired performance after another.
Down 23-7 at halftime, the Panthers erased any hope of making an unlikely comeback on the first play from scrimmage of the second half. Wide receiver Tyler Lockett took a handoff and outran the entire Carolina defense for a 75-yard touchdown while Kuechly (out with a concussion) watched angrily from the sideline.
That made it 30-7 and by then a lot of America was punching up the DVR and starting “Westworld” or “The Walking Dead.”
“It’s hard to imagine this is a team that went 15-1 and to the Super Bowl a year ago,” commentator Cris Collinsworth said of the Panthers on NBC.
Yes, it is, but that’s familiar ground for anyone who has followed the Panthers this season. In 2016, they usually lose the game in the fourth quarter.
This time it didn’t last nearly that long. The fourth quarter was irrelevant.
At least the Panthers did their fans a favor in one regard: This one was decided so early that a whole lot of them got a little more sleep.