Beyond one irrelevant idiot in Bill Romanowski and what amounts to a bunch of Twitter eggs, I didn’t see much bile directed at Newton. There was criticism, sure. On “Pardon the Interruption,” the standard-bearer sports talk show, Michael Wilbon called Newton’s behavior an “embarrassment” and said “he behaved like a loser.” Even that was not a rebuke of Newton, but of his actions on one night. Wilbon declared the game and the aftermath “temporarily tarnishes him.” That’s mildly harsh, and it’s hard to view that as an extreme opinion.
I have seen a lot of defending Newton against supposed bile. I think the “outrage” was pointing out that Newton was sullen and kind of petulant after the game, which is not a judgment but a fact. Most of the criticism came cloaked in caveats: There’s no need to hate the guy, it doesn’t take anything away from his season, but that’s a bad look. The alleged 180-degree turn in how people viewed Newton, in most every case, is simply a reflection of Newton. He played with extreme joy all season, and he pouted after he lost in the Super Bowl. Again, those are facts, not judgments.
The other thing is, walking out of that news conference was the best move Newton made, because it distracted everyone from his performance. Plainly, the rightful MVP of the league stunk in the season’s biggest game. He was bad when the Broncos’ defense forced him into bad plays and also bad when it didn’t. On the second play of the game, with ample time, he sailed a pass over wide-open Corey Brown’s head. He seemed overly amped, missing several other passes he usually nails in similar fashion.
All of the Panthers, not only Newton, were overwhelmed by Denver’s defense. His receivers dropped passes, including one off Ted Ginn’s hands that turned into an interception. Michael Oher pass-blocked like a turnstile. Jonathan Stewart rolled his ankle early and never found traction. But when things went well, Newton also left plays on the field. When things broke down, Newton sometimes made them worse.
That includes the game-sealing play. When Von Miller stripped him late in the fourth quarter, Newton didn’t have an abundance of time, but he had enough – 3.25 seconds from snap to Miller’s swat of the ball – and space in the pocket to step forward and avoid Miller. Instead, he didn’t account for the wicked pass rusher who had assailed him all game long and reared back with a long wind-up. It was more of a good play by Miller than a bad play by Newton, but it was a little bit of both.
The most astonishing reaction derived from what happened next. After Newton fumbled, players scrambled for the ball. A Broncos defender dove for the ball, and Newton backed away from it. Again, here is something that happened and not an attack on Newton: The ball was on the ground, and he didn’t try to jump on it. As a football play, there was no excuse for it.
And yet, plenty of people rushed to concoct a defense. He expected the ball to bounce in another direction. He was too big to scrunch his body down and get the ball. His feet weren’t in the right position. He thought a Broncos player would deflect it. The contortions made me wonder if I saw the same play.
There was a rush to defend Newton, both in the absence of a meaningful condemnation against him and against a blatant mistake. The same kind of reflexive, offensive arguments happen across sports now. A segment of sports fans and media had so conditioned themselves to back Newton on any subject that it became instinct, both before it was necessary and when it made no sense.
Newton’s excellence this season made him into a platform from which to signal, a means for social performance art. In the middle of his season, a woman wrote a batty letter to the Charlotte Observer about having to explain Newton’s dancing to her child. People acted like that mattered, like the letter represented a major force aligned against Newton, and they rushed to denounce it. It was an example in a pattern: People amplified the fringe so they could knock it down, thereby announcing their position and asserting their spot among the hip: No, it’s cool, I also don’t agree with that lady no one agrees with.
What they’re really doing is loudly agreeing with obvious. They’re arguing against a loon with a megaphone. They’re creating strawmen. It happens with such regularity that the urge to defend a given figure becomes ingrained. What actually happened is irrelevant. Newton screwed up plenty Sunday night, and almost all of those stating so are not trafficking in hot takes or creating a narrative.
The heart of why people loathe actual hot takes and Baylessification of sports talk is the dishonesty inherent within. Such stridently stated positions feel like performance more than argument, an intellectually bankrupt exercise. Acting like Newton has come under intense fire, or claiming he had no choice but to stay clear of the fumble, is just another version of that.
Newton is an astonishingly appealing football player, a generational talent with a charismatic and charming personality. Most sports fan like him and love watching him. And they should! In the biggest game of his career, he played poorly and threw a snit for a while afterward. You can celebrate the former while admitting the latter. No one expects Newton to be perfect, and no one should feel the need to pretend that he is.