In itself and in real time, the play looked to be somewhere between innocuous and injurious. But it doesn’t stand by itself, and it can’t be judged only in the moment, because Cam Newton and the violent game of football now have a history with each other, and that history informs his assessment of every hit he takes.
Newton’s reaction to the by-now-loaded question — Did the referees make the right call? — tells you all you need to know about the accumulated bell-ringing of the Carolina Panthers quarterback.
“Next question,” he said tersely late Monday night at FedEx Field, after the Panthers had beaten the Washington Redskins, 26-15. He has traveled this road before, and while an honest answer would have been fascinating — because it would have delved into whether he continues to feel as if he is treated differently than other quarterbacks, because it would have touched on whether he feels safe — it wouldn’t have been prudent.
But Newton’s predicament has been considered by every player in the Carolina locker room, if not every player in the league.
“For anybody, enough is enough,” veteran Carolina wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “But he’s just not a regular person. He’s not a regular football player.”
He is a star who doesn’t receive star treatment. He is a quarterback in a league in which quarterbacks are given every advantage, every benefit of the doubt. And yet, even as the NFL’s reigning MVP, he does not get that benefit, which leaves him with doubt. He could be Jordan or LeBron if, for once, the refs called a block when he actually charged. As it is, they don’t call a helmet-to-helmet hit a foul if one of the helmets rests on the head of Cam Newton.
“I’m not going to beat a dead horse, man,” Newton said.
So we’ll beat it for him. Monday’s specific play came with the Panthers up 10 and just less than nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. Newton exited the pocket to his right, didn’t see much light and slid down at the Washington 26-yard line. In came Washington defensive end Trent Murphy.
Understand that these moments occur between mammoth human beings running toward each other at impossible speeds, and these mammoth human beings are supposed to be able to make game-altering decisions at said impossible speeds.
“That’s why we’re elite athletes,” Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said, and that might be true.
In any case, Newton is listed at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds; Murphy at 6-5, 290. This was set to be a massive collision — until Newton slid. Then, by rule, Murphy’s job is to avoid contact with the quarterback, even if the quarterback’s the size of a defensive end.
At full speed, the hit didn’t seem egregious. You could tell Murphy made contact with Newton, for sure. But Newton popped back up immediately. At full speed, maybe you couldn’t tell that Murphy’s helmet crashed into Newton’s — not in a gruesome way, but in a way that if you had been hit in the head repeatedly for the past four months, you might get a wee bit frustrated.
In any case, Newton’s reaction showed what had happened: He popped up and threw the ball at Murphy.
“I got to be better than that,” Newton said, and he is right, because the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty turned a field goal attempt into a punt.
But this wasn’t just about one play with nine minutes left in the second quarter Monday night. This was about the entirety of Newton’s season.
“Without question,” Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said. “Without question.”
Newton’s 2016 includes a beating at the hands of the Denver Broncos in the season opener so bad the Panthers were questioned about whether they failed to handle a potential concussion properly. It includes one October game missed because of a concussion, another in which an Arizona defender appeared to target Newton below his knees — a play that led to nary a penalty. At that point, Newton boiled over, saying the fun had been sucked from the game for him, that he wanted to talk to the commissioner, and the money shot: “I don’t even feel safe.”
When the MVP says he doesn’t feel safe playing his very own sport, how valuable does the sport itself consider him to be?
Is it a fair assessment, that Newton is treated differently than others?
“The thing about Cam is Cam is such a big quarterback, people almost treat him like a running back, in essence,” Coleman said. “And he’s not. If you’re a quarterback, I don’t care if you’re 7-11, 700 pounds — if you slide, you have to be able to have an area.”
Fuel for the grassy-knoll types came in the fourth quarter, when Newton’s counterpart, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, was flushed out of the pocket and ran right down the sideline. He was still inbounds — barely, but he was — when Carolina defender Kawann Short nailed him.
Short drew a 15-yard flag. Because of course.
This is the dynamic Newton railed against earlier in the season, and it is prominent enough that a pool reporter had to ask referee Walt Coleman — whose crew officiated the game against Arizona in October — if there was bias against Newton.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us who is playing or who the quarterback is,” Coleman said. “We’re trying to get the plays correct.”
By the end of Monday’s game, Newton was parading around the Carolina sideline, waving a towel and smiling. In the visitors’ locker room, he joked with folks around him as an equipment man fastened his cuff links.
There may not exist a better example of a star receiving star treatment, one man allowing another to help him with the simple act of dressing. But this was off the field, in the safety and sanctity of the locker room. It’s clear by now that Cam Newton, star, isn’t treated as such when the bodies are flying around and his health at stake.