Anything he would do differently? “No.”
What did his coach tell the team? “He told us a lot of things.”
Did the Denver defense take away Carolina’s running lanes? “No.”
He offered a few more monosyllabic answers and then got up and walked away.
It was as if Newton was intent on taking his magical season, his jumping jacks and dabs and evident leadership, and poking a hole in his side. He let his charisma and leadership drain away, to be replaced by a soup of the sour and the petulant.
Newton did not put up a uniquely poor effort. This was no game for the ages, this penalty-strewn, butterfingered, butter-toed exercise of Denver outlasting its opponent. Peyton Manning, the ancient mariner of a Broncos quarterback, was reduced to gesturing and fakes, and little more. His team moved more or less not at all, the Broncos offense consisting of a mind-numbing set of runs that went nowhere and of Manning passes that went a yard or 2, or 3.
Manning’s throws resembled whiffle balls; one hung so softly in the air that defensive end Kony Ealy simply reached out and intercepted it with a single hand.
The Broncos’ defense was brilliant, except when cornerback Aqib Talib was grabbing at an opponent’s face mask and trying to twist his head off like a mad farmer with a chicken. Talib received three flags in the first half and in most other sports would have been sent to the showers by the referees.
“B.S. flags,” he called his penalties, adding, “One I just did on purpose, and I just had to show him.”
Then Talib talked about how special it was that his children watched him that night.
This is what passes for a heartwarming NFL moment.
The mesmerizing figure, however, was Newton, who is so prodigiously talented. As an ESPN writer noted, Newton, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is bigger than any player on the Green Bay Packers championship team in Super Bowl I. He reads offenses with a Jesuitical intensity, and he is that rare pocket passer who can dodge and weave and break off loping runs.
He can be, in other words, an awful lot of fun to watch.
If, on some plays Sunday, he resembled a water bug in a jar, jumping this way and that, he was game in taking on that relentless Broncos defense. For long stretches of the second and third quarters, he was the most exciting player on the field. He finished 18 of 41 for 265 yards, and he fumbled twice.
By the final quarter, however, his body English spoke to demons taking slow possession of his house. Denver linebacker DeMarcus Ware went horizontal and laid him out. As Newton bounced off the turf, he gave an annoyed look, a princeling not accustomed to such tough handling.
He wandered to the Panthers sideline. The Panthers trailed just 16-7, very much in this game. Three weeks ago, I had watched Newton rally his team, doing jumping jacks, leaping and exchanging chest bumps with his receivers and runners.
Not now. He wandered down the sideline and stared into space.
Then he put his hands on his knees and stared at the ground for 14 seconds.
Later, slowly, he wandered back toward his bench. He walked to his offensive line — a porous lot this night — and slapped two hands. Then he wandered off again.
It was as if this were the prologue to the denouement.
The Panthers acquitted themselves well after the game. Rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess took question after question.
“It was playoff ball, man, they exploded off the ball,” he said. “It hurts.”
And their big defensive end, Charles Johnson, spoke of not having “the energy we usually have.”
“We didn’t execute like we usually do,” he added.
Over in the corner of the interview room, the top-paid player on the team, the marquee man, was not showing leadership.
This need not be Newton’s epitaph. Others have sulked ignominiously, not the least New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who brings a belligerent, not to mention monosyllabic, irascibility to nearly every encounter with the media, win or lose.
Newton has fine mentors from which to learn grace, among them Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who endured years of racially tinged self-imposed exile in Canada in the 1980s before an NFL team consented to allow him to take snaps and lead a team.
Newton’s talents are many. His challenge is to prove himself equal to leading his fine team.