Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium, the Carolina Panthers saw what betrayal looks like.
Carolina made it to Super Bowl 50 with a stingy defense, but it surprised everyone by becoming the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL this season.
The running game was efficient. The mistakes were few. The offensive tackles held their own. The lacking wide receiving corps proved doubters wrong.
But against the Denver Broncos, all that went away in the 24-10 loss. This was the kiss in the garden.
The running game – outside of Cam Newton – was mostly inefficient.
The mistakes were aplenty. There were fumbles and drops.
Left tackle Michael Oher and right tackle Mike Remmers were routinely allowing their quarterback to be pressured, hit or sacked.
Then there were two drops from Jerricho Cotchery and one from Philly Brown.
And Newton wasn’t the Superman his pregame shirt and regular touchdown routine would imply.
The Panthers’ defense did its part by holding an aging Peyton Manning-led Denver offense to 17 points (technically), but the Panthers just couldn’t put points on the board.
“I think there were a couple of times where we had opportunities and didn’t take advantage of it,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “When you really look at it, we turned the ball over. We fumbled the ball when we really didn’t fumble the ball. A couple of tipped passes that get intercepted. You’re not going to win football games when you make mistakes like that. Credit to them, they did some really good things.”
Rivera speaks so highly and frequently of the 100-rushing-yard benchmark. Carolina has done it in 27 straight games and Sunday night made 28, but 100 rushing yards doesn’t equal a victory.
Fullback Mike Tolbert had two fumbles, one of which he lost.
“It’s football. I’m not one that fumbles a lot,” Tolbert said. “I had to take my gloves off. It’s just part of it. It happens.”
Running back Fozzy Whittaker missed at least one assignment in pass blocking. And Jonathan Stewart was especially ineffective in the running game with seven carries for 7 yards at one point in the third quarter after injuring his foot early in the game.
“A big part of it is they were able to shut down our run game early on at times,” Rivera said. “We weren’t able to mix it up and have success. You can’t be in third and long and expect to win a football game, especially with the pass rush they have. When they were put into pass rush situations, they were able to attack. It falls back on us as coaches to take a look at what we can do better.”
Newton was sacked six times, and Remmers had a lot to do with that. Denver outside linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller was a handful for Remmers, and Oher had some trouble with DeMarcus Ware, too.
Remmers, a former undrafted player out of Oregon State, has been the weakest part of a very good offensive line. He held his own in Week 2 against Houston and J.J. Watt, though the Panthers gave Remmers a great deal of help that game.
Tight end Ed Dickson would help block, or a running back would throw a chip on Watt. Sunday against Denver, Remmers was mostly on his own.
Remmers gave up two sacks where Newton would be stripped. The first was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and the second was recovered on the doorstep of paydirt.
“I’m not very happy with it,” Remmers said when asked to assess his performance.
Brown had a drop – a flashback to his preseason woes – but made four other catches. His 42-yard gain in the second half gave Carolina life, even though that play would concuss him and take him out of the game.
The trustworthy, veteran hands of Cotchery disappeared. His two drops all came at key moments of the game.
“That’s what we’ve done all year long is play good, clean football,” Cotchery said. “The defense makes a play and we feed off it and go into the end zone. But give them credit. They rose up in a lot of those situations. A lot of times we couldn’t get out of our own way.”
And Newton, named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in a landside vote the night before, didn’t have a single signature play. The closest he came was a 14-yard quarterback draw where he didn’t even signal for the first down, as he customarily does.
Sunday night was bereft of flash from Carolina’s offense. A nice throwback pass to Greg Olsen on third down was the closest thing to it.
No dabbing. No sideline photos. No Superman shirt-pulling.
Carolina had an opportunity to be among the great teams in NFL history. An 18-1 record with a Lombardi Trophy would have vaulted the Panthers into the conversation, even if they wouldn’t have unseated the 1972 Dolphins or 1985 Bears.
But 17-2 won’t do it. The offense laid an egg on the most-watched broadcast of the year.
Sunday night in the Super Bowl, Carolina’s offensive brilliance was gone, betraying itself for all to see.