Amid the whispered conversations and rumble of luggage being rolled out of the Carolina Panthers’ locker room early Sunday evening, quarterback Cam Newton sat facing an empty locker wearing shorts and a pair of socks.
Newton used both hands to rub his face with a white towel, as if he were trying to scrub away the reality of the season-opening 16-10 loss to Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium.
He dropped the towel and dipped his head, staring at the floor and into the previous three hours, when the Panthers’ normally explosive offense had stalled, managing one touchdown and 10 rushing yards and deflating so much of the enthusiasm that had built over the summer toward the start of Newton’s second season.
He had passed for 303 yards, completing 23 of 33 passes, but there were two throws he wanted back. Both were third-quarter interceptions, when the Panthers trailed 13-7 and seemed just a big play away from flipping the momentum and, potentially, the outcome of their opener.
After an extended moment, Newton leaned back, sighed deeply and began putting on his plaid suit.
It was a Sunday without a Superman celebration, a day when making the cover of GQ magazine seemed trivial. It was a miserable way to start what’s supposed to be a promising season.
Standing on a podium outside the locker room, Newton was asked how frustrating Sunday had been.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he sighed. “No one likes losing. The most frustrating part on my behalf is knowing I wish I could have those two throws back.”
Newton then talked about moving on, knowing the New Orleans Saints come to Bank of America Stadium next Sunday for a game that feels even more important than it did 24 hours ago.
But moving on means taking the lessons from Sunday and making something good from what was a bad day.
Newton was in charge of an offense that gained 10 rushing yards. The leading rusher was Kealoha Pilares, who had 5 yards, and he’s not a running back.
Yes, Jonathan Stewart was out with a sprained ankle, but how much might that have changed things? No Panther found any running room, especially Newton, who spent an uncommon amount of time avoiding the Tampa Bay rush, not always successfully.
Still, the Panthers had a chance to win midway through the third quarter, when they started a possession at the Tampa Bay 41. That should have been like red meat to a tiger.
Instead, Newton tried to force a pass to Brandon LaFell despite a cluster of defenders around him. The ball was tipped and the ageless wonder, Ronde Barber, came away with an interception.
Newton called it “the nature of the game,” a deflected pass that could have landed anywhere. This time it landed like a punch in the gut.
The defense, which got better as the game went on and kept the Panthers close enough to steal a victory, got the ball back moments later.
That’s when Newton made the mistake that hung with him like a head cold. He saw Steve Smith working toward the sideline in man-to-man coverage with safety help coming from behind. Newton’s pass hung long enough to allow Tampa Bay’s Ahmad Black to pick it off.
Two possessions. Two interceptions. Two throws Newton desperately wanted back.
“I think the second one was more disgusting,” Newton said, looking like a man who had tasted something foul.
He might be one of the league’s transcendent talents, but he’s still just 17 games into his NFL career.
“He did make some mistakes and it was, at times, unlike him,” coach Ron Rivera said.
As the Panthers’ situation grew more desperate, Newton kept going, connecting with Louis Murphy on a 51-yard deep route that gave life to a comeback threat. It set up a field goal that cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 16-10 with less than three minutes remaining, but that’s where the story ended.
It was a day without magic.