SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For all the great things Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton accomplished this season, most will be overshadowed by his reluctance to pursue a loose football in the most critical moments of Super Bowl 50. It was the kind of play that will haunt him for years. It was the type of error that will give his critics more ammunition to attack him. Instead of being transcendent or iconic, Newton became everything he couldn't afford to be: immature and unwilling to do everything it takes to win.
It's accurate to say Newton wasn't the only reason Carolina lost to the Denver Broncos by a score of 24-10 on Sunday. However, he was the key to whatever success the Panthers hoped to enjoy on this stage. After all, he was the man who won the league's Most Valuable Player award after producing a regular season that saw him amass 45 touchdowns. This game was supposed to be the culmination of all those efforts, the final evidence of how far he'd come in five professional seasons.
Instead, Cam left us with the jarring image of him recoiling from a fumble after Von Miller knocked the ball out of his hands with four minutes left in the game and Carolina trailing, 16-10. Not only did Newton not pounce on the loose football -- one that Broncos safety T.J. Ward ultimately recovered at the Panthers' 4-yard line -- but he also jumped back after a couple Broncos defenders dove toward it. It was a decision that his head coach, Ron Rivera, explained by saying Newton "was trying to find a way to get the ball and keep it alive." A more jaded perspective was that Newton froze at the worst possible moment.
That decision will make Newton an easier target for the people who have denounced his behavior all year. They'll point to all the celebratory antics that became his trademarks -- the dabbing, the dancing, the fake jump shots after touchdowns -- and use them as proof of what they see as a superficial nature. Of course, there's no guarantee Newton would've recovered that fumble. What he would've done was let the world know that there's more grit and fire to him than anybody ever knew.
The worst part for Newton is that play was just the most brutal in what was a devastating night for him overall. He didn't have much support from his offensive line (he was sacked six times). He turned the ball over (he finished with one interception and two lost fumbles, including one that Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson recovered for the game's first touchdown following a Von Miller sack). He also reverted to the pouting, sullen player who supposedly had moved beyond all this sophomoric stuff.
We all know it's painful for players to lose Super Bowls. But Newton's postgame press conference was hard to watch even with a compassionate lens. He trudged in with a black hoodie pulled over his head, then sat dejectedly for a few moments as reporters asked him questions that he clearly didn't want to answer. Newton mostly gave responses that amounted to two or three words, as if he had no reason to explain his role in the Panthers' second loss this season.
The most Newton would say after completing 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards was this: "They just played better than us. I don't know what you want me to say. I'm sorry. They made more plays than us, and that's what it came down to. We had opportunities. It wasn't nothing special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over. We gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That's it. They scored more points than us."
Newton spent maybe five minutes in that session before bolting. That also didn't help his cause. Most of his teammates talked for much longer about how a team favored to win its first championship -- one that led the league in scoring and ranked sixth in points allowed -- imploded on so many levels. Their star quarterback instead acted like he shouldn't be subjected to such scrutiny at such a difficult moment.
If that is how Newton truly felt -- and this is only speculation -- then he needs to check himself. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has suffered many tough losses (including a 43-8 defeat to Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII) and still manages to face the music. As does Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and most other star quarterbacks in this league. Hell, Seattle's Russell Wilson threw the game-ending interception in a Super Bowl loss to New England last season, and he also took his criticism like a man.
This is where Newton needs to grow next. He's always had a problem dealing with losing, and it showed up often when the Panthers were struggling in his first two seasons. It's one thing to be dejected after a defeat. ("He came ready to win tonight," Rivera said. "He didn't come to lose.") Newton, however, takes sulking to an entirely different level when things don't go his way.
People tend to notice that stuff more when you're the guy who is rocking Versace pants on the way off a team plane or gleefully celebrating first downs. There's nothing wrong with Newton doing those things until it's juxtaposed against what we saw on Sunday in the Super Bowl. When that happens, those actions in the midst of success can be construed far more as being selfish and self-absorbed. They can make a good guy with serious talent and an eye toward making the game fun look like a front-runner.
The truth is that Carolina picked the worst possible time to play its worst game of the year. As offensive coordinator Mike Shula said, "We weren't good enough. I wasn't good enough. The offense wasn't good enough. We don't try to single out one guy. All of us could've done better today."
The problem Newton has is that not everybody will see it that way. The critics will say he just received a well-deserved comeuppance. They will replay the tape of that lost fumble over and over, repeatedly pointing out that Newton reacted to that ball as if it were a live hand grenade. They will see his brusque press conference as another sign of how much he still needs to learn about professionalism.
If Newton wants to show his maturity, he'll someday recognize that he needs to be better in these moments. He's a smart guy with a lot to say and he can't always have things on his own terms. Maybe this season spoiled him in that regard. Maybe he began to feel like the rules were different for him because he was dominating so frequently.
Now Newton gets to see what life is like when you hand your enemies ample resources with which to go after you. He hurt himself on the field with his reaction to that fumble and he hurt himself off it with that ridiculous press conference. Newton eventually vowed that he would return to this stage at some point in his career. Let's hope he's better prepared to handle it if he ever gets a second chance at the Super Bowl.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.