DENVER -- The hits to Cam Newton came one after the other, to his lower legs, to his chest, to his head. The Denver Broncos could not sack him in the first half, but they hit him nonetheless, and when the Broncos' own first-half confusion finally ebbed in the second, they unleashed the same torrent that buried the Panthers in the Super Bowl. On Thursday night, it brought the Broncos back from a 10-point halftime deficit for a 21-20 victory in the season opener.
The battering of Newton, which included what appeared to be multiple hits to his head that did not draw penalties but is likely to draw fines in several days, is nothing new. Not surprisingly, it upset the Panthers. Tight end Greg Olsen pleaded a familiar refrain -- treat Newton like a quarterback, despite his looming size. Newton, whose news conference was delayed as he received treatment, said he did not feel like he was being targeted, and he did not blame officials for missing hits on him.
More critically, it is fair to wonder why Newton was not removed from the game and examined by a doctor after he took another hit that appeared to be to his helmet during the Panthers' final drive. But he was not, and by remaining in the game, he managed to drive the Panthers into field-goal range. Graham Gano missed the 50-yarder that would have won it, but in the failed drive's wake were left questions about how well the NFL's ever-evolving efforts to identify players with head injuries are working. Newton said he was asked some questions after the game to see if he should be in the concussion protocol, but he was not placed in it. He said he tried to tell officials every time he was hit in the head. In a statement provided to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, an NFL spokesman said medical personnel at the game ultimately "concluded there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal" of Newton from the game.
"I think it was a very physical game and we all have jobs to do," Newton said. "We have to do our job better. It is not my job to question the officials.
"I really like this officiating crew. It was a very physical game on both sides."
In the other locker room, of course, there was only jubilation over a defense that can wreak havoc at will. The Broncos turned what looked like a certain loss into a victory. The night began with Peyton Manning making one final appearance for the Denver Broncos, taking a ceremonial handoff of the Lombardi Trophy from Von Miller and holding it aloft for the roaring mass of orange arrayed before him.
Manning's valedictory walk up the tunnel, in coat and tie, only underscored the transition the Broncos had embarked on this offseason. Manning's moment may be over and Trevor Siemian's hold on the starting job might be tenuous after an up-and-down performance that included one touchdown pass, two interceptions and two sacks. But the defense remains a force capable of overcoming offensive foibles and even its own confusion.
"I think we didn't play as bad a game as we played today all of last year," he said. "We made a bunch of errors. The first half was kind of hectic, the substitutions weren't coming in right, the defenses weren't coming in, we weren't communicating it right. It was just a lot of confusion the first half. We played not good at all."
Ward attributed the confusion to having some new players on defense. But the attitude of the defense was the same as it was in the Super Bowl -- get to Newton and put hits on him as often as possible, whether he was in the pocket or out. Newton was not sacked at all in the first half, but he was brought down three times in the second and that does not even include all of the other hits that accrued.
"We wanted to make sure it got to him, so every time he ran, we wanted to put a helmet or shoulder pad on him, and if he's not going to slide, then we're really going to put something on you," Ward said. "We've seen him limping throughout the game. That running stuff, you can't do that all game with your quarterback."
The problem is that the especially worrisome hits did not come because Newton did not slide. They came when Newton was clearly a quarterback and not a runner. But Ward's point remains valid. Newton takes more hits than almost any quarterback in the league, and whether he can continue to take them, remain in games and be effective has to be a concern for the Panthers after just one week. In all, Newton had 11 runs for 54 yards and one touchdown. The two-yard touchdown run was the 44th touchdown run of his career, breaking Steve Young's record for most by a quarterback. Newton is just 27. It is breathtaking to watch him run. It is sobering to see the beating he takes.
"They have an advantage with Cam," Ward said. "He's the quarterback and you can't account for that on defense. They have one more blocker when he runs the ball. If you're going to run your quarterback, you're going to have to take the repercussions that come with it. That's potentially getting him hurt or you see him get hit a couple times today. I'm sure they don't want to start the season off like that."
They were not the only ones.