Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera could've approached his media session at this week's NFL Annual Meeting in many ways. He could've deflected any questions that addressed the drama surrounding quarterback Cam Newton at Super Bowl 50. Rivera could've said all that stuff was behind him, that it was time to move on with life.
Instead, the head coach did the one thing that was ill-advised: He showed us all why Newton won't learn a thing from the biggest defeat of his football career.
For those who somehow didn't hear about this, Rivera spent 20 minutes on Wednesday defending Newton's postgame pouting following the Panthers' 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. Rivera began his comments by saying players who lose in the Super Bowlshouldn't even have to talk to the media because the wounds are too raw. In his eyes, people shouldn't have been surprised that Newton lasted just over two minutes answering questions before walking away from reporters. After all, the star quarterback openly admitted two days after that defeat that he's proud to be known as "a sore loser."
This was the first eye-catching quote that Rivera delivered Wednesday as the NFC Coaches Breakfast with the media went on: "What we ask players to do after a game like that is tremendously unfair. I really do mean that, too. Personally, I've always felt that, in a situation like that, there's only one person that needs to talk and that's the head coach. ... That's the person you should pull out and you should put in front of everybody and let him handle the situation and answer the questions. If not, that's what you're going to get. You're going to get guys that are going to come across in certain ways. And that's unfortunate. But that's the truth."
Before we go further with this topic, let's make one thing clear: Rivera is a good-hearted coach with good intentions. He has a right to stick up for his players and he clearly sees the benefit in being on Newton's side in this case.
The problem is that this is just one more example of why Newton is becoming such a lightning rod in the first place. The more he gets enabled -- which is what Rivera basically was doing here -- the more he's going to act like he needs a different set of rules to play in the NFL.
It's ludicrous for Rivera to suggest that Newton isn't strong enough to take questions after losing a Super Bowl. Several of his teammates managed to do it with no problems, including other stars like middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, tight end Greg Olsen and cornerback Josh Norman, who literally cried on the bench for so long after the game that he had to be prodded to return to the team's locker room. It says plenty that they had the stomach to do what every professional is asked to do after games. It says even more that Rivera is acting like the postgame rules need to change because a 26-year-old multimillionaire couldn't handle the agony of that defeat.
Rivera would be more convincing if Newton was still playing at Auburn (even though college kids answer difficult questions after big losses, as well).
This also has nothing to do with whether Newton should apologize (which he shouldn't) or if he does plenty of good (which is the standard response by his supporters when he faces criticism). This is about the environment that steadily is evolving around Newton. It's about a coddled star becoming more powerful in a world where too many people around him act like he can do no wrong.
This actually wouldn't be such a big deal if Newton hadn't become his own biggest fan as the 2015 season played out. He made a point of dabbing and dancing and daring anybody to break up the ongoing party that led to the Panthers losing only once in the regular season. Last season showed us how elated Newton could feel when everything was going his way, as he ended the year with the league's MVP award. It also revealed to us how much work he still needs to do on being a complete professional.
The most egregious issue in the Super Bowl postgame revolved around Newton sulking after a loss during which he failed to go after a fumble with about four minutes left in the game. The Broncos put themselves in position to seal that game the minute Von Miller strip-sacked Newton and T.J. Ward recovered the ball at the Panthers' 4-yard line with Denver leading 16-10. Newton left himself open for considerable scrutiny after he refused to lunge for a loose football that appeared quite recoverable.
A handful of Broncos defenders mocked Newton for not going after that fumble -- and he had to know that question was coming after the game. It was a moment when Newton could've stood up and showed something more about his character. Instead, the player many think is on track to be the future face of the league mumbled a few words to every question he received and departed. The galling part was that Newton acted as if he was above explaining the obvious role he played in such critical moment of that contest.
Some people have suggested that Newton left because he could hear the postgame ranting of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris in the Denver media area. Whether that was the case or not, it just isn't a valid excuse. Newton has irritated many an opponent when things are working in his favor. It's even weaker to think he couldn't handle somebody else celebrating at his expense.
Rivera also believes that Newton's postgame emotions were a sign of the times.
"It's a different type of athlete that we're dealing with today," Rivera said. "These are millennials. These are young men and women athletes that are being brought up in a different way. I think part of it is these are young people that express themselves. When he's happy, he'll express himself. When he's sad, he'll express himself, too. So I just think we need to accept or understand or at least anticipate that we're not going to get him at his best."
That also sounds like a convenient cop-out. Rivera's point is well taken -- that every generation has a unique perspective on the world -- but some realities aren't bound by time. One of those is that you learn more about a person when they're down than you do when they're on top. It's a safe bet that somebody has preached that one to Newton at some point during his career.
That tenet actually had a lot to do with all the love that Newton received this past season. He gained more respect because he fought through plenty to produce a stellar year. A year ago, Newton had many critics who questioned his fundamentals and future in the same way they scrutinized currently beleaguered stars like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick. Newton rebounded from those struggles -- along with injuries and a car crash late in the 2014 season -- by raising his game to elite levels.
It's time for Newton to do the same with his attitude. He has plenty of time to digest the entire season and to decide where he wants to go from here. The challenge for him is determining if he really wants to acknowledge the damage he did to his reputation in Super Bowl 50. The task for those around him is equally daunting: whether they will ever hold him accountable for the mistakes he ultimately makes.