“Don’t hurt the football team,” Fisher said.
Unfortunately for the Rams, that message was a day late, an ejection of a key defensive player and four flags for unsportsmanlike conduct short.
After a little more than two quarters of chippy play that never really went to the next level, things got out of hand during a sequence that began with 11 minutes, 21 seconds to go. Rams defensive end Robert Quinn had responsibility for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton on a zone-read play, and Quinn ran through him just as Newton handed the ball off to running back DeAngelo Williams.
“It was a legal hit, just out there trying to make plays,” Quinn said. “Say I did pull up and didn’t hit him and he pulled the ball out, he could’ve made a huge play. I was just out there playing football, not trying to do anything to hurt our team.”
Newton stayed down on the field and was helped off before returning a play later, but the damage had already been done. From that moment, the rest of the game turned into the type of melee that would have had local wrestling legend Ric Flair “wooing” his way through downtown Charlotte.
The main event came two plays later when Rams defensive end Chris Long threw a right cross at right guard Chris Scott during a scrum that seemed to last the better part of a couple minutes. In a fracas where many punches and blows were exchanged, Long had the misfortune of throwing the most obvious haymaker. He was penalized and ejected soon after.
“You know how that goes,” Long said. “They are always going to get the second guy. I need to be smarter than that. I play this game with a lot of emotion. I won’t change that, but there has to be a point where I can reel it in and I can’t let people provoke me I can’t hurt the team.”
Much of the rest of the afternoon’s activities turned into an ugly and embarrassing scene for all parties. Long had things thrown at him by Carolina fans as he walked off the field, and the Rams earned three more unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties, two on guard Harvey Dahl and another on receiver Brian Quick. The Panthers picked up one of their own, a play that forced them to settle for a field goal.
Self-discipline soon became a distant memory, and the Rams allowed themselves to fall into the trap sprung by a Panthers team that didn’t hesitate to prance, preen and instigate to provoke them.
“The thing that you’ve got to do is, you’ve got to just continue to do that kind of stuff in between the whistles,” offensive tackle Rodger Saffold said. “It’s hard to say that to somebody, especially a grown man who has put his heart and soul into the game, and it’s hard to hold back those emotions.
“A play lasts for an average of four seconds? We still have 20, 25 seconds, you have got somebody continuing to egg you on constantly, taunting going on back and forth, things the refs don’t see and you retaliate and you get flagged. It’s things that can’t happen, but I can’t say that I don’t understand, especially with how the game was going.”
While there is something to be said for sticking up for a teammate – who could blame Dahl for going after Carolina safety Mike Mitchell after he openly taunted injured quarterback Sam Bradford on the Rams’ sideline – the Rams simply aren’t good enough to overcome in games in which emotions rise to the level they did Sunday.
At the time when everyone seemed to reach their boiling point, the Rams were trailing 17-5 and had a chance to get a stop and get the ball back to their offense to shave it to a one-score game with plenty of time left.
Instead, Carolina went in quickly for a field goal, a touchdown and another field goal after penalties on Dahl and Quick offered the Panthers prime field position. Suddenly, it was 30-12, and the Rams never really threatened again.
“People think because the game is over those emotions are gone,” Saffold said. “Those emotions are held inside of us. That fire is what’s going to make us come back even stronger and faster.”
Stronger and faster would be good, but smarter would be even better.