SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Any discussion about what went horribly wrong for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 -- and there's an offseason's worth of material to review -- could start with the disappearance of superstar tight end Greg Olsen. The Broncos were so effective against the Panthers' best offensive player not named Cam Newton, you almost forgot Olsen was on the field.
But by the time the Broncos completed their 24-10 dismantling of the heavily favored Panthers, it was clear that they won their third Lombardi Trophy, in part, because of what they did to Olsen. It wasn't just that Olsen had only four catches for 41 yards, a major drop in production for a player who had 12 receptions for 190 yards and a touchdown in Carolina's two NFC playoff victories. Even more troubling for Carolina's coaching staff was that Olsen rarely had space to operate.
Stellar in coverage for the most part -- "Those guys are really, really good," Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of the Broncos' secondary -- Denver was particularly efficient at shadowing Olsen on those midrange routes that often resulted in first downs throughout the Panthers' 17-2 season. Not on Sunday, though.
One factor contributed most to Olsen's forgettable outing: long-yardage situations. After pounding New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady en route to the AFC title, the Broncos were equally impressive at rushing Newton. In a Super Bowl 50 MVP performance, outside linebacker Von Miller was all over the league's regular-season MVP. DeMarcus Ware often was around Newton, too.
On the run way too much, Newton tried to connect with Olsen. The Broncos' safeties and linebackers provided few openings.
"They did a nice job with Greg," Shula said. "He's so talented in the passing game ... but we were in a lot of long yardage. They can kind of focus on him and do different things."
During the regular season, Olsen had 77 receptions for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns. Every Panthers opponent focused on him. But the Broncos "put so much pressure up front, our quarterback didn't have time to really" look for anyone, backup tight end Ed Dickson said. "And then when you have guys back there who can [cover], yeah, it's gonna make it difficult to do what you want to."
Said Ware: "The whole time we knew that we had to contain Cam Newton. He got away sometimes, but we ended up pulling it off and doing what we needed to do."
Olsen saw things similarly. He conceded the Broncos' defense made things especially difficult in the passing game. Of course, the Panthers also had four turnovers. Obviously, that didn't help, he added.
"When we weren't hurting ourselves, I thought we moved the ball pretty well," Olsen said. "I don't think it was just a matter of us being suffocated.
"But it felt like we weren't overcoming our own obstacles: penalties, being behind, missed plays early. ... It was just one of those days where everyone took turns having a negative impact on the game. You're not going to beat good teams doing that."
With the Panthers' shaky receiving corps, many around the league would tell you it's a wonder Carolina beat so many good teams this season.
Entering the season, the Panthers' receiving corps ranked at or near the bottom of the league. Second-year wideout Kelvin Benjamin -- who appeared to be on the fast track to stardom -- suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Olsen was considered the team's only top-notch target. Although Ted Ginn Jr. had a strong season and others in the receiving corps exceeded expectations, the fact that Newton was largely perceived to be a solo artist undoubtedly helped him earn some votes in the MVP race.
It's appropriate to point out that Newton had several errant throws Sunday, even when he didn't face significant pressure. He also got unexpected help from Corey Brown, an undrafted free agent in his second season who capped an eye-opening playoff run with four catches for 80 yards -- including a 42-yarder.
That established, no wide receivers coach worth his salt would argue that the Panthers' group is on the rise. Even with the expected return of Benjamin, Carolina general manager David Gettleman must provide Newton with better targets. The Panthers are too reliant on Olsen. The Broncos reminded them.
"I'm sure the personnel guys, the powers that be, will start on that [assessing how to improve the Panthers] tomorrow," Olsen said. "They'll get ready for the combine and the draft. ... The NFL season is kind of a 12-month-a-year thing.
"But as players, you pour so much energy, you pour so much ... into your preparation and everything that goes into the whole season, and then it's over. It comes to a crashing halt."
By locking down Olsen, the Broncos took a big step toward ending their season in the best way possible.