DENVER -- Cam Newton took a vicious shot to the head in the final minute Thursday night, a hit that left him facedown in the grass. It was the kind of hit the NFL swears it wants to eliminate from the sport. Newton did not get taken out of the game. He did not get checked for a concussion. In fact, he did not even gain a single penalty yard as a reward for his pain.
Instead the officials ruled that Darian Stewart's flying, helmet-to-helmet hit was nullified by Newton's hurried throw on the run. The refs called it intentional grounding, refusing to consider that the Carolina Panthers quarterback got rid of the ball to protect himself from the speeding Denver Broncos safety who was coming in too high.
Ron Rivera, one of his staff members, an ATC spotter up in the press box -- someone, anyone -- should have removed Newton from this Super Bowl rematch gone awry. In a pro football age of brain trauma and CTE, common sense says Newton needed to be escorted off the field. The rulebook says the same thing. Teams can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately docked draft picks, if they keep sending out players who should be having their heads examined instead.
The NFL released a statement Friday saying that a Panthers team physician and an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant requested video from a spotter, reviewed Newton's physical response to Stewart's personal foul, and determined "there were no indications of a concussion that would require further evaluation and the removal of the player from the game."
Really? No indications of a concussion after Newton reacted to the hit as if he'd absorbed a sweeping left hook from an in-his-prime Mike Tyson? This league statement is just as alarming as the head shots themselves.
We saw what happened with a concussed Case Keenum last year, when protocol was somehow forgotten in the staggering decision the Rams made to keep him under center. We heard from Newton last year too, when he complained about absorbing punishment that other quarterbacks don't have to take.
He didn't have to say anything Thursday night after Graham Gano's missed 50-yard field goal in the closing seconds gave Denver a 21-20 victory. As football coaches love to point out, the film never lies. And the film shows the Broncos hitting Newton's head at least four times and getting away with it.
"I feel s----y," Newton said in his postgame news conference. He had his reasons. Brandon Marshall launched himself into Newton's face, and Von Miller delivered his own helmet-to-helmet hit, one that looked less like a launch but was a clear shot nonetheless. The quarterback stayed in there and weathered it all, making some gutsy plays to give Gano the chance he couldn't convert.
Newton is a tough guy, you know, and, with him a 6-foot-5 245-pounder who runs like a tailback, the refs allow defenders to take liberties against him that they don't permit against more fragile and less mobile quarterbacks.
It has to stop. Not tomorrow, today. Everyone around the league likes and respects Gene Steratore, the referee who worked this game, including Newton.
But does anyone truly believe Steratore would've allowed pocket passers Tom Brady or, say, the now-retired Peyton Manning to take multiple shots to the head without penalizing the offending opponents? And on the one personal foul Steratore did call against Stewart, does anyone truly believe the ref would've called intentional grounding on Brady or Manning when it was so clear the approaching illegal hit inspired the throwaway?
"It's not my job to question the officials," Newton said. "I really like this officiating crew, so I know it wasn't something they did intentionally. ... But it's not fun getting hit in the head."
It isn't fun, and it isn't fair. In fact, it's three country miles removed from fair.
"We've got to treat Cam like a quarterback," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "I know he's the biggest guy on the field, but he's still a quarterback."
A great one, too. Newton was a 14-0 quarterback for the Carolina Panthers late last year, and he finished the season as a 17-2 quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. Yet it all ended in such profound failure that the overwhelming choice for league MVP was left to chase the ghost of redemption. Already.
These are the terms of engagement for a transcendent talent at the one NFL position that matters most, and the architect of the Denver team that denied Newton seven months ago, John Elway, could tell him all about that. Elway was 0-for-3 at the Super Bowl, and forever reminded of his big-game breakdowns, before Terrell Davis and a brilliant O-line walked into his life in the nick of time and helped enhance his historical standing in the sport. Elway never found a Terrell Davis for Manning in his final football hours, but he did build him a defense that treated Newton like a tackling dummy, and ultimately sent him into Thursday night's opener with a whole lot left to prove.
Manning carried the Super Bowl 50 trophy out of the tunnel in the pregame, one final painful reminder before Newton got his hands on the ball, and the Broncos got their hands on him.
"I try to warn the refs every time I do get hit in the head," Newton said, "but if the flag is not called, then it's OK."
No, it's not. And it's not OK for Rivera and his staff, the ATC spotters and/or the independent sideline trauma monitors to allow Newton to play on after that frightening hit from Stewart left the quarterback facedown for too long.
"I'm going to wait until I see the tape," Rivera said when asked about the hits Newton absorbed. "I'm not going to pass judgment on anybody."
He was talking about the officials. But why didn't the Carolina coach take matters into his own hands and help his franchise player? Why didn't Rivera send in the backup, Derek Anderson, and try his luck against the Broncos the next time they meet up in the Super Bowl?
Asked whether he'd gone through the concussion protocol, Newton said, "They asked me a couple of questions, but nothing too serious." The quarterback didn't identify the people or the questions, but he did say this exchange took place after the game and not during it. In the end, the Panthers, the league and the officials were all at fault. Nobody did enough to protect the defending league MVP from a relentless and lawless assault on his head, and that can never, ever happen again.