Wednesday 22 November 2017

High stakes as opposites collide

Cam Newton has it all. He had it all when he almost single-handedly steered unfancied Auburn to their first national title. Photo: Thearon W Henderson
Cam Newton has it all. He had it all when he almost single-handedly steered unfancied Auburn to their first national title. Photo: Thearon W Henderson

Eamonn Sweeney

You could hardly get two more contrasting teams than the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos outfits which will contest tonight’s Super Bowl.

The former have reached this stage courtesy of an explosive offence, the latter because of a miserly defence. The former possess a quarterback at the very peak of his powers, his opposite number has had the worst season statistically for any Super Bowl quarterback ever. The Panthers have never won a Super Bowl and only appeared in one, the Broncos on the other hand are one of the league’s most powerful franchises, tonight enjoying an eighth Super Bowl appearance. Carolina have been hugely impressive in the play-offs, Denver have stumbled through. And while the Panthers have the ability to beat the tar out of the Broncos tonight, if Denver win it can only be in a close, low-scoring game.

About the only thing the pair have in common is that their probable key men tonight have very short first names. Because in Santa Clara tonight Super Bowl 50 might all boil down to the battle between Cam and Von.

Should the Carolina Panthers win they will have enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. They would be just the third Super Bowl champions in history to enjoy an 18-1 record, the 1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears being the other two. They were pure perfection in the first half of their play-off outing with the Seattle Seahawks, running up a 31-0 lead at the break. And the Seahawks second-half comeback which brought the score back to 31-24 owed less to Carolina weakness than the fact that Seattle are a very good team who could have been seeking three in a row this season but for a last-gasp miscalculation in last year’s Super Bowl. In the NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers made very good opposition look woeful in a 49-15 victory.

Their season owes an enormous amount to the man who has been head and shoulders above everyone else in the NFL this season, quarterback Cam Newton.

American Football has never quite seen a quarterback like Cam Newton. For one thing, after just five seasons he has already tied the all-time record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback held by Steve Young of the 49ers. But while Newton’s athleticism has never been in doubt, this season he has entered the elite league as a passer, with only Tom Brady throwing more touchdown passes, 36 to Newton’s 35. The combination makes him well nigh unplayable.

What makes Newton even more dangerous is that he runs like a running back but is built like a defensive end. The problem with speed merchant quarterbacks is that they put themselves in harm’s way. Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, who came into the league the year after Newton and is perhaps the most gifted athlete to ever play in the position, currently looks washed up thanks to a succession of injuries. Newton, on the other hand, is 6ft 5ins and 250lb and as likely to plough through the middle of the opposition defence as slip round it. Yet his time at the NFL Scouting Combine for the 40-yard dash was 4.59, just short of the average 4.54 time for wide receivers. That combination of size and speed makes him something of a phenomenon.

His second touchdown against Arizona two weeks ago was emblematic of the Newton style. After strolling through the defence he decided to somersault into the end zone for no apparent reason except to provide the crowd with a bit of extra entertainment. As he landed he was hit with a cheap shot by one of the Cardinals defenders. Your man bounced off Newton.

Cam Newton has it all. He had it all in college when he almost single-handedly steered unfancied Auburn to their first undisputed national title. Yet his college career showed a proclivity for straying close to the edge which led people to question whether he would make the most of his gifts. He was only at Auburn, after all, because he’d left Florida University after being caught in possession of a stolen laptop. Newton spent a season playing football with a Junior College team, light years away from the glamour of big time college football, and must have wondered whether his chance had gone. But, almost inevitably, he steered that team to a national title and got a second chance at Auburn.

The controversy wasn’t over as was alleged that Newton’s father Cecil had sought over $100,000 from Mississippi State in return for the player signing for them, an enormous infraction of the rules of college football. There was no proof Newton knew about this, and he won the Heisman Trophy for outstanding college player. He was presumably named NFL MVP last night, which would make him only the third player in the modern era to win both college and league top awards outright, Marcus Allen (1985) and OJ Simpson (1973) being the others.

Newton’s NFL career has been less controversial, though he did roll over a truck in December 2014 and suffered two fractures in his back. It took him 12 days to recover. There are doubters out there who think he is just a bit too flash. Newton has, for example, his own special touchdown celebration known as The Dab which upset one Tennessee Titans fan so much she wrote an open letter about its detrimental effect on her nine-year-old daughter which received much publicity. The letter probably only proves that, as Martin Amis says, Americans have a real talent for being embarrassing.

Some of the criticism is undoubtedly racial in nature. Newton is bidding to become just the third black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. Unlike Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks two years ago, Newton is the best player on his team. And unlike the quietly spoken Wilson, Newton is more Kanye West than Barack Obama. The likes of Rush Limbaugh, once sacked from ESPN’s NFL coverage for his contention that the idea a black quarterback could be as good as a white one was a liberal conspiracy, will surely be hoping Newton comes up short.

Newton’s opposite number Peyton Manning has enjoyed one of the great NFL careers, and two years ago his amazing comeback season was the focus of most of the attention as the Broncos headed in to the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. But Manning never seems to have recovered from the hammering Denver took that day. The Broncos looked a better team when he was out for several games and replaced by understudy Brock Osweiler. But Manning was restored as starter and has struggled through the play-offs, being booed by home fans as the Broncos squeaked past the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first game. No quarterback in history has made the Super Bowl with such poor statistics for the season.

Manning is there because of a defence whose season has been in its own way almost as phenomenal as Newton’s. Denver are only the fourth team since 1970 to lead the league in both yards conceded against the run and yards against the pass; against both the Steelers and the reigning champion New England Patriots, who they dethroned in the AFC title game, they stifled and ground down two of the game’s best offences.

Cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the most fearsome competitors in the league, while veteran linebacker DeMarcus Ware is one of the all-time greats in his position. Both were signed by the Broncos after the humiliation of two years ago and the defence is full of athletic, tough and aggressive operators. Perhaps the best of them all is Von Miller. Only two players in league history have reached 50 sacks quicker than Miller, who averages almost one a game.

In the AFC title game he had 2.5 sacks against Tom Brady and gave that great player as hard a time as he’s ever had. Miller will be looking to get to Newton and hit him early and hard enough to put some doubt in his mind. The Broncos’ chances may depend on his ability to do that.

Perhaps this showdown was fated to happen. Because back in the 2011 draft the Panthers had first pick. They took Cam Newton. The Broncos had second pick and took Von Miller, which made him the highest-ranked linebacker in 11 years. The following season Miller was fined $21,000 for an illegal hit. His victim? Cam Newton.

It has been the Panthers’ year. They’ve often been compared to the Chicago Bears team who rounded off a dominant season by winning the Super Bowl in a canter. The same kind of hammering could be on the cards for the Broncos tonight. But Denver’s opposition this season have scored an average of just 18 points a game and only one team in the last 40 years has won the Super Bowl with less than 20. The outsiders will not be without hope.

Cam and Von. Short names. Big stakes.

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