SAN FRANCISCO — Their NFL careers began just 15 minutes apart on draft day in 2011, with Cam Newton going No. 1 to the Panthers and Von Miller No. 2 to the Broncos and the direction of their respective franchises undeniably changed.
But after all that happened Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium, their Super Bowl legacies couldn’t be further apart.
Miller put his stamp on history with a transcendent performance in the Broncos’ 24-10 win over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. His 2½ sacks and two game-changing forced fumbles were the statistical milestones of one of the greatest — if not the greatest — individual performances by a defensive player in a Super Bowl.
Miller was the leader of a defense that conquered the 17-1 Panthers, and his impact on the outcome was incalculable. In a league where offense commands far greater attention, it’s often defense that wins championships. And that is precisely what happened on Sunday, as Miller’s signature performance proved the difference.
Newton could not have had a less impactful game on the biggest stage of his career. The big quarterback with the big personality ended his night falling to the ground in disappointment after the Broncos recovered his fumble deep in Panthers’ territory and converted it into the final touchdown.
And it wasn’t simply his woeful performance that stood out; as Newton has shown before in his five-year career, that megawatt smile can turn into a 25-watt bulb in a hurry when things don’t go his way. Newton’s body language through much of the game, especially the latter portion when he continually failed to solve Denver’s defense, was particularly revealing. His smile disappeared. His shoulders slumped. His countenance sagged.
And who can forget that moment of truth on his fourth-quarter fumble, when the ball lay on the ground after Miller’s sack and Newton, looking frozen in the moment, didn’t have the wherewithal to dive in and try and recover the ball. There’s the game right there. It was still 16-10, and the Panthers still had a chance to march down the field for the potential go-ahead score.
But Newton looked as if he’d rather have someone else do the dirty work when the ball just lay there, and he backed off the chance to keep his team alive. Broncos safety T.J. Ward leapt on the ball, and C.J. Anderson then bulled into the end zone for the insurance score that put the game out of reach.
Afterward, Newton’s snippy demeanor in his postgame news conference was as uncomfortable as it was disappointing. His one-word answers spoke to his frustration, but they also revealed a bad look for the 26-year-old quarterback.
Look, if you want to celebrate touchdowns with joyful dances and share your enthusiasm with your teammates and fans, that’s fine. He’s the consummate showman, and he’s fun to watch in his moments of jubilation.
But if you can’t learn to show some grace when things don’t go well — when you lose the Super Bowl and you had a direct role in why you lost — then you lose credibility. Newton lost a ton, both during and after the game.
Miller, meanwhile, enjoyed his well-earned moment in the spotlight after the game and again on Monday morning, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed him the MVP trophy at a news conference. With his contract expiring in a few weeks, Miller is about to make a pile of money as the closest thing to Lawrence Taylor this league has seen since the Giants’ star dominated the league.
The Taylor comparisons are not made lightly. Having covered the great pass rusher through almost his entire career, there is a spectacular body of work that Taylor produced, and Miller still has more to do to be in that class. But he has the physical tools to do it, and he has already made more of a Super Bowl impact than Taylor did in each of his two championship appearances.
But neither his individual achievement nor his impending financial windfall can surpass his biggest thrill.
“The Super Bowl MVP is special, but the Super Bowl ring is something that I will keep with me for the rest of my life,” Miller said. “I’ll be able to be with my brothers for eternity. I’ll be able to be with those guys for 100 years from now and that’s truly beautiful . . . I am just enjoying being with my teammates, celebrating with those guys. That’s where I want to be at right now.”
The contract will work itself out in the coming months, and the Broncos will ultimately figure out what happens at quarterback if and when Peyton Manning retires and if and when Brock Osweiler re-signs. But after Miller got the best of Newton in the biggest game of their lives, the Super Bowl reputations for both men are now firmly established.
Miller has ascended to the throne. For Newton, there is still a ways to go.
And who knows? Newton may not have seen the last of Miller in a Super Bowl setting. If these two stars continue to have the same impact on their teams in the years ahead, there may be another time or two for Newton to make amends for Sunday’s Super Bowl flop.