The star quarterback was benched for a uniform violation, and his side ended up on the wrong end of a 40-7 scoreline
When legendary American football coach Bear Bryant complained that a tie was like 'kissing your sister', he wasn't referring to neckwear.
But suddenly the absence of that accessory is a cause célèbre in the NFL, after Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera 'benched' star quarterback Cam Newton for the first series of plays in their game at the Seattle Seahawks, in punishment for not wearing a tie on the team's flight from Oakland, where they had been training.
The series lasted only one play, as backup quarterback Derek Anderson threw an interception, and when Cam entered the game for Carolina's second possession, the Panthers trailed 3-0. His return made little difference, as the Seahawks crushed the Panthers 40-7.
A one-series punishment is a symbolic thing; the NFL hadn't seen anything similar since Bill Belichick slapped Wes Welker's wrists for making repeated comments about feet and toes while discussing then-Jets' coach Rex Ryan, who was in the midst of a foot-fetish scandal. Belichick never announced it publicly, merely keeping Welker on the bench for the first series of what was a playoff game.
Newton wore a turtleneck shirt and sport jacket on the plane, a far cry from some of the bizarre outfits he usually sports after games. Had he notified Rivera earlier, or had Rivera acted privately, the furore might have been avoided. Instead, Newton's suspension was dubbed 'Tie Gate' and seen as symptom, if not cause, of the Panthers' remarkable fall from grace.
Carolina are the defending NFC Champions. They went 15-1 in 2015's regular season and beat both Seattle and Arizona in the playoffs before losing to Denver 24-10 in the Super Bowl. Ten months later, with a 4-8 record, they're likely to miss the playoffs altogether. Suddenly, the Most Valuable Player of the 2015 NFL season is now being perceived in some circles as the Most Responsible for their decline.
On the surface, this may not seem unreasonable. Quarterbacks get the lion's share of the credit when teams win, so why should they not bear the brunt of the responsibility when they lose? And Carolina is Newton's team: their offense is based around his unique running ability, both to gain yardage (already the most rushing touchdowns by any QB in league history) and to keep pass plays alive.
But it's easy to look in other directions.
First is the 'plexiglass principle', a variation on regression to the mean. Lots of things went right for Carolina last year, including getting early games against teams travelling from the West Coast in the playoffs. Not all of them could go right again.
There was also an element of hubris: Denver exposed weaknesses in the Panthers' offensive line which the team didn't address. Their best lineman, center Ryan Kalil, has been hurt, as had left tackle Michael 'Blind Side' Oher. More injuries meant their second-best lineman, guard Trai Turner, has been forced to play tackle.
More importantly, the team rejected star cornerback Josh Norman's request for a long-term contract, giving him the 'franchise' tag: a one-year deal at the average of the top-five salaries at his position. When he complained and refused to sign the tender, the Panthers released him; he signed a big deal with Washington and Carolina got nothing in return. They argued Norman was made great by their system, but discovered that although they drafted three talented rookie corners, it takes time for them to develop in that system. Then they lost their best defender, linebacker Luke Kuechly, to concussion.
The Panthers' season might be summarised by their season opening 21-20 loss in a Super Bowl rematch in Denver. Kicker Graham Gano missed a kick which would have won them the game, but more importantly, Cam Newton suffered at least three obvious helmet to helmet tackles in that game, only one of which drew even a penalty flag.
The message was obvious, and Newton didn't hesitate to state it publicly: the league wasn't going to protect him the way it did less mobile (for which you may read 'white') quarterbacks like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
Newton's benching was like an axe that the press had been waiting for some time to be dropped, certainly since he came to his post-Super Bowl press conference in a hoodie and responded tersely to questions "like a spoiled 13-year old," as one scribe opined.
Critics harp on the off-field Cam. His zebra print Versace trousers, a kind of designer Zubaz, were the story of the day when Carolina arrived at last season's Super Bowl. The Panthers' offense is like full-contact basketball with Newton as their Michael Jordan; he's a hip hop star in a button-down league.
He entered the NFL with red flags attached. After backing up the golden boy, Tim Tebow at Florida University, he left after stealing a laptop, and under a cloud of questions about academic performance. He spent a year at Blinn Junior College, where he led them to a national title, then transferred to Auburn University, and in his only year there led them to a national title as well.
Meanwhile, questions were raised about his father's requests for cash from colleges seeking to recruit him after that year at Blinn. Draft guru Nolan Nawrocki gave Newton a write up full of invective: calling him a phony, me-first player. It drew accusations of racism, at best implying Nawrocki had a blind spot. But Carolina made Cam the first pick overall in the draft anyway: in a year he'd gone from Blinn to bling. Then he said his role was to be 'an entertainer and an icon', as if validating the criticism.
Image: Stephen Chernin AP/Press Association Images
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson made a big deal about keeping Cam under control, saying he'd warned the rookie against tattoos or body-piercings; conversations Newton says never happened. But teamed with new coach Rivera, the Panthers made progress, and in 2015 Cam signed a five-year $104million extension to his rookie contract, which seemed validated by last year's Super Bowl run.
Winning is the great palliative in sports.
"I made a decision based on the rules," said Rivera. "The reason you do it, especially when you're having a bad season, is because if you don't, chaos, it can consume your football team." Few Panthers had any comments. Tight end Greg Olsen simply noted, correctly, "I understand how it works; when things are bad it makes a good story."
But Seattle's outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman, perhaps putting the knife in, sided with Rivera: "I agree with (him), you start treating a guy different, it's a slippery slope." It's worth noting that Seahawks' coach Pete Carroll is notoriously relaxed with his players.
The Panthers can still salvage some of their season, starting with a tough matchup against San Diego at home Sunday. They can play spoilers in what is a tight race for the division title in the NFC South. But losing teams always find it harder to put controversy behind them.
The only positive result of the benching? Cam Newton has his own line of clothing with a Charlotte clothing chain, and this week his ties, on sale at only $20, were flying off the racks.