DENVER -- The football game that kicked off the 2016 NFL season was exceptional. But it was the head-to-head shots Cam Newton took, and what it says about the difficult balancing act between safety and competition, that turned the night into a failure.
For the Panthers and their star quarterback.
And for a game we all love -- and a money-making machine the league must find a way to protect from the very thing that makes it so compelling in the first place: that searing violence that, this time, unleashed itself on the league's reigning MVP.
Time and again, Newton took helmet-to-helmet shots. There were certainly four, including a huge shot at the end of the game that left him down, dazed and confused. Was that illegal hit -- one offset by an accompanying intentional grounding call with just 37 seconds left in a one-point game -- part of the reason Denver won a 21-20 thriller?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. From then on Newton seemed off in what could have been a winning drive, but it could just as well have been the same swarming Broncos defense that last season made them champions. And Carolina still had a chance to win. Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal that would have been the winner, and that was it, the Broncos swamping their home turf, celebrating at Carolina's expense yet again.
Melded in all that excitement was another incredible performance by Newton, a night of ugly stats but quiet promise from Broncos novice and starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, and another reminder that John Elway might be as good in the front office as he was the huddle.
But it all got overshadowed by the same ugliness that, more and more often, foists itself on everyone invested in the game of football -- the league, the fans, the players, the officials, you, me.
There is a new concussion protocol in place, but if I told you I understood it after watching Newton stay in that game I would be lying or delusional. As I expect almost anyone would be, the league and its officiating crew included.
Time and again, Newton took shots to his helmet that were not called. When that flag finally did fly as the game ground down to its final, crucial moments, the offsetting policy mocked the earlier moments. It was as if to say: Even when we protect you, Cam, we don't care enough to make it matter.
And with Newton staying in as Mile High rocked and all of us held our breath and beheld the NFL at its tantalizing on-field best, it was hard not to wonder what, exactly, the point of a concussion policy is if one of the game's most important players finds no protection in either the officiating or the protocol that should have pulled him.
Newton was circumspect after the game. He arrived to his postgame news conference late, and he was polite, cautious and absolutely unwilling to give the media even a modicum of ammunition to revisit Super Bowl 50 and that postgame debacle.
Asked if the referees failed to protect him, he said, "We all have jobs to do, including the refs, and we have to do our jobs better and win football games."
Asked again if he was given fair and adequate treatment, Newton demurred: "It's not my job to question the officials. I really like this officiating crew. So it wasn't something I know they did intentionally. But it's not fun getting hit in the head. We didn't lose the game on that I know that for a fact."
It was a strange conference, and impossible to sort out if that was true because Newton was furious with the loss, exceedingly careful with the press, cognizant that he should comport himself differently after his last postgame presser because he had learned from it, dazed by the violence inflicted on him on the field -- or a combination of all or several of these things.
"I feel sh---y. That's how I feel," he said. "I just don't like to lose. I know you guys are anticipating so much. I'm trying my best to keep it together but I knew this was going to happen -- especially from the media standpoint, 'How's Cam going to react?' The truth of the matter is the Denver Broncos are the defending champs for a reason."
Yes, but there's another truth, too, and it's this: The league failed Cam Newton on Thursday night.
And so, too, did it fail a lot of us. The concussion epidemic is real and troubling. It is also true that violence and men crashing into other men is an intrinsic part of the game. So in the big fail that was Cam Newton's night, and the abuse he took, there is both blame and the tricky truth that there are no easy answers here.
After praising the official who missed a call, Carolina tight end Greg Olsen spoke for a lot of people at Sports Authority Field at Mile High who afterward grappled with this recurring football problem. This time one inflicted on one of its brightest, most electric stars.
"We've got to treat Cam like a quarterback," Olsen said. "I know he's the biggest guy on the field, but he's still a quarterback. We got one of them, but we didn't gain any yards off of it. It is what it is."
That's exactly what Cam said when, yet again, he was pressed on whether he was let down by the protocols and officials meant to protect him and other players from helmet-to-helmet violence: "It is what it is," Newton said. "It's not going to make any difference now."
It is what it is right now, true, but down the road those hits could have serious consequences -- for Cam Newton, for the game, and for all of us who have to figure out how to love the NFL without losing it in the long term to nights like this one.