Let's make one thing abundantly clear here: The Panthers didn't lose to the Broncos on Thursday night in Denver because the officials couldn't correctly call a bunch of questionable hits on Cam Newton. But they sure weren't helped by the officials, and the NFL has an issue on its hands when it comes to player safety after a questionably called game.
Allowing football to be football and still trying to integrate player safety is a fine line to walk. But in the first game of the 2016 season, the officiating crew threw caution to the wind and repeatedly let Broncos defenders launch themselves at a quarterback's head with no repercussions.
The Panthers were clearly upset about it after the game, although remained mostly composed. Tight end Greg Olsen nailed it, noting the officials don't treat Newton like a normal quarterback, instead giving him the Shaquille O'Neal treatment because he's bigger and stronger than anyone else.
"We just got to treat Cam like a quarterback," Olsen said. "I know he's the biggest guy on the field, but he's a quarterback."
Going back through the game on NFL Game Rewind, there were a number of notable plays where Newton took big shots to the head and didn't see a flag.
The first big shot came late in the first quarter, on the first play following a Thomas Davis interception of Trevor Seimian. Newton rolled out, escaped pressure and threw downfield.
Derek Wolfe laid a big shot on him and no flag came out despite the ball being clearly out and Wolfe going high with his hit.
No one is suggesting quarterbacks can't be touched and this hit was close. Wolfe wasn't spearing Newton's head, but as Cris Collinsworth pointed out, it was "close."
"That was close for sure," Collinsworth said. "Cam Newton is now going, 'I thought we protected the quarterbacks in this league?'"
Not a huge problem with a defense being aggressive but if that's Tom Brady, there's a flag coming.
You could argue the same thing for a hit from Jared Crick in the middle of the second quarter.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not sure I personally think there should have been a flag here because Crick wasn't being blatant.
But that's pretty close in terms of leading with the helmet on a quarterback.
And the NFL rule book does define a defenseless player as a "player in the act of or just after throwing a pass (passing posture)." You tell me what Cam is doing.
The second half was much more egregious for the Broncos. Notable -- not necessarily for Denver, but for the refs -- was one play in which Cam appeared to suffer an injury.
It wasn't one that looked malicious by Miller, but, again, Collinsworth was on the scene, noting it was a missed call.
"We showed you the sack by Ware, but here comes Von Miller and helmet to helmet contact right there and Cam sort of buckles back over his legs and has been limping a bit on the sideline," Collinsworth said on the replay. "Clearly a foul there that was not called."
Also worth noting: Cam came right back on the field after this play and didn't appear to go through any protocol. The good news is he wasn't forced to watch the promo for The Accountant.
On the Panthers' next possession, Newton made a pretty incredible move to scramble up and threw a great pass over the top of the defense to Jonathan Stewart. It was called back because of a penalty. On the offense. Here's a four-shot view of what happened.
It's hard to argue Brandon Marshall did anything other than launch himself at someone who had clearly released a pass.
Again, the foul was on the Panthers for a facemask.
The heat would pick up on the Panthers final drive. The most notable play was the only flag called by the officials, but it didn't result in any yardage for Carolina because of an offsetting penalty for intentional grounding.
The ball's out. Plainly. And the defender is launching with his helmet toward Newton.
That's the rule and so it's "fair" -- but if the NFL wants to be serious about player safety, then intentionally using your helmet as a weapon toward another person's brain can't be wiped off the board.
Also notable: Newton stayed in after this play too.
It's just too many shots to the head of a quarterback in a league where player safety is supposed to be a priority and protecting quarterbacks has been an emphasis for years now.
Credit Newton for taking the high road afterwards.
"It's not my job to question the officials," Newton said. "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."