A Bad Call Shouldn’t Obscure a Good Cam

If I am a defensive coordinator, I am teaching The Kuechly Shuffle to my players today. Such is the slick manuever one can pull when an opposing receiver, particularly a large target such as Rob Gronkowski, is gliding open in the end zone. What a defender does in this case, as Kuechly exhibited on the final play of a riveting Monday night game, is bear-hug Gronkowski and bulldoze him out of the way so that, when the football arrives, the 265-pound tight end is shoved so far from the play that the officials rule he couldn’t have caught the ball anyway.

This is, of course, a pile of b.s. Kuechly blatanly interfered with Gronkowski and prevented him from competing for the catch in a passing lane, which should have given Tom Brady and the Patriots a final play from the Carolina 1-yard line to win the game with no time left. Instead, the officials stuck by the letter of a foolish NFL rule — Rule 8, Section 5, Article 3, which allows a defender to make “contact that would normally be considered pass interference but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players …”

Never mind that the pass was uncatchable only because Kuechly literally had pushed Gronkowski out of the ball’s path by the force of his arms and accompanying body weight. Never mind that it allowed Panthers safety Robert Lester to intercept the ball, a call that held up when the officials gathered, overruled an original pass-interference flag, then ran off the field while an incensed Brady ran with them, shouting in their faces up the tunnel. A bad rule was upheld by referee Clete Blakeman, and the Panthers survived New England’s rally with a thrilling 24-20 victory.

“It was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone,” Blakeman told reporters. “So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”

The Patriots are rightfully livid after their latest tough break in a season of crippling injuries and relentless calamity, including the ongoing Aaron Hernandez nightmare. Said Gronkowski, who agreed he was held by Kuechly: “It just wasn’t completed and there was no flag. There was a flag, but it got called back.” Brady said he received no explanation. Coach Bill Belichick, who famously was criticized in the media and reprimanded by the league for chasing down an official after a loss, told the media with typical terseness, “I saw what you saw.”

Said Brady: “I don’t make the calls or the rules. I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that.”

Even Kuechly, the sensational young linebacker, thought he was busted when the flag was thrown. “I was like, `Oh, jeez. I don’t know what this is going to be,’ ” he said, per the Associated Press. “My back was to Brady. I was just playing his eyes, playing his hands, waiting for his eyes to get big and his hands to go up, and I was going to try to break it down. You know, I didn’t really see where the ball went. I think Robert had a hand on it.”

Two hands, actually.

Still, there is no guarantee the Patriots would have scored even if they’d had one goal-line shot against a skilled Carolina defense. Once the yelling dies down in New England, this will be recalled as the game that stamped the Panthers as rising NFC contenders and officially reintroduced Cam Newton to the pro football universe.

You remember Cam: won a national championship and Heisman Trophy at Auburn in 2010, crashed the NFL scene with a sizzling rookie season in 2011, graced the cover of GQ before last season, slumped wickedly and was torched mercilessly for pouting under a towel and showing no maturity during a wasted 2012. He was lost in the publicity blizzard reserved this past summer for Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, with many assuming those dual-threat wonders had bypassed Newton and joined Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson as the league’s hot young quarterbacks.

Not so fast. Maybe it was the young boy in the TV commercial who said he wanted his job someday, but Newton is much calmer and far more measured and mature this season. He is firmly in control of the offense and has become a strong leadership compliment for Kuechly and the league’s top-ranked defense. As Kaepernick struggles this season as a passer and a forgotten dual-threat runner — RIP, read option — and Griffin faces weekly criticism after offseason knee surgery robbed him of his running dimension, Newton is the driving force of a team that has won six straight and could spell postseason trouble for NFC frontrunners Seattle and New Orleans. He beat one of his boyhood idols, Brady, with three touchdown passes and 62 rushing yards while authoring a game-winning, 13-play, 83-yard TD drive.

“It’s not about me,” said Newton, now into deflecting praise instead of lapping it up as he once did. “People want to keep making it about myself and the plays that I made. I couldn’t have done it without the guys who gave me the opportunities to make the plays. It’s not a one-man show. Steve Smith made some catches. Ted Ginn made a play at the end. Our running backs kept blocking and kept running. All I have to do is give guys a chance and you see what happened.

“The thing I’m most satisfied with right now is that we’re 7-3. It was a great win as a team. But we’re just 7-3. We’re not No. 1. That’s the ultimate goal.”

His final scoring pass, a 25-yard hitch-and-go to Ginn, gave Brady the football with 59 seconds left. He almost pulled off another of his trademark comebacks, but Gronkowski wasn’t where he was supposed to be, thanks to Kuechly. Newton and the Panthers will take it, having started the season 1-3 amid calls for coach Ron Rivera’s job. “I said it jokingly, `I’ve seen this story before. I’ve read this book before,’ ” Newton said of Brady’s last-chance effort. “Watching Tom, the type of quarterback he is, methodical and extremely deadly and battling all the way until the last play of the game, it was a very close call.”

But on this night, the better quarterback and more deserving winner was Newton. During the winming streak, he has thrown 10 TD passes and only three interceptions with a 67.4 completion percentage. “Cam did the things he needed to do to put us in position to win the football game,” Rivera said. “It has a lot to do with his maturity that we have talked about.”

“The outside world will look at us different now,” tight end Greg Olsen said, per USA Today. “It’s as good a win as you can get right there on that stage against that team. To play the way Cam did in the clutch, that’s big-time football. That’s what makes him special. He made magic plays.”

With the read option reduced to a one-year fad by defensive coordinators who figured it out in the offseason, the league’s elite quarterbacks this year have been vintage throwers: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers (before his injury), the fast-emerging Luck, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and, of course, Brady. Even a kid like Nick Foles, who has yet to throw an interception in Philadelphia, has lapped Kaepernick and Griffin on the food chain.

But here comes Cam Newton again, reminding us with his deft scrambles and laser throws that he has re-entered the elite — and might be staying for a long time.