Norman was unceremoniously cut by Carolina in 2016 after the Panthers decided to rescind the franchise tag on the all-pro cornerback. Two days later, he signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Redskins, which carried a $14.3 million 2019 cap hit, a figure that remains the fifth highest at the position. And for that lofty sum, Washington is gaining the services of a subpar player.
Perhaps it is unfair to lay all of Washington’s pass coverage problems at Norman’s feet. But he has been the victim of four of the nine passing touchdowns against the Redskins this season and has the lowest pass-coverage grade on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Fabian Moreau, a third-round pick in 2017, has earned the team’s highest coverage grade and is Washington’s only cornerback with a positive grade through three games, although he has played in just one game because of an injury. Quinton Dunbar, the fifth-year pro with a $4 million cap hit in 2019, has been the Redskins’ second-best cover corner, per Pro Football Focus, although he also has played in just one game.
Most troubling, Pro Football Focus ranks Norman 66th out of 83 NFL cornerbacks who have played at least half of their team’s defensive snaps.
Gruden says he's a little bit surprised how much teams are going after Josh Norman— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) September 24, 2019
Norman has been targeted 20 times in coverage, yielding 13 catches for 225 yards and four touchdowns. He has just one interception. That means opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 121.9 when they throw in Norman’s direction. To put that in perspective, the league average passer rating this season is 94.3; Drew Brees led the NFL in 2018 with a passer rating of 115.7. And only five cornerbacks, none with a cap hit higher than $4.2 million in 2019, have allowed a worse rate of yards per snap in coverage through three games.
And Norman is getting victimized all over the field. In Week 1, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery caught four of five passes with Norman in primary coverage for 44 yards. Two of those completions were toward the left sideline, one was toward the right sideline, and one was down the middle.
In Week 2, Norman gave up receptions to Dallas wideouts Michael Gallup and Devin Smith plus tight end Jason Witten. The catch by Smith was a 51-yard touchdown down the middle of the field, with just eight of those yards coming after the catch.
In Week 3, Bears receivers Allen Robinson, Javon Wims and Taylor Gabriel each caught at least one pass against Norman. The cornerback did manage his first interception of the season in the third quarter, but by then the Redskins trailed by three scores.
Opposing quarterbacks have been in on the joke for a while. In 2017, Norman was targeted fewer than four times a game, but he’s now seeing almost seven passes per contest. And quarterbacks targeting Norman have been getting more efficient with each passing season. In 2016, Norman’s first year for the Redskins, he held opposing quarterbacks to a respectable 74.3 passer rating against. The next year, that number ballooned to 114.1. It remained steady in 2018 (114.2) but has increased again this season. (The one season he allowed a higher passer rating against was 2013, early in his career, when he played just seven games.)
Norman’s decline perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Research by Jeff Essary has shown cornerbacks reach their peak at 27 years old and then endure a rapid decline soon after. Norman will be 32 in December, which suggests a turnaround isn’t likely.
Pass defense isn’t the only measuring stick for NFL team success, but it isn’t a minor detail, either. Since 2002, the first year the league had 32 teams, defenses that held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 70 or below for a full season averaged almost 11 wins a season. Those allowing a passer rating of 101 or higher averaged fewer than five wins. Washington has allowed a team passer rating of 122.2 through three games.
For his part, Norman seems to be attempting to find the bright side.
“We just have to keep pushing, man. We just have to keep pushing. This thing is a sprint, not a marathon,” Norman said. “It’s the first quarter of the season. Right now we’re 0-3. … All we can do is look forward to the Giants, go in there and get a win.”