The tweet that stunned the NFL on Wednesday was published at 5:02 p.m. For Josh Norman, the news arrived through a phone call. The cornerback was driving back from his stepsister’s funeral when his main agent at the time, Michael George, notified Norman that the Carolina Panthers rescinded his non-exclusive franchise tag. One of the top cornerbacks in the NFL had hit the market six weeks into free agency, eight days before the draft and on an already emotional day.
What transpired over the next 48 hours begat yet another unexpected and significant addition to the Washington Redskins for the third straight offseason. Norman, meanwhile, received financial stability at a price the Panthers refused to pay. On the surface, it has the feeling of a classic splash acquisition by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder — a five-year deal worth $75 million. But more went on behind the scenes to suggest this addition was different.
The Redskins ditched their conservative offseason approach and devised an aggressive plan to acquire the 28-year-old cornerback, people with knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post under the condition of anonymity. For two hectic days, Washington threw every resource at Norman, hoping to address a significant need in the secondary. And it worked.
It began with Carolina’s unanticipated move that immediately made Norman an unrestricted free agent. Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman and Director of Team Administration Rob Rogers had attempted to negotiate a long-term deal with George for more than a year, especially after Carolina applied the non-exclusive franchise tag March 1. Norman was coming off a season in which he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl and first-team all-pro nods for the first time in his career.
Following a significant jump of the salary cap, George sought a five-year deal averaging around $16 million per season, which would eclipse Darrelle Revis’s five-year, $70 million deal with the New York Jets last offseason. The Panthers instead offered a five-year deal worth $11 million to $12 million per year, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Carolina has established an environment of re-signing its core players, but it has placed greater emphasis on the front seven than the secondary. The Panthers didn’t want to invest $75 million into a cornerback with defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei and linebacker A.J. Klein all entering the final year of their rookie deals.
Both sides did not budge. Separated by nearly $25 million, Norman’s agent received permission from the Panthers to seek a trade. Norman drew interest from a few teams, including the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams, but ultimately didn’t secure a deal.
“When we decided to place the franchise tag on Josh, we were fine with him signing it and then working on a long-term deal,” Gettleman said in a statement during his pre-draft news conference with local reporters Thursday. “As we got deeper in conversations, we realized there was a significant difference in our thoughts and theirs. The intervening weeks gave us additional time to evaluate where we are going as a franchise. With the realization that a deal was not going to get done, our internal conversations kept leading us to the fact that the one-year deal was becoming less and less attractive.”
The news blindsided Norman. He was not informed about how far apart George and the Panthers stood on a long-term deal and at least figured he would be on the team in 2016.
As a last-ditch effort, Norman called the Panthers to find a resolution. He said that he would fire his agent and sign the $13.9 million franchise tender, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but the paperwork to rescind the franchise tender had already been filed to the league. Many on the Panthers’ coaching staff weren’t aware of the move either, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. They even questioned whether there was something beyond football that caused the team to move on from its top cornerback.
Once the Panthers announced the news, 11 teams expressed interest in the Coastal Carolina product. Behind the scenes, Norman was looking for another agent to represent him and hired Ryan Williams. He intended to fire George, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, and the paperwork was filed to the NFL Players Association, according to NFL Network, but Williams and George were legally co-representatives. The logistics allowed Norman to avoid waiting five days to finalize a deal with an NFL team, although Williams ran the show.
The Redskins were one of the 11 teams. Wednesday afternoon’s news didn’t only surprise the cornerback, but it also “shocked” everyone at Redskins Park as well, insiders said.
At times, teams hear rumblings of an impending divorce between a player and franchise before news becomes public knowledge. But that wasn’t the case with Carolina and Norman. Once they learned of the turn of events, however, Redskins officials wasted little time assessing the situation and formulating a plan.
The way things work within the franchise under Scot McCloughan, the general manager serves as the chief talent evaluator. McCloughan, Coach Jay Gruden and his assistants and team president Bruce Allen will confer, although McCloughan can and has overruled their opinions. McCloughan makes the final call on which players to pursue, and Allen and chief negotiator Eric Schaffer make it happen. Snyder, meanwhile, is kept abreast of plans, people within the organization said, but no longer is a key member of discussion meetings.
All of the team’s decision makers held the same stance on Norman, however, people within the organization said.
A Redskins’ pursuit of Norman proved surprising because McCloughan strongly believes in using the NFL draft to build the roster and typically eschews relying on free agency. During March’s busiest shopping period, Washington sat idle as the top free agents came and went. But there are always exceptions, and McCloughan viewed Norman as an elite player at a position of great need.
Washington has one ascending cornerback in Bashaud Breeland. However, the would-be starter opposite him — Chris Culliver, whom Washington signed last offseason to a contract that pays him $8 million a year — is coming off of the second reconstructive knee surgery of his career and may not return to full strength by the start of the season. The Redskins hold the 21st pick in the draft, and the top cornerbacks all could be gone by then.
Because of their conservative approach in free agency, the Redskins still had some cap space — roughly $12 million — and also had moves they could make to create more financial flexibility. And so, with McCloughan giving the green light, Allen and Schaffer took over.
Allen composed the plan on how to woo Norman, while Schaffer began crunching numbers to figure out what type of contract would satisfy the cornerback and avoid wrecking the Redskins’ salary cap.
Allen made initial contact with Norman, expressing the team’s desire to bring him to Washington, and even rushed a custom-made No. 24 Redskins jersey to Norman’s Atlanta home, the player said on the team’s television show, “Redskins Nation.”
By Thursday evening, Norman’s agent had the framework of an offer from Schaffer, and Allen had orchestrated a plan for a meeting the next day between team officials and the cornerback.
On Friday morning, pilots fired up Snyder’s private Jet, “Redskins One,” and flew defensive coordinator Joe Barry and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell to Atlanta. The coaches and Redskins safety DeAngelo Hall, who also lives in Atlanta, held an initial meeting with Norman to sell him on coming to the team. And then Barry, Fewell, Norman, Williams, his publicist and several close family members who were with Norman because of the funeral all flew to Dulles Airport. The entourage arrived at Redskins Park in a fleet of black Suburbans by 1:45 p.m.
Redskins officials were determined not to let Norman leave headquarters without a contract. And by setting up a private flight for him, they ensured that time constraints wouldn’t cause him to cut the visit short to catch a commercial flight back to Atlanta.
Once inside the facility, Norman expressed disbelief over the whirlwind of events, recording a video message that he disbursed over social media. “Man, what a day to be alive,” the cornerback said to begin the greeting.
Roughly six hours later, the Redskins had achieved their goal. Norman put pen to paper on a contract that will pay him a guaranteed $36 million over the next two years and features additional options that could pay him up to $75 million over five. Norman, his crew and Redskins officials celebrated. Norman’s publicist posted photographs on social media that featured the cornerback posing with everyone from Gruden, to Barry and family members as they reveled in the new union. Snyder, who team insiders say had welcomed Norman to Redskins Park but stayed out of the way during the initial planning meetings and negotiations, also resurfaced to join the festivities .
Just after 11 p.m., Redskins One took to the air again, taking the newest member of the team back to Atlanta.
The Redskins now have their starting cornerback tandem in Norman and Breeland. But it remains to be seen what will happen with Culliver, whose $8 million contract is not guaranteed and now could be dispensable. However, the move seems to have positioned coaches to proceed with the plan to transition Will Blackmon, who started 10 games at cornerback last season, to safety.
The Norman signing also gives Washington greater flexibility entering this week’s draft.
With cornerback no longer a dire need, the team can concentrate on other positions, including defensive line, safety, inside linebacker, pass rusher, center and running back. Having met one big need in the secondary, the team also has greater flexibility to trade down and acquire more draft picks to round out the roster.
This marks the third straight offseason in which Washington has successfully pursued a top-level player who unexpectedly became available after falling out of favor with his team.
In 2014, nearly three weeks after the initial thrust of free agency, the Philadelphia Eagles released top wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Washington signed him days later. Despite playing with three quarterbacks in 2014, Jackson led the NFL in yards per catch his first season with Washington. He missed time with injury last season, but when healthy, he provided game-changing ability to an otherwise-conservative offensive attack.
Last July, when the New Orleans Saints abruptly cut pass rusher Junior Galette, who had recorded 22 sacks over the previous two seasons, Washington pounced, signing him to a one-year deal a day into training camp.
However, the team has yet to receive a return on that investment because only weeks later, Galette ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and missed the entire season. Last month, he re-signed with Washington, and coaches believe that a healthy Galette will pair with Ryan Kerrigan to provide the top-flight pass-rushing tandem it has needed.
This season they will see whether such a pass rush, plus the addition of one of the game’s top cornerbacks in Norman, takes their defense — and ultimately their team — to the next level.