Josh Norman, the self-proclaimed “out my mama’s womb” Hollywood personality, actually needed time to become Josh Norman. Perhaps his star ego never wore diapers, but certainly, his football career did. With Norman under scrutiny and his former team visiting Sunday, this is the perfect week to dredge up a piece of his NFL origin story and learn how a conflict — one much worse than he is currently facing after a listless performance on “Monday Night Football” — helped make him a player worthy of national attention.
Let’s go back to 2013, Norman’s second NFL season with the Carolina Panthers. During the Panthers’ 24-23 loss to Buffalo in Week 2, he ignored teammate D.J. Moore’s call to switch on a combination route, which left Bills receiver Stevie Johnson open to catch the game-winning touchdown. Sean McDermott, the Carolina defensive coordinator at the time, fumed. Carolina Coach Ron Rivera benched Norman for his freelancing foolishness. Norman was inactive for nine of the team’s final 14 games.
“I got buried underneath the doghouse,” Norman once told me.
It didn’t lead to the end of Norman’s Carolina tenure, however. The humiliation proved to be a seminal moment in his four years there. It motivated him to be a more disciplined athlete, and by the next season, he transformed into one of the league’s most underrated players. Then, in 2015, he was the NFL’s breakout star: all-pro selection, Super Bowl participant, Odell Beckham Jr. nemesis, trash-talking, Hollywood-level celebrity.
Rivera and the Panthers brought it out of Norman with a stern approach. They challenged him. They forced Norman, who often talks like he is trying to hog-tie five concepts into one point, to focus. They managed his pride and competitiveness by showing him the one thing he respects most: strength.
This story now applies to Norman in the present day, even though his success and enhanced reputation make him a greater challenge to lead. Ever since Coach Jay Gruden benched Norman for the opening series of the second half Monday, many have characterized the moment as the beginning of the end for Norman, who has fidgeted through an ineffectual two-plus seasons in Washington. He has played well, but not spectacularly. The team has been mediocre; the defense has been mediocre; and Norman has seemingly committed more frustrating penalties than memorable plays. He didn’t intercept a pass all of last season. So now that there’s conflict, it makes sense to ponder whether this relationship is about to end.
But here’s the thing: Twelve games remain this season to change the vibe. And Norman still possesses the type of talent that Washington has had trouble acquiring in recent seasons. Furthermore, Gruden’s brief benching of the star represents a kind of strict and punitive approach to coaching Norman — or any player on this dilly-dallying team — that we hadn’t seen. For two years, the organization had done more negotiating with Norman than managing him. It felt more like he was a partner in this rebuilding instead of a worker who needed strong supervision. As a result, Washington has gotten many of Norman’s best traits, including his work ethic, passion and — despite DeAngelo Hall’s criticism that Norman has become too consumed with celebrity — commitment. But the franchise doesn’t have his trust.
Norman won’t admit it, but in most of what he says, he acts like the winner who has arrived to help fix the losers. And when the losers do what they do best, Norman gets frustrated, shakes his head and hints at all the losing things the players and coaches do. He’s mostly right about it all, too. But his temperament illustrates the disconnect between the star and the team that wants him to elevate it. There’s no buy-in, ultimately, because the team has neither demanded it nor put players around Norman who can accentuate his positives.
So Gruden’s discipline has created an opportunity, finally, to get through to Norman. At his core, the player still wants to be great and to play for great teams. But Norman is a big personality with a wandering mind. Gruden has to give him something to believe in and inspire him to acquiesce.
“I’m a target, man, I am,” Norman said, responding to the criticism he has received this week. “I’m a hot button. You press it, you’re going to get a ring.”
So press it, Gruden. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky should keep his finger on the button, too. So should Torrian Gray, the defensive backs coach. Some stars need to be left alone. Some stars need to be handled carefully. Norman needs to be challenged and dealt with directly. The organization must stop putting on a happy face publicly while letting it be known in private that it is dissatisfied with the cornerback.
Former general manager Charley Casserly, who is now an NFL Network analyst, recently called Norman the team’s third-best cornerback. He expressed a sentiment that has been whispered around Redskins Park for weeks. But passive-aggressive needling won’t work with him.
Rivera often told Norman and the other strong Carolina personalities: “Hey, look, keep your personality. Be who you are, but play within our core values.” It took some time. It took some strong rebukes. It even took some fights, such as Norman’s training camp scuffle with quarterback Cam Newton in 2015. But the Panthers got the best out of Norman.
“Eventually, we believed we lost something special,” Rivera said of Carolina rescinding Norman’s franchise tag and letting him leave in free agency in April 2016. “I mean, there was a toughness about Josh. Hell, in 2015, he and the quarterback get into a fight in the middle of training camp. So, I mean, there was a swagger about him. And you know what? Everybody respected him for it. The quarterback respected him for it, and he respected the quarterback. You know what? I think that’s what really helped to make us what we were.”
Norman fought with Rivera. He fought with Newton. And on Sundays, he fought with the opponent. Conflict defines him. He loves a good argument, a good scuffle. Washington stays happy and accepts losing too easily. Norman will never respect that. To gain his trust, everything must be stronger. Stronger coaching tactics. Stronger messaging. Stronger discipline.
Don’t be afraid to press the hot button. He’s not the Hulk. You will like him when he’s angry. That side of Norman is far superior to the spiritless version we saw Monday.