The night before each Redskins game, cornerback Josh Norman settles in for a movie he has seen countless times: “Gladiator,” “Troy,” “300,” “Braveheart,” “Superman.” The next morning, he says his prayers and slips into character as the film’s protagonist. But the transformation isn’t complete until he puts on the red contact lenses that sharpen everything he sees on the field. Only then does the sweet-tempered South Carolinian who barely speaks above a whisper become the NFL’s Dark Knight.
Norman’s game-day persona is hardly the secret to his success. His lower-body explosiveness, instincts and football smarts explain far more about why the Redskins made him the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback and how he has validated his worth through the season’s first six games. But it is essential to Norman’s mental game at arguably the NFL’s most difficult, and thankless, position.
Cornerbacks come closest to playing an individual sport amid a team game — pitted one-on-one in a battle that’s tilted in their opponent’s favor. The wide receiver knows where he’s going; the cornerback does not. The game’s rules and most of officials’ calls, Norman will tell you, also favor the receiver. And few fans, at heart, really want to see the cornerback succeed. He’s the damper on the NFL Sunday — the athlete whose victories deny someone fantasy points and spoil the spectacular one-handed catch that would have made highlight reels.
It’s the rare football player who relishes this role — rare in physical ability and mindset. But the mental game is where the great corners separate themselves. Before they make shut-down plays on the field, they’ve won a battle within themselves by drawing on a reservoir of confidence that runs deeper than most.
“I believed in me when others didn’t believe in myself,” Norman said. “My back has always been against the wall anyway, growing up. So coming out here and making that big of a statement that you can overcome the obstacles you’re faced with, regardless of circumstances — that is the ultimate feeling.”
That kind of cornerback is the sort every NFL front office wants in this pass-happy era, in which some quarterbacks can throw 45 or 50 times per game.
But elite cornerbacks aren’t easy to find. Apart from the requisite quickness and explosiveness on the field, they’re outliers in terms of confidence, said Louis Riddick, a former NFL defensive back, scout, director of pro personnel for the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles and now an ESPN analyst.
“They are guys who want to be challenged by the best,” Riddick said in a telephone interview, asked what distinguishes the mind-set of top corners from others. “They don’t like not being featured. They want the attention; they want the spotlight. They don’t want to hide. They want to be exposed because they believe they are the best of the best. And they maintain supreme confidence in their ability after they get beat, as inevitably they do.”
The Redskins have two starting cornerbacks who relish the spotlight: Norman, 28, arguably the NFL’s top corner, and third-year pro Bashaud Breeland, 24, who aspires to join those elite ranks.
Norman, whom the Redskins signed to a five-year, $75 million deal last spring, isn’t the first NFL cornerback with an alter-ego.
Deion Sanders crafted his game-day persona, “Prime Time,” in his dorm room at Florida State, rehearsing quotes designed to distinguish him as a defender unlike any other. After eight Pro Bowl honors in a 14-year NFL career, Sanders explained in his 2011 NFL Hall of Fame induction speech that what drove him was a childhood vow to his mother, who worked two jobs, that he would earn enough money so that she wouldn’t have to work another day. But what he believed set him apart from other athletes was that he didn’t dream of being great. He always expected to be great.
Unlike Sanders, Redskins Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green never adopted an alter-ego. He viewed himself as plain old Darrell Green, or “Jewell’s husband,” he says, off the field and on it. And he always suspected that athletes who indulged in game-day theatrics or trash-talking weren’t 100 percent confident in themselves, needing something extra to juice up their games.
But Green did share an expectation of greatness.
“I don’t know what you call what’s on the inside of a person, but on every play, I expected to win,” said Green, 56, now an associate athletic director at George Mason. “I expected to win every race. I expected to be better than everybody else. It wasn’t arrogant or prideful. If anything, it was humbling, because I didn’t create my gifts. They were given to me.”
Green believes that genuine shut-down corners — players capable of altering the way offenses attack — are rare. He also believes they’re born, not made.
“There is something that is unique in us; what is embarrassing to one person is only disappointing to us,” Green said. “And we are only going to be disappointed for a moment. We have something inside of us that makes us look past [getting beat on a pass play] to the next potential opportunity.”
Breeland surely has the ability to slough off bad plays. He had plenty in the season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, in which Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown caught eight passes for 126 yards against him, including two touchdowns.
Breeland still remembers the look Brown gave him on the fourth-and-one catch that he turned into a 29-yard score. “You let me catch that one?” Brown said with mocking eyes. So Breeland stared right back, as if to say, “I let you catch that one, but I’m not quitting. I’m ready to line up and go again.”
Looking back, Breeland says his mistake was in wanting the matchup with Brown too much. He had circled the game on his calendar; he was going to show the world he could shut down a No. 1 receiver. But he got overexcited, so fixated on Brown that when he took the field, his emotions were spent.
“A minor setback,” Breeland calls it, insisting his confidence isn’t shaken.
“People gonna think you’re conceited; people gonna think you’re selfish when you at this position because you got to be confident and you got to believe in yourself,” he said. “If you don’t believe in yourself, ain’t no need for you to sign up for this job because you on your lonesome. You on an island, and people watching. Once false move, and you’re the sorriest man in the world.”