The contrasting styles of the top seven NFL defenses from a year ago intersect at one trait: They’re all built with elite secondary play. Look back on those teams — Denver, Seattle, Houston, the New York Jets, Arizona, Carolina and Kansas City — and you’ll find either the majority of the league’s best cornerbacks and safeties or the best defensive systems for limiting the high-scoring, pass-crazy offenses of this era.
Go a step further and recall the past four Super Bowl matchups. In that cluster of eight NFC and AFC champions, only one team didn’t rank among the top 11 of the league in opponent passer rating — the 2013 Denver Broncos, which finished 16th of 32 teams in that category and wound up getting smashed, 43-8, by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII.
As the NFL goes deeper into this age of passing, with rules that restrict too much physical play against wide receivers and offensive innovation that remains ahead of defensive resistance, it’s almost impossible to be competitive without paying special attention to the secondary. That truism should’ve been glaring this past postseason, when Denver and Carolina made it to the Super Bowl by putting on a modern-day defensive clinic. Both teams were great in the front seven, but their secondaries made them special. In the end, the Broncos won a championship by frustrating the greatness out of Tom Brady in the AFC title game and then Cam Newton in the Super Bowl.
So if you’re wondering why the Washington Redskins sprinted to pay former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman top dollar when he became unexpectedly available, consider those facts. There’s no way that this team, which allowed the eighth-most passing yards in the NFL last season (258 yards per game) and the 11th-worst passer rating (96.1), can continue to develop and repeat as NFC East division champion without improving its ability to limit pass-centric offenses.
“It’s a pass-happy league the majority of the time,” Washington General Manager Scot McCloughan said. “It’s about scoring points.”
There’s a misconception about McCloughan and building through the draft. Many have oversimplified his goal as wanting to build exclusively through the draft. It would be foolish if that’s all he wanted to do. He’s trying to build a team that can sustain success as quickly as possible, and while the draft always will be his primary conduit for talent, he can’t be blind to opportunities via free agency or trades.
The justification for spending big on Norman is simple. He’s a special talent who’s difficult to replicate in the draft or anywhere. There are only about five Josh Normans in the NFL. When you add his feistiness and ornery desire to be the best to his skill set, he becomes an ideal fit on the field and in the locker room. Norman is 28 years old, but he’s now a foundational part of what Washington wants to be. He’s everything McCloughan wants in a player: competitive, previously underrated, chip on his shoulder, football obsessed and likely not to turn complacent simply because of an enhanced paycheck.
“I carried a big bag with me,” Norman said, basically referring to the chip on his shoulder. “When I step in between those white lines, I’m gonna drop it.”
Of course, if you’ve experienced the many times that Washington has overspent in free agency during the Daniel Snyder era and come away looking silly, you’re skeptical. The difference is that McCloughan, who has a team-building Midas touch, is running the show now. And there’s good synergy in the organization, better than there has been in a long time. The rapid courtship that led to Norman signing a five-year, $75 million contract Friday can only occur if a team is ridiculously misguided and determined to throw darts everywhere, or if it is a well-oiled machine that is communicating effectively and focused on making the franchise better by any creative means necessary.
Washington appears to be the latter now. It really does. The most important thing is the way the contract is structured. The five-year deal breaks down to a two-year contract with $36.5 million fully guaranteed, with options to go another three years for an additional $38.5 million. Eric Schaffer, the team’s vice president of football administration, helped negotiate a creative contract that gives the front office flexibility moving forward.
McCloughan won’t be hamstrung when it’s time to reward his draft picks. That’s why he can still say the franchise is building through the draft and supplementing in free agency. Washington didn’t sign Norman to be a savior. He won’t have to attempt to cover up so many holes that he can’t play to his standard. He’s a piece, a big piece, of the puzzle. There are more pieces to come, but Norman might expedite what could’ve been a long rebuilding process.
Could this move be a bust? Of course. There are no guarantees. But this time, the franchise won’t fail because it made a decision out of desperation. This front office knows what it has done. The fact that McCloughan’s plan is flexible inspires confidence, not trepidation. Rigid team-building is a loser’s approach.
“We’re always game-planning ahead,” McCloughan said. “We always want to be ahead of the curve. We’re going to take care of our own, and that’s the most important thing. We’re going to draft well, and we’re going to go forward.”
With Norman, they have a No. 1 cornerback to compete against Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant, two of the great wide receivers in a division that, when every team is healthy, can put up some passing numbers. Norman can be a vital part of raising the level of play for a Washington defense that allowed the fifth-most yards in the NFL last season.
This team can’t return to the playoffs with the league’s 28th-ranked defense and a non-existent rushing offense. Winning isn’t sustainable with those two deficiencies. That’s why Norman is here. With his name atop the cornerback depth chart, Washington suddenly looks more intriguing. Bashaud Breeland, who showed great improvement last season, looks even better. The other cornerback options do, too. There will be greater competition. McCloughan doesn’t have to spend a high draft pick this week on a cornerback, either. The defense’s primary needs are now at tackle, safety and inside linebacker.
“This team, I’m telling you, is on the rise,” Norman said.
The crazy thing is that he’s not rallying the believers with those words. They were already forming a line before he arrived.