The Panthers players were sitting at their lockers, showing each other clips on their phones of Odell Beckham taking shots at Josh Norman.
They shook their heads. They groaned. And they talked about how they had lost respect for Beckham, one of the sensational talents in the NFL these days but a cheap-shot artist in their mind. Though they’d tone down their comments a bit a few minutes later while speaking directly into the microphones, they wanted to make it clear what had happened on the field here at MetLife Stadium was not football.
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It was, in their opinion, uncalled for.
"That’s, that’s…" Cortland Finnegan said, unable to find the words to complete his thought at first. "I’ve never seen that in football."
Nearby, Norman was taking some time to decompress, shower and cool down before he addressed reporters. The scowl on his face wasn’t the expression one would expect of a player on a team that just won 38-35 on a last-second field goal to move to 14-0 on the season.
But repeated punches to his face mask, a helmet-to-helmet, blind-side shot and several other shots from Beckham spoiled the day for Norman, who wasn’t exactly innocent but was the lesser offender in this matchup that went too far.
"You’re going to get out here and you’re going to dance around and prance around like you’re a ballerina, it goes to show you what kind of player he is," Norman told reporters after he took nearly a half hour to cool off. "It’s his second year in the (NFL), the maturity level on him is just (like) a little kid. I think he needs to grow.
"I try to do my best to respect people and give them their due justice before I even play them. That’s the kind of respect I have for people and I think he’s a great talent but at the end of the day, you come out here and you see stuff like that, it just gets in your craw and you’re trying to understand, ‘Why are you playing (like) this? This is not you.’"
Some Panthers disagreed. They believe that is Beckham. Safety Tre Boston said Beckham takes plenty of shots at players but gets away with them.
"Watch the film," Boston said. "You’ll see it."
Added Finnegan, a notoriously aggressive player over his 10-year career: "Did you see the punches thrown? That’s enough said. Any defensive (player) would’ve been thrown out the game. The NFL has to definitely step in right there and (address) that.
"That’s part of the game — the chippiness and playing to the whistle — but some things are uncalled for. Some things are out of the context of football. Once those things start to happen, you kind of just (think), ‘What’s really going on?’"
Finnegan even speculated Beckham "may have something in his blood. Maybe it’s female-related. That would be the only thing I could think of."
What a shame this matchup spiraled downward to that point.
It was hyped all last week as a meeting between one of the best young receivers in the game and one of the best, emerging cover corners. It should have been just that — a showdown of two terrific talents and technicians. At times, like on Beckham’s touchdown over Norman to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, it was.
Unfortunately, these two couldn’t help but take it too far, from the moment Beckham ran around the field for his usual, high-profile pregame routine while wearing Christmas-themed cleats with mini presents on the top and lights on the bottom that flashed with each step he took.
"I wasn’t out there but then I came out with the coach and DBs and all that stuff. I didn’t say anything, he just went by flashing and dancing and all that stuff, carrying on," Norman said. "The first play, I kind of saw what kind of person he was. Hey, it goes to show you, if you play as a team, not an individual, you can come through with success and we did that."
It was clear early in the game both players wanted to play mind games with each other.
Norman followed Beckham around the field (except when Beckham lined up in the slot), so he would stand over the football while the Giants were huddling. It would be him standing amongst four hulking defensive lineman. Once he saw which way Beckham was headed, Norman would almost sprint outside the numbers to get there before Beckham. He wanted to be standing there before his adversary got set on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
A few times early in the game, Beckham took a step across the line into Norman’s territory and then back to his side of the line to get into his stance. He was announcing his presence.
Beckham could’ve done just that with a 52-yard touchdown catch on the fourth snap of the game. He got past Norman and was wide open running a post up the middle of the field. But the young man who makes outstanding one-handed catches couldn’t bring this one in with two.
Perhaps that play put Beckham on tilt.
"You blow by the defender and Eli puts it exactly where it needs to be. You couldn’t have asked for a better ball, couldn’t have asked for a better play," Beckham said. "I just let the opportunity go."
Give credit to Norman because he recovered from getting beat much better than Beckham bounced back from the drop.
Beckham, who was flagged four times on Sunday, portrayed himself as the "second man" in the fray who "always gets called" for the penalty even though he’s merely responding to the instigator. Maybe that’s what he believes happened, but that wasn’t always the case.
Late in the first quarter, Beckham was taking swipes at Norman’s head, leading Norman to plead with the officials to throw a flag. Finally, early in the second quarter, Beckham drew the first penalty for unnecessary roughness when he blocked Norman by leading with his helmet and then struck Norman in the helmet with his hand.
In the third quarter, when Beckham was flagged for pass interference, he and Norman exchanged words on their way off the field. Shortly thereafter, Beckham grabbed Norman’s ankle after a play and nearly tripped him, drawing another penalty flag.
Then came the most egregious move by either guy all day — the running, um, block by Beckham that resulted in a head-to-head shot are the tail end of a 19-yard screen run. FOX microphones picked up Norman’s screaming as a few teammates tended to him.
Beckham was flagged again. So was Norman. Norman was asked if Beckham should’ve been ejected.
"Should he? The guy ran 15 yards down the field, dead-on collision," Norman said. "The play was all the way to the left side. He came back and was hunting. It was just malicious in every way. When they put it on the film and they go back and review it, I hope the league office takes a good look at it and see what they can do because players like that don’t need to be in the game. It’s ridiculous.
"I understand you want to play, so play within the confines of the league rules. Don’t do all that extra stuff. I know you get a little riled up. That’s cool. But if that’s not your game, don’t play somebody else’s. You’re not going to win."
The Panthers won this game, even though it didn’t quite seem like it both on the field and in the locker room.
Cam Newton (340 yards passing, 100 yards rushing and five touchdown passes to aid his MVP push) ran along the first row and slapped hands with fans on his way into the locker room. But many other Panthers trudged toward the locker room and were surprisingly sullen afterward.
Part of it was because they expect to win by now. Another fact was the fact they know they almost tied an NFL regular-season record by blowing a 28-point lead. Still another reason was the ugliness between Norman and Beckham, which overshadowed a good game and a terrific matchup of young talents.
"If you’re going to be Michael Jackson, go around and dance and play and do all the other stuff and not be a football player and not train the way you’re supposed to train…" Norman said. "Man, I hope I pulled back the mask, the face of what the dude really is."
JPP WARNS YOUNG JACOBS ABOUT FIREWORKS
In addition to providing the first few public details of his fireworks accident in an interview with FOX’s Michael Strahan, Jason Pierre-Paul has been open privately regarding the dangers of playing with explosives.
Recently, former Giants running back Brandon Jacobs brought his son, Brayden, to the team’s facility. Pierre-Paul showed 8-year-old Brayden his damaged hand and warned him of the dangers of playing with fireworks, which Brayden had done in the past.
"I thought it was good for him to do that," Jacobs told FOX Sports Sunday outside the Panthers’ locker room, as he waited for another former Auburn player in Cam Newton. "Brayden loves fireworks, but he said he’ll be careful."
Pierre-Paul’s career has been affected by his accident. Again on Sunday, he was unable to make tackles with his left hand. He did, however, record his first sack of the season. That was worth $100,000, as he has an incentive of $50,000 for every half-sack he earns this season.
COWBOYS BLEW IT WITH WEEDEN
The Dallas Cowboys were far too quick on the trigger in yanking Brandon Weeden, moving on to Matt Cassel as their starter and cutting Weeden.
The former first-round pick had much more to offer Dallas from a physical standpoint than the aging Cassel and, don’t forget, led the Cowboys to a late touchdown to tie the game against the New Orleans Saints and then never got the ball back as the Saints won in overtime.
In going 11-for-18 for 105 yards and a go-ahead touchdown in relief of injured Houston Texans starter T.J. Yates in Sunday’s win over the Colts, Weeden showed he just might have kept the Cowboys more competitive this season than Cassel, who led Dallas to only one win in seven starts this season.
Weeden had been a Texan for a month and a day on Sunday when he took his first few snaps.
"He’s a pro, he acts like a pro, he carries himself like a pro," Texans coach Bill O’Brien said. "Look, I’m not sure he has the whole offense down pat, but I think he has enough that he can go in there and function."
The Cowboys should’ve realized that. Maybe they wouldn’t be out of playoff contention right now if they’d had.
APOLOGIES TO WASHINGTON
When you’re in the media and charged to have opinions, you will be wrong from time to time. One can ignore those misses and pretend they didn’t happen or own them.
To the Washington Redskins, allow me to own one.
When Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo went down with a broken collarbone in Week 2, I wrote a version of this column in which I led with the state of the sorry NFC East. I predicted the division would remain a mess for most of this season, and I was right about that. But I was wrong in saying the Redskins had no shot to be the team left standing at the end.
I could point to Romo’s second injury or find some other loophole to explain it away (such as the fact Washington has played a softer schedule than its divisional counterparts down the stretch), but the truth is the ‘Skins have hung in there better than I expected. They’re far from a complete team, and GM Scot McCloughan has a lot of work left to build a complete roster. However, Kirk Cousins (319 yards, four touchdowns against Buffalo Sunday), DeSean Jackson (153 yards receiving) and Jordan Reed (two touchdowns) are lifting the offense while veteran defensive backs DeAngelo Hall (eight tackles) and Will Blackmon (a sack to add to stellar play since signing in Washington in Week 2) are stabilizing the defense.
The Redskins can clinch the NFC East on Saturday with a win over the Eagles. Even if they don’t, and even if they get nudged out by Philly or the Giants in Week 17, I was wrong to dismiss their chances. There’s hope for the future in this organization for the first time since Robert Griffin’s rookie season of 2012.
Receiver Antonio Brown had three years remaining on his contract when he started to make a push for a new deal this offseason. He initially wasn’t going to participate in the Steelers’ offseason workout program as a way of making a push for a new contract but then reconsidered and showed up.
That was the smart move because the Steelers are a team that won’t cave to that kind of pressure, particularly with so much time remaining on a contract. But the team did sweeten the pot a bit by moving up $2 million from future years into this season’s salary.
Brown, who had 16 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, is set to make $6.25 million next season. That figure is just way too low for a guy who has now joined Wes Welker as the only players in NFL history to catch 110 or more passes in three straight seasons. He is a top-flight wide receiver even if he doesn’t have the size of what’s considered a prototypical No. 1.
The Steelers surely know, come this offseason, it’ll be time to redo Brown’s deal. He has unquestionably outperformed the five-year, $40 million contract he signed before the 2012 season.
‘CONCUSSION’ HITS NFL HARD
I attended last week’s New York City premiere of "Concussion" and came away thinking the movie really took aim at the NFL and portrayed the league as the devious organization many have accused it of being as it relates to what it knew about head injuries and whether it tried to conceal it.
There is one moment that will probably register with many parents out there when they think about their children playing football. It’s depiction of the brain of a player taking a hit to the head. The camera zooms in on the hit and then converts to a CGI image of bleeding inside the brain. It provides a real image of what we can’t see when a player suffers a severe head injury. As always, seeing something is a lot more powerful for the audience than just hearing about it.
But Revis said he has "a lot of football to play" and "there’s a lot of things you have to push to the side to do this job." If Revis can do that only a few weeks after suffering a concussion, chances are this movie won’t scare many players away from the game. But it will make parents think and continue to put pressure on the NFL to diagnose, treat and prevent concussions going forward.