Why Panthers’ lockdown CB Josh Norman draws comparisons to Richard Sherman
The first play most NFL fans saw Josh Norman make in September — which ended on Thursday with him being named the NFC defensive player of the month — came in the third quarter of Week 1, when he played coy on an out route from Blake Bortles to rookie T.J. Yeldon, darted forward, picked off the pass, waived bye to Bortles, finished running into the end zone, put the football between his legs and hopped up and down.
"I was riding Delta," the Carolina Panthers’ cornerback told FOX Sports by phone on Thursday.
"Riding Delta" is not a new dance craze with which you’re not familiar. Norman was figuratively riding Delta.
"That’s my American Saddlebred," Norman said. "I go and get on him probably once a week when I’m in Charlotte."
On the list of the NFL’s offensive and defensive players of the month were: a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback in Tom Brady, an 11-year linebacker with 130 1/2 career sacks in DeMarcus Ware and arguably the best wide receiver in the game today in Julio Jones. And then, there was horse-owning, soccer-loving, trash-talking Norman, a breakout player who is finally getting the playing time and recognition he deserves.
A fifth-round pick of the Panthers in 2012, Norman began his career as a starter but was demoted because of inconsistent play. He returned to a starting role last year but has now shown signs of being a top player at his position, courtesy of his pick-six in the opener and his game-clinching interception against the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday.
With an increase in production and accolades (Norman was bummed he wasn’t named defensive player of the week after his pick-six, another pass defensed and a forced fumble), the NFL-loving world is being introduced to one of the underrated characters in the game today.
For instance, talk to Norman about his non-football interests and you’ll see him as a calm, down-to-earth guy who "could go on and on about horses all day" — the three he owns or the dozens he grew up around on his father’s farm.
"Oh man, he had Apache, who was a Clydesdale. He had Stardust, who was a racing horse," Norman said. "There was Strawberry; he was an Andalusian. He had Pedro; he was a Tennessee Walker. He had a big Paso Fino. And he ended up one day getting a horse named Wisdom. He was all black. He put him in shows and he kept winning blue ribbons."
Now, talk to Norman about football, and suddenly the conversation and his attitude becomes less peaceful.
"Night and day," Norman said with a laugh. "After I leave the field, I have to get back into real life because when I’m out there, I’m not in real life. I’m in an ‘Avatar’ kind of world. It’s whatever you want to make it. That’s how I look at it. You’re in a kill zone. You’re out there fighting a battle. It’s World War III out there. I’ve got my guns hot, I’m blazing and I’m ready to fire. That’s how I look at it. It’s like a controlled chaos and I love it."
Sometimes, it’s friendly fire.
That’s what happened with Norman and quarterback Cam Newton during training camp this year. Norman picked off Newton and started barking at Newton while he was running past him. Newton chased down Norman and a brawl ensued, leading many to question why the franchise quarterback was risking his body in a fight like that.
Both players said the criticism was overblown, and Norman said it was all in the name of competition to improve both players. And now that he’s terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, Newton is certainly happy. In fact, he was one of the first players to greet Norman on the sideline after the touchdown against the Jaguars, which extended a one-point lead to eight.
"As soon as you step on the field, you need that dog-like mentality you don’t have in your regular day life."
Panthers CB Josh Norman
Like his barking at Newton in camp, Norman doesn’t apologize for his taunting wave to Bortles. A fine of $8,681 later, he vows to yap at every quarterback who provides him with an opportunity to make a big play.
"It’s letting them know, ‘I’m gonna make you pay for what you’ve done to me,’" he said. "That’s my emotional take on it. If you want to play with me during the game, trust me, I’m gonna let you know about it every step of the way. I’ve gotta run all this way to the end zone, you’re going to know about it.
"That’s the mindset you have to have playing that position and being that guy. As soon as you step on the field, you need that dog-like mentality you don’t have in your regular day life. They’re trying to do their best just like you’re trying to do yours. They’re not going to give you any quarter or slack, so guess what, I’m not giving any. Why would I?"
Norman already has begun to draw comparisons to another fifth-round pick — Richard Sherman — because of his ability to shut down top receivers. It’s a small sample size for Norman so far, but his two games against Jones last year resulted in 59 and 58 yards for the Falcons’ stud receiver.
Like Sherman, Norman is one to pick up on small cues in film study and during the game. Against the Saints on Sunday, Norman realized Sean Payton’s game plan was trying to take advantage of him on double-move routes by the receivers. So on a third-and-6 from the 23-yard line, with the Saints trailing by five and 1:17 on the clock, Norman saw Luke McCown pump fake as Brandin Cooks stuttered his feet. When McCown reloaded, Norman knew what was coming.
The result, once Norman got to the spot, was an outstanding, leaping, leaning interception to seal the perfect Panthers’ third victory.
"I was booking it. Driving, driving, driving," he said. "Got up, saw the ball and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a bone and I’m about to go up and get it out of the air.’ As soon as I went up, I tried to get as high as I could and I don’t know how I hung up there that long. I don’t know how that happened. That’s the God-given ability. I just work hard to get to that part."
With every big play Norman has made, he’s become more recognizable around Charlotte. Whereas he was once thrown off by the reactions of fans, Norman now better understands the fame that comes with success on the field.
That’s because of an event in the summer when, for once, he was the starstruck one.
A fan of FIFA video games for years, Norman often chose Paris Saint-Germain as his team when he played. That’s how he got to know about striker Zlatan Ibrahimović. Norman then watched a few games and saw back in February when Ibrahimović took off his shirt to reveal the temporary tattoos on his chest that represented the 805 million starving people around the world.
Norman admired Ibrahimović’s talent and swagger, so when he heard PSG was coming to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte in July, he vowed to be there.
Norman met team officials and was invited by deputy CEO Frédéric Longuépée to travel to Paris to spend some more time with the team — an offer he plans to accept after this season. Norman also met with players: David Luiz, Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Silva, Maxwell, Edinson Cavani and, as Norman put it, "the man of the house," Ibrahimović.
The two footballers spoke for about 20 minutes. They discussed their experiences as pro athletes, with Norman coming away with a better idea of what success and stardom are like.
"We hit it off right away," Norman said. "I told him about everything he had going on about himself. He was thinking like, ‘I have a creeper.’ That was the first time i actually felt like I was a fan of something. I honestly now know how the (American) football fans feel because I was a fan for a day."
Ibrahimović made about $40 million last year. So that’s where the similarities between the two athletes stop.
Norman is in the final year of his rookie contract. He’s earning $1.542 million in salary. His agent, Michael George, and the Panthers had contract discussions before the season but couldn’t come to an agreement. At this rate, Norman is headed for an enormous pay increase this offseason, whether in Carolina or elsewhere. As Byron Maxwell’s six-year, $63 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles showed, even a short track record as a top-level starting corner can result in a huge payday.
Norman said he’s not thinking about his contract, just on continuing to improve upon his craft.
"I’m in a nice, comfortable place," he said. "I can always get better at things, just knowing me working will help me reach my goals and aspirations. God gives you the talent but he doesn’t give you the work.
"You have to put the work and effort in, or you’ll never meet that talent."