Making the Leap: How Carolina's Josh Norman Became an Elite NFL Cornerback

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 29, 2015

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 27:  Josh Norman #24 of the Carolina Panthers makes a game-saving interception of a pass to Brandin Cooks #10 of the New Orleans Saints in the end zone during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 27-25.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There is something special about this chestnut-colored American Saddlebred with a white patch on his forehead. Josh Norman calls him Delta 747, Delta for short. If the mood strikes, Delta can fly. To call him a free spirit would be an understatement. It might take an apple or a carrot to get him to cooperate. When he sees a camera, he needs no coaxing to lift his head high to pose.

Norman covers so much ground with his long strides, smart quarterbacks want no part of him. He has a mind of his own and can be headstrong. Instinct and impulse are powerful forces for him. Risks give him a thrill. He studied dramatic arts and is most comfortable at center stage.ย 

Making plays on a football field always came naturally to Norman. He said that at Greenwood High School in South Carolina, he had nine interceptions playing strong safety, scored two touchdowns as a wide receiver and another as a punt returner. At Coastal Carolina, he had 13 interceptions.

He was a training camp sensation in 2012 after the Panthers chose him in the fifth round of the draft. Norman started 12 games that season, but his coaches were troubled by his lack of discipline.

"His playing style was high-risk, high-reward," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "You could tell when you watched him in college he liked to do his own thing. Maybe the rest of the team was in zone; he was in man. That type of stuff. We kind of went with it, but then it cost us a couple times."

Norman was put on notice, and he began his second season as the nickel cornerback. But he still wasn't getting it. With six seconds remaining in the second game of the year, the Panthers were trying to preserve a six-point lead over the Bills. Panthers cornerback D.J. Moore called for Norman to switch to cover Stevie Johnson on a rub route. Instead, Norman did his own thing, and Johnson broke free to catch the game-winning touchdown pass.

Soon Rivera phased Norman out of the defense. He was on the inactive list for nine of the Panthers' last 13 games.

"In the back of our minds, we always knew he could play," Rivera said. "People would say, 'Maybe it's time you cut him.' But you don't cut someone with that talent. You keep working with them. It was just a matter of getting him to do things our way, the right way, within the scheme. We often talkedโ€”'You'll get your chance, but you have to do it this way.' But he kept being Josh. He kept fighting it."

Norman became a special project for Panthers defensive backs coach Steve Wilks. They locked horns some, because Wilks, more than anyone, refused to tell Norman what he wanted to hear.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Wilks had so much he wanted to convey to Norman, and it was best conveyed man-to-man. Over time, they had more and more regular one-on-one meetings. As a young player, Norman often would get caught peeking in the backfield when he was playing man-to-man. He needed to have more discipline with his eyes and follow the right progression with where he looked based on the coverage and technique he was playing.

Norman relying less on his athleticism and more on his mind would serve him well, Wilks thought. Norman needed to know more about formations and how offenses try to attack. The coach wanted to enable him to take concepts from the meeting room to the playing field.

Wilks believed Norman played the way he did because that's what he was used to. He would tell him all the time, "You are not at Coastal anymore. We don't need you to make every play. You have great guys around you like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson. Allow the game to come to you and play within the system and you will find yourself making plays."

Horses, especially young ones, can be stubborn. That's why spurs were invented. They don't want to be saddled. They won't take a bit. Delta was like that when Norman bought him five years ago. "Green as all get-out" is how Norman described him. He wanted to go his way, and go at his pace. A trainer was hired to work with Delta for about eight months. "We had to ride him out, get it all out of him," Norman said.

One of Norman's gifts is his flair. What his coaches did not want to do was crush Norman's spirit.

"There was a time, to be honest with you, when I was a little concerned that we did break him," said Rivera, who played on the mythic 1985 Bearsย team and appreciates the value of swagger more than most. "He was kind of flopping around. You could see it in his eyes. I think it hurt him. He was a little bit detached."

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got involved, serving as a mentor. The 79-year-old former NFL wide receiver invited Norman to his house. Their conversations ran the gamut from cornerback technique to life lessons.

"Mr. Richardson, he was big on what I could do and kept pushing me," Norman said. "He became my personal coach. He coaches me up, gives me pointers. When your owner is your personal coach, you never want to let that guy down. You want to push yourself to the extreme."

Everyone around him saw the special potential in Norman. The challenge was getting him to surrender something bigger than himself.

Surrender, as it often is, was a process.

"I had to learn a good many things, the techniques the coaches wanted," said Norman, whose maturation became evident as time passed. "I still was working hard, with the same work rate and dedication, understanding God would open the door."

The door opened five games into the 2014 season, when coverage issues necessitated a change in the lineup. The Norman who started against the Bears was not the same Norman who had been benched a year earlier.

"All of a sudden," Rivera said, "the light bulb went on."

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

The light was partially powered by Norman's relentlessness. He may have been discouraged, but it never was reflected in his effort. Rivera said Norman has been one of the hardest-working players on the roster. Anyone who has seen the Panthers practice agrees, as Norman almost always is the last player off the field.

Off to the side, he goes though his footwork, his jams, his hinges, his side shuffles, his backpedals.

"All the technique we were fighting to get him to do, now he's doing it on his own," Rivera said.

Norman has a post-practice ritual in which Wilks throws him 10 to 15 passes on different routes and movements, including plant and drive, turn and pivot, deep balls, curls and outs. Then Norman lies on his back while another assistant circles him, throwing another five to 10 passes at him from different angles.

The diligence has been rewarded, as Norman has intercepted five passes in his last eight regular-season games, going back to last year. Many of those interceptions can be traced directly to preparation.

Late in the third game of the season, Norman went up for a ball and leaped high and backward, almost like a high-jumper over the bar. He intercepted Saints quarterback Luke McCown, stealing a touchdown from Brandin Cooks and saving a 27-22 Panthers victory. It was one of those "Did you see that?" moments of the NFL season. Norman's teammates, however, just shrugged. They had seen Norman make an identical interception of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in a two-minute practice drill four days earlier.

Norman is listed at 6'0" but seems bigger every time he takes the field for the undefeated Panthers. His leaping ability is above the rim, and his arms are close to 33" long. Those knee-high black socks seem to go on forever.

He knows how to use his size to his advantage and has a knack for making plays on the ball.

"I believe he does a great job of understanding passing concepts and complementary routes," said Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who watched Norman intercept his quarterback in the season opener. "I would bet he studies a ton of film, which allows him to anticipate and jump routes. Charles Woodson and Ronde Barber are two of the best to play the game that way."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Wilks compares Norman to Richard Sherman of the Seahawks, another fifth-round pick. Both have excellent length and great anticipation.

"Josh is a little more athletic from the standpoint of his ability to go up and make plays on the ball," Wilks said. "His ball skills and athleticism are off the charts."

Over time, Norman has become proficient at using his eyes effectively, as Sherman does. In football speak, he has great "periphs," or peripheral vision.

"He doesn't have to stare like some guys do and lose sight either of the guy he is covering or of the quarterback," Rivera said. "He can 'periph' the quarterback or the receiver so he has a chance. Some guys get so focused on one thing or the other, they lose sight of the other."

Norman was voted NFC defensive player of the month in September and NFC defensive player of the week the first week of October.

Now he says he wants to be the defensive player of the year. It appears to be an attainable goal, considering Pro Football Focus determined he had the best passer rating against in the NFL through six games at 23.4. He had not given up a reception longer than 23 yards, and he had allowed only one touchdown in 39 passes thrown his way. This is a carryover from 2014. Last season, Norman had a 53.2 passer rating against, sixth-best in the league.

His agent, Michael George, is confident Norman will command even more attention if his contract expires in the offseason. The Panthers tried to lock him up before the season began, with an offer of $7 million per year, according to the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person.

Setbacks never deterred Norman. And now success, as it comes to him in various forms, is not likely to deter him either.

Unlike many NFL players, Norman did not walk on a red carpet or wait in a green room to get where he is. Georgia was the only big football school interested in him. When his GPA and SAT score didn't meet scholarship standards, the Bulldogs told him he could walk on. He said no thanks and instead went to live in a cramped one-room condo with three people, including his brother Marrio Norman, a cornerback at Coastal Carolina.

For his first year out of high school, he slept on a couch, attended a nearby community college and watched his brother's practices. The next year, he walked on at Coastal Carolina.

Now, with his 28th birthday nearing, Norman appreciates where he has come from.

"Nothing was ever given to me," he said. "I've always had to work for whatever I had. I'm not going to slack off now or think I'm better than anyone else. I still don't feel I've made it, to be honest with you. I'm going to keep working as hard as I can to reach the talent level I've been given, that God has given to me. Because if we can't work for it, what's the point of having it? You can't get gratification for it. That's why right now I feel gratification for everything I put into it."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

In the fourth game of the year, Norman jumped a route by Bucs tight end Brandon Myers and intercepted Jameis Winston. He brought it back 46 yards for a touchdown, his second of the season. Then Norman celebrated in the end zone by pretending the football was a saddle and he was atop a horse. "I was riding Delta," he said.

Norman is sitting on a Western saddle, really riding Delta now. Faster, faster, the wind sweeping back his mane. So fast, Norman feels like he is atop Seabiscuit himself.

Whenever Norman is around, Delta wants to follow him, even if he has another rider on his back. And after a ride, Delta rubs his head on Norman's shoulder.

A marvelous spirit has been channeled, and it is something to behold.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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