After the ‘gut punch’ split with the Panthers following his breakout season, All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman starts fresh in Washington. He’s already got the Beltway bravado
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thunderclouds dim a sleepy Monday afternoon in the nation’s capital, and with Congress in recess, D.C.’s newest power player roams the Capitol building undisturbed. Josh Norman, the cornerback who commanded a five-year, $75 million contract from the Redskins after a cyclonic few days of free agency last month, is already immersed in the city’s politics. Two days earlier he had attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and was swarmed on the way to his seat.
“Josh!” crooned Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House, opening her arms for an embrace. “How are you? How have you been? Come, meet Mr. Pelosi!”
Norman grinned, and hugged Mr. Pelosi, too. “It’s great to see both of you,” he said. “How have you been?”
Norman’s publicist, Jeanine Juliano, stood a few feet behind, incredulous. “Josh, do you know them?” Juliano asked later. “It looked like you were old friends.”
“Nah,” Norman said. “Had no idea who it was until she introduced her husband. But that’s why I gave them the double-hug. I guess that’s how they do it here.”
And so on Monday, Norman coolly approaches the Congresswoman’s workplace, strolling through a security checkpoint in black sweatpants, a black hoodie and oversized sunglasses. His initial observation: “For a building so important, they sure let the grass go.” Norman is more awed by the interior. He gazes at murals along the ornate Brumidi Corridors that chronicle significant moments in U.S. history. “Eighteen sixty-one,” Norman says, staring at a Civil War depiction. “Think of how long ago that was. That’s just incredible.”
The 28-year-old Norman, who grew up on a horse farm in Greenwood, S.C., is even more impressed by the narrow, winding marble “British Steps,” which lead up from the first floor of the building. As legend has it, when the British set fire to the original Capitol building in 1814, American riders raced their horses up these steps to issue a warning. “I have my doubts on the practicality,” Norman surmises, doubtful of the tale. “This is just too skinny for horses.”
The pathway leads to an exclusive perch: the Speaker’s Balcony. As a guide unlocks the entrance, the sweeping view of the National Mall is enough to silence even the NFL’s most loquacious cornerback. Norman approaches the edge and leans forward, stretching his arms across the metal railing. Over the last two weeks his career had collapsed and reformed with unprecedented haste. The sequence feels so surreal, he says, that each morning since, he has woken up and stared in his mirror, wondering if the reflection will jolt him awake.
Scanning the scene spread out before him, Norman breathes in the storm-heavy air. “Taking in a view like this, you see everything the city has to offer,” he says. “The freedom, the power, the glory. I can have it all here.”
* * *
Before a dozen NFL coaches flooded his inbox with flattery, before Redskins owner Dan Snyder dispatched a private jet to his home, and before he became a cautionary tale for the perils of the franchise tag, this was already The Off-season of Josh Norman. The five-year pro, a defensive standout on a Panthers team that went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl, basked in the spoils of newfound stardom. Norman strutted down the red carpet at a Batman v Superman premiere (“The Dark Knight” is his preferred on-field ego) and shot promos for EA Sports Madden 17. He added to the friction with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.—notoriously on display during the violently chippy Giants-Panthers game in December in which Beckham was flagged for three unnecessary roughness penalties and Norman two—in his seemingly endless rotation of television and radio appearances. “The media may have made that rivalry a big deal,” Norman says of Beckham. “But, oh, it’s real.”
As he hopscotched the country post-Super Bowl, however, a contract dispute simmered. Norman’s agent, Michael George, had been working on a long-term deal for a year, and after a breakout 2015 season in which Norman won his first All-Pro nod—opposing quarterbacks had a league-low 54.0 passer rating targeting Norman, according to Pro Football Focus, and he was so effective that some QBs refused to even throw his way—Norman aimed for the NFL’s richest cornerback contract: five years at $16 million per. Carolina wouldn’t budge past five years, $12 million per. Philosophical differences grew defined. Dave Gettleman, hired as Panthers general manager in 2013, built his top-10 defenses with beefy front-sevens—and inexpensive, scheme-fitting cornerbacks. In his first three seasons with Carolina, Gettleman did not draft a defensive back higher than the fourth round and never allocated more than 3.5 percent of the Panthers’ salary cap to the secondary (which, according to sportrac.com, is fourth-lowest percentage in the NFL in each of the last three years). According to several sources, Gettleman found Norman important to the team but was wary of shelling out $80 million for a player who could be streaky, especially while defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei were also due for pay days. On March 1 the Panthers applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to Norman, guaranteeing him $14 million for the 2016 season if the two sides could not agree on a long-term deal.
With no movement by mid-April and Norman expecting to skip offseason workouts, the cornerback realized he needed help on the agent front, and he called in reinforcements from another agency for co-representation.
* * *
A self-described homebody, Norman grew up with four brothers and 20 horses in Greenwood, a town of 22,000 about 80 miles west of Columbia, S.C. Despite being named All-State at Greenwood High, Norman received no major Division I scholarship offers, so he spent his first year after high school crashing on the couch in his brother Marrio’s dorm at Coastal Carolina. The next year, 2008, Josh walked on with the football team; he earned a scholarship as a sophomore, was named All-FCS as a senior and was drafted by Carolina in the fifth round in 2012.
Norman started in his rookie year for the Panthers, but his college tendency to freelance, a product of his supreme confidence, was exposed. In 2013 he was demoted to nickel assignments and was benched for nine of the last 13 games that season. At that point, Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks made Norman his project, conducting extra post-practice repetitions. Owner Jerry Richardson also intervened with personal life coaching. The cornerback loved the family-first message preached by Richardson, the 79-year-old Panthers patriarch, whom he reveres “like a father.” Norman visited Richardson at his house several times during the off-season just to talk, and when the owner underwent shoulder surgery this March, Norman sent a present to his home.
“I began to envision my life [in Carolina], growing old there,” Norman says. “I envisioned being that guy who lived his whole life in the Carolinas, and could positively impact that area.”
Even so, Norman has an off-season house in Atlanta, and on Wednesday, April 20, he was driving back there from his stepsister’s funeral when he got a call from George: The Panthers were rescinding the franchise tag. Norman, now an unrestricted free agent, was confused more than anything. “Don’t they know how bad I want to be here?” Norman asked. “Couldn’t they have given me warning?” He says he dialed Richardson’s number seeking clarity. He called his coaches. He then called Gettleman, and said he was willing to sign the tender. According to Norman, Gettleman told the player that the paperwork had already been filed.
“For an hour and a half, he just lay there on the floor, motionless,” says Norman’s mother. “He didn’t want to move, he didn’t want to talk.”
Ironically, Norman had already been looking to bring in second counsel, and prospective new agent Ryan Williams was en route to Atlanta to meet Norman when the news broke.
“The GM?” Norman says of Gettleman. “He has no ties to me. He didn’t bring me in. I had been there five years, busting my tail, giving it everything I had. I was blue-collar to the core. And they talk so much about this being a family deal—well, dang, you could have at least let me know. You want to be a family, but honestly, is this a family way of doing things?” (The Panthers declined to comment for this story.)
Norman’s mother, Sandra, arrived at his home. His brothers and Williams gathered there, too. Norman went upstairs to his bedroom. “For an hour and a half, he just lay there on the floor, motionless,” Sandra says. “He didn’t want to move, he didn’t want to talk.”
For nearly 24 hours Norman didn’t even eat. He played FIFA with his brothers. “That calmed my nerves for a little while,” he says, “But then the game was over, and it just sucked some more. This was a freaking gut punch.”
It was midday Thursday when Sandra opened the door to a package: The Redskins had rush-ordered a burgundy No. 24 jersey.
* * *
When Scot McCloughan was hired as Washington’s general manager in 2014, owner Dan Snyder told him: Go get us football players. Snyder has long been seduced by colossal sparkle in free agency, overcommitting to the likes of Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Albert Haynesworth. McCloughan was groomed by Ron Wolf in Green Bay, where patience isn’t just a virtue but a way of football life. After losing to the Packers in the wild-card round in January, McCloughan’s major off-season move was to take care of the Kirk Cousins situation. (In March the quarterback signed the franchise tender and will earn $19.95 million in 2016.) When Norman’s impending free agency flashed on the ESPN ticker, the general manager sprung into action. By Wednesday night Redskins president Bruce Allen had texted defensive coordinator Joe Barry and several others that it was a possibility to sign Norman, and to keep their schedules clear over the next two days. Washington had a scouting file on the cornerback, as it did with all impending free agents. McCloughan didn’t need to consult it; he’d seen enough tape to know that Norman fit exactly into Barry’s zone-heavy scheme. In a climate in which good free agents are paid like great ones, an available and seasoned 28-year-old lockdown corner is one of the rarest commodities.
With little time for recon, Barry contacted coaching friends in the NFC South seeking assurance that there was nothing else to the Panthers’ shocking move than finances, then secured Norman’s number. He texted the cornerback, introducing himself, his philosophy and why Norman would love to be in Washington.
Barry wasn’t the only one reaching out. Norman’s phone was nearly frozen, buzzing with texts from coaches and former and prospective teammates. Sources say there were 16 teams in for Norman. “Some coaches even called me,” Sandra, his mom, says. “How the heck did they get my number?”
The Redskins knew their best shot was to be first. On Friday morning Snyder sent his jet, “Redskins One,” with Barry and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell to scoop up Norman from Atlanta, orchestrating an old-school free agency caper.
“You’re going to get paid wherever you go,” Barry told Norman. “Make sure you find the right fit.”
“I still was kind of in a daze,” Norman says. “But I was past the point of return and needed to start looking at this as an opportunity. It’s like reading a good book. I didn’t want Lord of the Rings to end. It was so good. But when once you put it down, then you can pick up The Hobbit. And that’s really good too.” Norman told the Redskins he would bring his family along for the visit to the team. The plane was catered with steak and grilled chicken. When they arrived at the training facility in Ashburn, Va. at 1:45 p.m. Friday, the Normans were escorted to the cafeteria, where they were told chefs could prepare anything, and whatever they didn’t have, a staffer would run out and fetch. “Oh no they won’t,” Sandra huffed, embarrassed by the hospitality.
On the plane, Norman sat next to Barry. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Sorry I didn’t answer any of your texts,’” Barry says. “He said he’d read them all—he was just so overwhelmed he didn’t have a chance to respond.”
The coach was struck by the player’s earnestness. He offered Norman a mantra to remember for the day: “Look, you’re going to get paid wherever you go. Make sure you find the right fit.”
* * *
Williams, Norman’s new agent, paired off with Redskins VP of Football Administration Eric Schaffer to hammer out contract details. Josh and his family were escorted into a large conference room, where McCloughan was waiting.
“OK, you want to talk football?” Norman asked.
“No,” the general manager said. “Tell me about yourself. Just tell me what makes you tick. What makes you excited in life?”
Norman didn’t hesitate: “Competition. Being on a good team, being around good people, and being around competition.”
“Well,” McCloughan said. “I’m fairly confident you can find that all here.”
Of course, they did talk some football—the Redskins, like Carolina, run mostly zone coverages, but with a twist. The trash talk of choice for Norman’s wideout foes is to classify him as “a good Cover 2 corner.” In Washington, Norman was told, he would have more opportunity to play man-to-man. “In Carolina everything was defined,” Norman says. “It was black and white and some gray. Here everything is gray—it’s more free. I can not just be in a scheme, but be a football player. I have a little more freedom. The shackles have been broken off, and man, I’m going to show them something they’ve never seen before.”
During his meeting in D.C., Norman was reminded that Washington was a top-10 media market, with more prime-time games, and was told the team was built to contend in the NFC East. Norman likes to compete? How about facing Beckham and Dez Bryant twice a year, each? Mom wants to come to every game? A flight from Atlanta to D.C. is just over an hour.
Norman’s eyes lit at each selling-point. But he wanted to visit other teams, too. “Believe it or not,” Norman says, “some teams were offering me more money than the Redskins.” The 49ers had plenty of cap space, and the Dolphins inquired about a one-year deal. The Buccaneers, having been there before with Darrelle Revis, called almost immediately, as did the Rams, who lost Janoris Jenkins in free agency, and the Giants, who spent money this offseason as they never had before. The Saints were putting on a press, too—Norman says New Orleans coach Sean Payton called several times. “At one point,” says McCloughan, “I was ready to call Sean and say, quit calling, he’s in my building!”
Norman had every intention to visit New Orleans next. “I would have loved playing for Coach Payton, and, oh, I would have loved the opportunity to play Carolina twice [a year],” he says. “But that shouldn’t be the sole reason for me going there.”
“To be honest,” Norman says, “the Redskins just got to me first.”
On at least two occasions on Friday afternoon Norman tried saying goodbye to Redskins brass, but the team would not let him leave the facility. Coach Jay Gruden’s wife, Sherry, was recovering from surgery, but even the coach wouldn’t leave to bring her home dinner until the deal was done. (“Luckily,” Barry says, “Sherry is a very understanding woman.”)
By 6 p.m. Norman asked if he could have time alone with his family. He looked at each of his brothers, and his mother, and asked for a family vote. One by one they told him Washington felt right. After, they shared a prayer.
“In D.C. I felt I could be my own person, and I could take my career further,” Norman says. “I’m pretty sure it could have been like that in other places, but to be honest, the Redskins just got to me first.”
At 8 p.m., Schaffer found McCloughan in the hallway to tell him the deal was done. The general manager returned to the conference room where Snyder, Allen and Norman were waiting. McCloughan’s newest player gave him a hug. “The reason I did this,” Norman told the GM, “is because of what you said about the team, and the environment.”
“He hugged me really hard,” McCloughan said. “He hugged me for like 10 seconds. He didn’t let go.”
* * *
When Norman left the facility on Friday night, Barry asked when he might be expected back. “What do you mean?” Norman said. “I’ll be there on Monday.”
“Don’t you want time to get your stuff in order?” Barry asked.
“No, my life is in such a disarray,” Norman said. “All I want to do right now is what I know, and that’s get back to the grind.”
So for the past two weeks, the man with the brand new $75 million contract, $50 million of it guaranteed, has lived out of the Ashburn Homewood Suites. He spends his days working out at the Redskins facility and his evenings, well, not doing much. He has recruited a few new FIFA-playing teammates. The perks of hotel living don’t exactly seduce Norman. “Yeah, they make my bed every morning,” he says. “But I do that at home anyway.”
Now, as a black SUV picks him up for his Capitol adventure—“I had never been on an airplane before college,” he says. “So a lot of this is new for me”—his phone rings from an unknown number. “Hello?” Norman answers, then rolls his eyes. A financial advisor referred to by a friend of a friend tries selling Norman on a mortgage. Norman is polite, yessing the caller for nearly five minutes before saying, “I’m really just not interested. Thank you for your call.”
“All I want to do right now is what I know, and that’s get back to the grind.’’
“It’s frustrating,” Norman says, “Everyone thinks this contract is going to change me, but I’m still the same person.”
A few minutes after the financial call, Norman scrolls through his Instagram and jolts upright. “Oh my goodness, the camp!” he says, referring to a youth football camp his Starz24 foundation had planned to stage this summer in North Carolina.
“Don’t worry,” Juliano, the publicist, reminds him. “The kids have all been made aware, and everything has been refunded.”
“That sucks,” Norman says. “I was looking forward to that.”
He looks out the window as monuments zoom past. “I’ll have to start to get involved in the community here,” he says. “Which I can do. I just had so many plans.”
A few minutes later Norman asks to pull over. He really needs to pee. The SUV stops, and Norman darts around the block to the National Museum of the American Indian. In Charlotte, Norman says, he was recognized on the streets constantly, but amid the mostly museum-going tourists he slips in and out with anonymity. Until he reaches security. “Hey wait,” the guard says. “You’re not who I think you are, are you?”
Norman smiles. “Depends,” he laughs. “Who do you think I am?”
“You’re my new favorite Redskin.”