Too much has gone wrong for the Panthers this season to say that losing Josh Norman doomed them. Would they be steamrolling toward another NFC South title and Super Bowl contention if Norman were still around? Maybe, maybe not.
But would they be better? Without question.
Carolina GM Dave Gettleman rescinded Norman’s franchise tag in mid-April, about a week before the 2016 NFL draft, thus making the All-Pro cornerback a free agent. Washington nabbed him, while Gettleman used several draft picks attempting to remake his secondary. It hasn’t gone well. The Panthers entered the week allowing 272.4 passing yards per game, third worst in the league.
Norman has not had his best season, either, but he has been the clear leader of a Washington secondary that has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play. And he has Monday’s showdown with his old team circled on the calendar.
“You guys know me better than I think anyone else and you should know how this is going to go down,” Norman said Thursday, via the Charlotte Observer. “I’m not going to sit there and lie down and die. I’m going to come out and fight. And I’m gonna fight somebody else to try to get a win if I have to.”
Norman, who also said that the end of his Panthers tenure “almost felt like I was stabbed the back in a way,” will see a lot of Carolina receivers Ted Ginn and Kelvin Benjamin on Monday night.
The question headed in isn’t so much whether Cam Newton will test Norman, but whether he can test anyone the way he is throwing the ball right now. While the Panthers have split their past four games, Newton has completed just 43% of his passes (52 of 121) during that stretch. Last week, he was 10-of-27 against the Chargers, and his team won by a dozen points anyway. The issues are not all on Newton—he has had very little help from his receivers—but he is trending in the wrong direction headed into this game.
His most reliable weapon, even during the rough patch, has continued to be tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers’ team leader in receptions (65) and receiving yards (905), Olsen draws a banged-up Washington defense that has been shredded by opposing tight ends to the tune of 93 catches and 921 yards, both league-high numbers. Versatile S/LB Su’a Cravens (bicep) will be unavailable for the Redskins on Monday, too.
Washington also has to deal with the Carolina rushing tandem of Newton and Jonathan Stewart, though the duo’s productivity has dipped this year. Between them, Newton and Stewart have 13 TDs on the ground; the Redskins have allowed 17 rushing touchdowns.
So, if Newton can find even moderate success, the onus could fall on Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to respond with a big night. Fortunately for him, he gets to face that oft-overmatched, Norman-less Panthers secondary. He also has at his service a loaded group of playmakers, which Monday is expected to again include tight end Jordan Reed (shoulder).
Reed is Washington’s per-game receiving leader this season (6.0 receptions and 64.4 yards per game), but it is Jamison Crowder who has emerged to pace the offense in touchdowns, with seven. Carolina has enough issues covering outside, let alone in the slot, where Crowder is expected to line up.
What would aid Carolina immensely, in all facets, is if linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion) can suit up. He cleared the concussion protocol this week but was listed as questionable for Monday’s game. The Panthers were eliminated from playoff contention with Atlanta’s win Sunday, so the risk/reward in tossing Kuechly back on the field might not be favorable.
If Kuechly doesn’t go, it makes for an obvious advantage for Washington lead back Rob Kelley. A pleasant surprise the past two months, Kelley is cranking out 4.6 yards per attempt this season.
Some of this will come down to motivation—Washington is fighting for its postseason life, while Carolina is playing for pride. If the Panthers are mentally checked out Monday, this one could get out of hand.
If not, Olsen, Stewart and Newton present enough problems for Washington’s defense to keep the proceedings entertaining into the fourth quarter. In the end, though, Carolina’s secondary has too many holes to keep up with Washington’s dynamic aerial attack.
Key player: Martrell Spaight, LB, Redskins. The second-year pro landed on injured reserve last season with a concussion and has very limited NFL regular-season experience, but he could wind up starting Monday if Will Blackmon (knee) joins Cravens on the shelf. Playing inside against this Carolina offense means needing to be sharp reading the Newton/Stewart run actions, as well as helping to cover guys like Olsen over the middle.
Spaight could be up for it. He’s a promising player. When I saw him during 2015 Senior Bowl practices, he was among the more impressive prospects out there, with the willingness to fly downhill plus the awareness to know when to do it.
Bold prediction: Shaq Thompson notches double-digit tackles. This is working off the assumption that Kuechly does not go Monday. Thompson has seen his role increase, and he responded last week with seven tackles. The Panthers should be working to get him on the field even more, because he can handle a lot of different responsibilities.