- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2018

ASHBURN — Redskins defensive backs coach Torrian Gray understands the narrative game. For example: If Josh Norman grabs an interception or two on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, all those stories about the cornerback’s “down year” disappear.

Gray gets it.

“It’s all splash,” Gray said. “And once he makes those splash plays, then I’m sure some of that chatter will go down.”

Until those “splash plays” happen, though, Norman will be under a microscope. After all, the Redskins’ star cornerback went all of 2017 without an interception and he has yet to come up with one this year. Worse, his most recent games have been notable not just for a lack of big plays, but heretofore uncharacteristic lapses in coverage.

In back-to-back weeks, Norman has been on the receiving end of wideouts blowing past him — leading coach Jay Gruden to sit his star to start the second half in Monday’s loss against the Saints.

That would have been unheard of when Norman signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Redskins in 2016.

The scrutiny has people asking: Has Norman lost a step?

“Not necessarily,” Gray said. “All of it is positioning, technique. A lot of it comes down to that. It’s just being disciplined in the coverage and like I say, some of the big plays are more on the communication or coverage error more so than the speed, to be honest.”

Norman has a chance to answer his doubters Sunday when he faces the Carolina Panthers. Norman’s former team decided to let the corner walk two years ago rather than make him the NFL’s highest-paid corner.

What made Norman an elite-level cornerback wasn’t his ability to pick off opposing quarterbacks; he had just seven interceptions over four seasons in Carolina. It was his ability to shut down a side of the field — making signal-callers look the other way entirely.

Norman, 30, was at his best in 2014, when the cornerback allowed just a 53.9 passer rating when targeted — sixth-best in the NFL. In 2015, the season when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl, Norman ranked first in passer rating allowed (58.1). 

Even during his first two years with the Redskins, Norman took pride in quarterbacks refusing to look his way. Last season, he was targeted just 49 times — an average of three per game — and allowed 30 receptions.

But this season, Norman’s numbers have taken a nose dive.

According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been targeted 16 times (four targets per game), allowing 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback’s passer rating in that scenario? 156.3 — which ranks second-to-last among 110 cornerbacks.

Norman still isn’t being heavily targeted, but he’s allowed three receptions per game — whereas last season he gave up just 1.9 catches per game.

Did the Panthers see this coming and use it as a reason to not re-sign him? A dramatic falloff for shutdown cornerbacks isn’t unprecedented.

Darrelle Revis’ decline was sharp and fast in his second stint with the New York Jets. Same goes for Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey as they entered their mid-30s.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that wasn’t a factor in the Panthers‘ decision to move on from Norman.

“Eventually, we believed we lost something special,” Rivera said. “I mean there was a toughness about Josh. Hell in 2015, he and the quarterback (Cam Newton) get into a fight in the middle of training camp. So, I mean there was a swagger about him. And you know what? Everybody respected him for it.”

If Norman has lost his edge, reasons could vary.

Saints wideout Michael Thomas implied it was Norman’s age during a Twitter spat, telling him that, “Life comes at you fast.” Former teammate DeAngelo Hall said Norman was too preoccupied with being a celebrity, a claim Norman disputed Wednesday.

After this season, the Redskins can cut Norman and save $8.5-$11.5 million toward their salary cap, depending on if they designate him as a pre-or-post June 1 designation, according to Spotrac. The cornerback would cost the team just $6 million in dead money.

But this situation might not get to that point. Norman has 12 games left to turn things around. He has gone through rough patches before, notably in the early stages of his career and he blossomed into a star.

Norman, though, knows he needs to play better.

“Everything we’ve done from the week previous and then this week from what we did Monday our whole entire group it’s not acceptable,” Norman said. “We talked about that [Wednesday]. We’re going to fix it — we aren’t going to we already fixed it — so it’s not something that’s going to come up but if it does we’ll correct it. It’s not perfect that things happen but they did.”

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