- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2019

Oct. 29 was a Tuesday, so the Washington Redskins had their usual day off from practice. Josh Norman spent part of his day hunched over a table, talking to sixth and seventh graders at the Digital Pioneers Academy, a public charter school in the District that serves kids mostly from Wards 7 and 8. Norman had just donated $60,000 to the school through the Players Coalition, but he isn’t the type to just write a check and walk away.

Oct. 29 was also the day of the NFL trade deadline. It could have been Norman’s last day as a Redskin.

Norman was in no mood to discuss the multiple reports that Washington was actively trying to trade him. But he did take football questions from the kids he was visiting. He used the Redskins’ season as an example of adversity, telling them that everything happens for a reason.

He compared it to spilled milk. “I’m not crying over it,” he said.

It turned out that Washington didn’t move Norman, his $14.3 million salary too prohibitive for a trade, and the season hasn’t gotten better for him since then. Washington would save $12.5 million against the cap by cutting Norman before the final year of his contract, which is beginning to look like both the right business decision and football move. Norman’s on-field performance has regressed so much that the Redskins nearly deactivated him last week.

Redskins interim coach Bill Callahan said after the win over the Lions that Norman was given the choice whether to suit up. The decision not to use Norman on defense was at least in part due to his health — or so it was framed. He was deemed questionable on Friday’s injury report with a hamstring issue.

But four days later, when Callahan was asked if a healthy Norman would be back in the lineup against his old team, the Carolina Panthers, it was clear this wasn’t about injuries.

“He’ll be playing,” Callahan said. “He’s not a starter this week. He’ll be backing up.”

Norman has faced the Panthers before, but Sunday marks his first game at Bank of America Stadium since his four-year stint with Carolina. A Greenwood, South Carolina, native who appreciates his roots in the region, spending much of his free time doing community work there, Norman’s would-be homecoming is overshadowed by a fall from his former perch as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks.

A ripe target

Taylor Gabriel led Norman by about a step-and-a-half as he turned around 180 degrees and reached up for an incoming pass. The Chicago Bears receiver caught it at the front-right corner of the end zone and dragged both feet in-bounds before falling to the ground.

Norman’s hands went out to his sides to signal a hopeful “no catch.” The referees didn’t agree.

The acrobatic move was Gabriel’s third touchdown of the first half, and though not all of them came against Norman, it nonetheless led to an embarrassing blowout loss at home for Washington on “Monday Night Football” on Sept. 23.

Norman became opposing quarterbacks’ favorite target this year, to the point where former coach Jay Gruden said he was surprised by how much teams were throwing his way. Norman has allowed 31 catches on 45 targets this year, recording just one interception.

Quarterbacks have accumulated a 133.1 passer rating on throws into Norman’s coverage this year, according to Pro Football Focus. Among defenders who have been targeted at least 20 times, that’s the fourth-worst mark in the league. For contrast, he allowed just a 74.3 passer rating his first year in Washington and a 114.2 last year.

A week after playing 56 snaps against the New York Jets on Nov. 17, most of them as a wide corner like usual, Norman didn’t play a single defensive snap against Detroit. Even when Fabian Moreau briefly left with a stinger, Simeon Thomas took his spot for a spell instead of Norman.

Norman — who is the league’s second-highest paid cornerback this year, according to overthecap.com, a site that tracks NFL contracts — has attracted criticism for years, fair or unfair. As recently as last offseason, Gruden said Norman needed to bring his game back to a “superstar” level. So how did it come to this?

The Thursday before the Lions game, Callahan said he sat down with Norman, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and defensive backs coach Ray Horton Jr. for what Callahan called a “really good” dialogue. His only reference to Norman’s decline in play was to say, “At times, we (would) like to have some plays back for him.” He praised Norman’s professionalism.

But the two times the Redskins sent Norman onto the field, it was with the field goal block package. On the second time out, Norman stood stock-still at the snap, only moving after the ball was kicked. A video of the moment made the rounds on Twitter and drew criticism from fans.

It seemed to represent a nadir after his more memorable days with the Panthers, where he collected 10 takeaways, made first-team All-Pro and reached Super Bowl 50 with the franchise that played about 120 miles from his hometown.

Carolina comfort

Linda Kuykendall looked around her Coastal Carolina University classroom and saw someone sitting in the back row, a hat covering his eyes. Oh Lord, we’ve got a lost soul, Kuykendall thought.

The professor made her way to the back to check on him, only for Norman, her former student, to take off his hat and reveal himself.

Norman then gave a 20-minute mini-lecture about what it took for him to make the leap from college to the NFL. The students were enraptured — “not because it was Josh,” Kuykendall said, “but because what he was saying was really informative.”

Kuykendall was Norman’s professor and adviser in the communication, media and culture department for three years, and got to know Norman firsthand, away from the gridiron. She called him a “philosopher” who would think everything through “to the hilt.”

“He cares about people that are important to him, and he also cares about the community as far as what he can contribute,” Kuykendall said. “And he thinks about it, he really thinks. He thinks, ‘Is this important? What’s the end result of my giving?’ or whatever he’s doing.”

That propensity to give back has expanded locally and nationally ever since Norman started making an NFL salary. In addition to donating to Puerto Rico hurricane relief and an immigrant detention center in Texas, he gave a $1.5 million gift to Coastal Carolina, which included endowing three scholarships — one to a walk-on athlete, like he once was, and the other two named in honor of his two favorite professors there, Kuykendall and Robin Russell.

The university also opened the Marrio and Josh Norman Field House adjacent to the football stadium. Kuykendall said Marrio Norman — a former cornerback for the now-defunct Arena Football League’s Washington Valor — had no idea his name would be on the building, a surprise from his younger brother who once had to live on his couch before enrolling at Coastal Carolina.

Norman is building a rec center in Greenwood, and he’s brought his foundation’s annual celebrity basketball game to both Greenwood and Charlotte. His Panthers career may have ended in 2016 when the team revoked his franchise tag, but Carolinians in the stands Sunday have gotten used to seeing Norman around their communities.

Seeking a new ‘starting point’

Of course, philanthropy isn’t the only way Norman spends his free time. He jumped over a charging bull in Pamplona, Spain, last summer and plans to climb Mount Everest. He enjoys horseback riding and owns a horse named “Delta 747.” He came in second place on “Dancing with the Stars” in May 2018.

His eclectic list of interests fits his personality. Never shy about what he seeks outside of football, Norman said at the end of last season that he’d be happy to retire after winning one Super Bowl.

Some question Norman’s dedication to the NFL life, but teammates say he still gives his all to his day job. Landon Collins has been Norman’s teammate for only one season, but even he can tell that being demoted hasn’t affected Norman’s usually genial mood.

“He’s still laughing … leading the DBs in prayers and leadership and stuff like that,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t say that he’s down from it. But I mean, he just know he don’t want to be the cause of us to keep on losing. If anything, if he can try to help us win, he’d do anything.”

Does that include accepting his demotion and staying off the field? Moreau and Quinton Dunbar started on the outside for Washington against Detroit, with Jimmy Moreland starting at slot corner, and the pass defense had one of its best days of the year, though it came against Lions backup quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Norman hasn’t spoken publicly since his benching, except through social media. On most gamedays, he posts a tweet within an hour of kickoff. They’re motivational messages often accompanied by a photo or video and the tagline, “let’s go get ‘em.”

Before last Sunday, knowing he would barely see the field barring an emergency, Norman thought of something different, albeit still hopeful.

“Where you are today isn’t the determining factor of where you’ll be tomorrow,” he tweeted. “But Everyday is its own starting point to create a dynasty that’ll last when you’re gone.”

Norman’s “dynasty,” his legacy, is still a work in progress. His football ability will be more fondly remembered in Carolina than Washington, but he’s created more than an NFL career. When the Redskins go to Charlotte, Norman, for a weekend, will be back at home.

⦁ Matthew Paras contributed to this report.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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