AFTER A BREAKOUT 2015 SEASON, JOSH NORMAN WAS SET TO SPEND THE REST OF HIS CAREER WITH HIS FOOTBALL FAMILY IN CAROLINA—UNTIL BUSINESS GOT IN THE WAY. NEWLY SETTLED IN WASHINGTON, THE ALL-PRO CORNERBACK EXPLAINS THE POLITICS OF HIS EXIT AND HOW HE FOUND A NEW HOME
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 social scene. Two days earlier he attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner and was swarmed on the way to his seat.
"Josh!" crooned Nancy Pelosi, the California congresswoman and former speaker of the house, as she opened 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," the cornerback said. "How have you been?"
Norman's publicist, Jeanine Juliano, stood a few feet behind, incredulous. "Josh, do you know them?" she 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 today Norman coolly approaches the Capitol, 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, who's here on a private tour, 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, 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 in 1814, American riders raced their horses up this staircase to issue a warning. "I have my doubts on the practicality," Norman surmises, suspicious of the tale. "This is just too skinny for horses."
The pathway leads to an exclusive perch: the Speaker's Balcony. A guide unlocks the entrance and a sweeping view of the National Mall proves enough to silence even the NFL's most loquacious cornerback. Norman approaches the balcony's edge and leans forward, stretching his arms across the metal railing. 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 in-box 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 fifth-year pro, a defensive standout on a Panthers team that went 15--1 and reached Super Bowl 50 in February, basked in the spoils of newfound stardom. He strutted down the red carpet at a Batman v Superman premiere in New York City (the Dark Knight is his preferred on-field alter ego) and shot promos for EA Sports' Madden 17. He doubled down on his feud with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.—which first surfaced during a December Giants-Panthers game in which the two players combined for five unnecessary roughness penalties—in a seemingly endless rotation of TV and radio appearances. "The media may have made that rivalry a big deal," Norman says. "But, oh, it's real."
As he hopscotched the country, however, a contract dispute simmered back home. Norman's agent, Michael George, had been working for a year on a long-term deal, but after a breakout 2015 season—opposing QBs had a league-low 54.0 passer rating targeting him, according to Pro Football Focus, and the cornerback won his first All-Pro nod—Norman decided to aim higher. He wanted the NFL's richest cornerback contract: five years at $16 million per season. Carolina wouldn't budge past five years, $12 million per. Dave Gettleman, hired as the Panthers' general manager in '13 (a year after Carolina drafted Norman in the fifth round), likes to build his defenses with beefy front sevens and inexpensive, scheme-fitting cornerbacks. In his first three seasons with the Panthers, Gettleman did not draft a defensive back higher than the fourth round, and he never allocated more than 3.4% of Carolina's salary cap to the secondary. (In each of those three years, the Panthers' percentage was in the bottom five of NFL teams.) Several sources say that 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 big paydays. On March 1 the Panthers applied the nonexclusive 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 planning to skip off-season workouts, the cornerback realized he needed help on the agent front. He began shopping for reinforcement, hoping that a new voice in negotiations could spur Gettleman into agreeing to the long pact he desperately sought.
A SELF-DESCRIBED homebody, Norman grew up with four brothers and 20 horses in Greenwood, S.C., a town of 23,000 about 80 miles west of Columbia. Despite being named All-State at Greenwood High, he received no 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. A year later, in 2008, Josh walked on with the football team; he earned a scholarship as a sophomore, was named All-FCS as a senior and was plucked by the Panthers in 2012.
Norman started Week 1 of his rookie year, but his tendency to freelance, a product of supreme confidence, was quickly exposed. In 2013 he was demoted to nickel assignments and was benched for nine of the last 13 games. At that point, secondary coach Steve Wilks made Norman his project, conducting extra postpractice repetitions. Owner Jerry Richardson also intervened, with personal life coaching. The cornerback loved the family-first message preached by the 79-year-old Panthers patriarch, whom he reveres "like a father." Norman visited Richardson at his house several times this off-season, just to talk, and when the owner underwent shoulder surgery in 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."
Norman keeps a second home in Atlanta, and on April 20 he was driving there from his stepsister's funeral in South Carolina when he got a call from George: The Panthers were rescinding their franchise tag. Norman, suddenly an unrestricted free agent, was confused. "Don't they know how bad I want to be here?" he asked. "Couldn't they have given me warning?" He says he dialed Richardson, but the owner has long recused himself from contract decisions. He called his coaches. He then called Gettleman and said he was willing to sign the original franchise tender. According to Norman, Gettleman said the paperwork had already been filed. Too late.
Ironically, prospective new agent Ryan Williams, of Athletes First, was already en route to Atlanta to meet with Norman when the news broke.
"The GM? He has no ties to me," Norman says of Gettleman. "He didn't bring me in. I had been there five years, busting my tail, giving it everything I had. 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 is this a family way of doing things?" (The Panthers declined to comment for this story.)
Norman's mother, Sandra, arrived at his Atlanta home, where his brothers and Williams had gathered too. Josh 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 just played FIFA on his PS4 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 on April 21 when Sandra opened the door to a package: The Redskins had rush-delivered a burgundy number 24 jersey.
WHEN SCOT MCCLOUGHAN was hired as Washington's general manager, in January 2015, owner Dan Snyder told him: Go get us football players. Snyder has long been seduced by sparkle in free agency, having overpaid the likes of Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Albert Haynesworth. But 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 Kirk Cousins. (In March the quarterback signed the Skins' franchise tender; he'll earn $19.95 million in '16.) When news of Norman's situation—and his impending free agency—flashed across the ESPN ticker, the GM sprang into action. By that night team president Bruce Allen had texted defensive coordinator Joe Barry, telling him that signing Norman was a possibility and to keep his schedule clear over the next two days. Washington had a scouting file on the cornerback, but McCloughan didn't need to consult it; he'd watched enough tape to know that Norman fit exactly into Barry's zone-heavy scheme.
Barry quickly contacted coaching friends in the NFC South, seeking assurance that the Panthers' shocking move was about finances, nothing else, and then secured Norman's number. He texted the cornerback, introducing himself and his philosophy and explaining why Norman would love playing in Washington.
Barry wasn't the only one reaching out. Norman's phone buzzed with texts from interested coaches and prospective teammates; sources say that as many as 16 teams were in on the free agent. "Some coaches even called me," says Sandra. "How the heck did they get my number?"
The Redskins knew their best shot was to be first. On the morning of April 22, less than 48 hours after the Panther's made their move, Snyder sent Barry and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell on his private jet, Redskins One, to scoop up Norman from Atlanta. "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 you put it down, then you can [go back and] pick up The Hobbit. And that's really good too!"
Norman told the Redskins he would bring his family along for the visit. The plane was catered with steak and grilled chicken. When they all arrived at the team's training facility in Ashburn, Va., that afternoon, they were escorted to the cafeteria, where chefs offered to prepare anything—whatever they didn't have, a staffer would run out and fetch. "Oh no they won't," Sandra huffed, embarrassed by the extravagance.
On the plane Norman had sat next to Barry. "The first thing [Josh] said to me," says Barry, "was, 'Sorry I didn't answer any of your texts.' He explained that he'd read them all—he was just so overwhelmed that he didn't have a chance to respond."
The coach was struck by the player's earnestness. He reciprocated by offering Norman a mantra to remember throughout the day: "Look, you're going to get paid wherever you go. Make sure you find the right fit."
WHILE WILLIAMS, Norman's new agent, paired off with Redskins VP of Football Administration Eric Schaffer to hammer out potential contract details, Josh and his family were escorted into a large conference room, where McCloughan was waiting.
"O.K., you want to talk football?" Norman asked.
"No," the GM said. "Tell me about yourself. Just tell me what makes you tick. What makes you excited in life?"
Norman didn't hesitate. "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 the Panthers, run mostly zone coverages, but with a twist. The knock on Norman, propagated in trash talk by his wideout foes, is that he's "just a good Cover 2 corner." In Washington, McCloughan said, Norman would have more opportunities to play man-to-man. "In Carolina everything was defined," Norman explains. "It was black-and-white, and some gray. [In Washington] everything is gray—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."
Norman was reminded that Washington is a top 10 media market, with (historically) more prime-time games than Carolina, and he was told the team was built to contend in the NFC East. You like to compete? How about facing Beckham and the Cowboys' 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 up at each selling point—but he wanted to visit other teams too. "Believe it or not," he 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 called almost immediately, as did the Rams, who lost Janoris Jenkins in free agency, and the Giants, who spent money this off-season as never 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 [Josh]—he's in my building!"
"I would have loved playing for Coach Payton, and, oh, I would have loved the opportunity to play Carolina twice [a year]," says Norman, who had every intention of visiting New Orleans next. "But that shouldn't be the sole reason for me going there."
On at least two occasions Norman tried saying goodbye to Redskins brass, but the team simply would not let him leave. Coach Jay Gruden's wife, Sherry, was at home recovering from surgery, but he held off bringing home dinner until a deal was done. ("Luckily," Barry says, "Sherry is a very understanding woman.")
Around 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 he asked for a family vote. One by one they told him Washington felt right. Afterward 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 and told him the deal was done. The GM 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."
AS NORMAN was leaving the Redskins' facility that Friday night, Barry asked his new corner when he might be expected back. "What do you mean?" Norman said. "I'll be here on Monday."
"Don't you want time to get your stuff in order?" Barry asked.
"No; my life is in such 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 three weeks the man with the brand-new $75 million contract ($36.5 million of it fully guaranteed) has lived out of the Homewood Suites in Ashburn. He spends his days working out at the Redskins' facility and his evenings doing, well, not much. He has recruited a few new FIFA teammates, but the perks of hotel living don't exactly seduce Norman. "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 big Capitol adventure—"I had never been on an airplane until college," he says, "so a lot of this is new for me"—his phone rings with an unknown number. "Hello?" Norman answers. He rolls his eyes. A financial adviser, referred to him by a friend of a friend, tries selling him 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."
"It's frustrating," Norman says. "Everyone thinks this contract is going to change me, but I'm the same person."
A few minutes later, Norman is scrolling through his Instagram account when he jolts upright. "Oh, my goodness—the camp!" he says, realizing the impossibility, now, of staging the youth football camp that his Starz24 foundation had planned this summer in North Carolina.
"Don't worry," Juliano, his publicist, tells him. "The kids have all been made aware; everything has been refunded."
"That sucks," Norman says. "I was looking forward to that."
He looks out the window and monuments zoom past. "I'll have to start getting involved in the community here," he says. "Which I can do. I just had so many plans."
Later Norman asks his driver 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 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."
"The media may have made that rivalry a big deal," Norman says of his feud with Beckham. "BUT, OH, IT'S REAL."
Norman draws a parallel: "I didn't want Lord of the Rings to end. But when you put it down, you can pick up The Hobbit, AND THAT'S REALLY GOOD TOO!"
"In D.C., I could be my own person, take my career further," Norman says. "It could have been like that in other places but THE REDSKINS JUST GOT TO ME FIRST."
Photograph by Al Tielemans
RICH GRAESSLE/ICON SPORTSWIRE
GRANT HALVERSON/GETTY IMAGES
PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP
SHOW AND TEAL After a slow start in Carolina, Norman became a Panthers beast, picking apart the Saints (near left) and picking on Beckham.
CAPITOL GAINS Norman's early days in D.C. saw him dishing out hugs at the White House and pitching for the Nats.
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