When a reporter asked for an interview after a practice this week, Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman smiled and responded with a question of his own:
“You’re not going to drag me, are you?”
“By a leash,” Norman said. “Through the mud.”
The dog metaphor was a reference to the popular theory that Norman has rented space in coach Ron Rivera’s doghouse for most of his two-plus seasons in the NFL.
The topic came up again this week when he was yanked from Sunday’s exhibition after getting in the face of Kansas City receiver Dwayne Bowe after Norman broke up a pass. A clearly agitated Thomas Davis pulled Norman away from Bowe and had some words for him.
The moment symbolized Norman’s first two seasons – a nice play followed by a head-scratching decision.
His tendency to freelance has often left him out of position and on the outs with the coaching staff, but Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are pleased with Norman’s development as he begins his third season.
Entering Friday’s exhibition at New England, Norman – while not a starter – is part of the cornerback rotation and appears to have worked his way into Rivera’s good graces.
Overlooked in the postgame reactions to his jawing with Bowe and Rivera’s pointed comments that followed were two facts: Norman wasn’t penalized on the play and he returned to the game for the Chiefs’ next possession.
“I got right back in,” Norman said. “The information again is kind of like folly because I know what type of player I am. They know what type of player I am.”
Norman’s confidence and ability have never been in question. Getting the former Coastal Carolina standout to play consistently and within the defensive scheme has been more troublesome.
A blown assignment in the closing seconds of a Week 2 loss at Buffalo last season landed him on the bench for the bulk of the Panthers’ 12-win season. Cornerback D.J. Moore called for Norman to switch on a combo route by the Bills, but he stayed on his receiver, leaving Stevie Johnson open in the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Norman was inactive for 10 of the next 15 games.
“That’s the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life. That was the worst,” said Norman, the Panthers’ fifth-round pick in 2012. “If you want to say it’s a doghouse, shoot I was buried in it. Being in it? I was buried underneath it.”
He seems to have started this year with a clean slate and a willingness to stay sound in his technique. He’s backing up starting corners Antoine Cason and Melvin White, but coaches like how Norman is playing.
“He’s playing very consistent football for us right now. I like his day-to-day approach,” McDermott said. “He’s putting himself in position to be successful with the way he’s preparing right now.
“The maturation of a young man and a young player is what I hope we’re seeing. I think he’s reaping some of the fruits of his labor, which is good to see.”
What is telling about Norman’s preseason has been the lack of spectacular plays, which were a staple of previous training camps but often the result of his gambling and forgoing his assignment. After a four-interception practice at Wofford before his rookie season, Norman famously told reporters they’d missed a fifth pick.
His highlight this year has been a lone interception in the first exhibition against Buffalo. He said he’s learned the error of his freelancing ways, and understands how taking “the bait” can leave the defense vulnerable.
“I think there’s times that any good player does that. When you see something, it’s like you want to go make a play on it,” Norman said. “But you’ve got to understand within the rules and the confinement of the defense, those times will come once you’re in your position.”
Rivera said Norman remains a work in progress, still given to lapses in coverage and concentration when he’s tired or stressed, such as in two-minute or end-of-game situations.
But like McDermott, Rivera has seen growth in a player who has the physical qualities of a top-tier corner.
“This camp has been exceptional for him. Watching him work, he’ll stick to those things,” Rivera said. “He’s got the length, he’s got the quickness, he’s got great vision, he comes out of breaks nicely and anticipates.”
What Norman doesn’t have is a place on the first team. He was asked if he thinks he can still be a starter.
“That’s not a question you need to ask. I know that,” Norman said. “Nothing’s going to stop me from getting to that spot.”