Every August NFL coaches say they’ve seen what players can do in practice. Now they want to see them in exhibitions. They want to see them work against opponents, under the lights and in front of fans.
By those standards, Carolina cornerback Josh Norman is a star.
Who led the Panthers in tackles in their 20-18 loss to Buffalo Friday at Bank of America Stadium?
Norman did. He had six.
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Who led the Panthers in interceptions Friday?
Josh Norman did. He had one.
And it was impressive.
The Bills have a first down at the Carolina’s 34.
Quarterback Jeff Tuel, who completed his first two passes for 17 yards, looks for Marcus Easley over the middle and in the end zone.
He finds nothing but Norman.
Norman, 6-feet, 195 pounds and 24 years old, beautifully anticipates Easley’s route. He slips between the receiver and the end zone and makes the interception three yards beyond the goal line for a touchback.
He does this every summer. In four exhibitions last season Norman intercepted four passes, took one back for a touchdown and averaged 35.3 yards a return.
If there was an Exhibition Game Hall of Fame, Norman would be in it. And, yes, I would put the Exhibition Hall in Canton, same as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
To avoid confusion, however, I would not put the Exhibition Hall in Canton, Ohio. There are more than 20 other Cantons in the U.S., and one of them is 13 miles west of Asheville.
Formerly called Buford, Vinson and Pigeon Ford, Canton, N.C., is, according to the 2010 census, the second biggest town in all of Haywood County with a population of 4,227. Some of the 4,227 must like the NFL. I put the Exhibition Hall in Canton, N.C., and I put Norman in it.
Skip the induction. He needs no introduction. We’ve seen what he can do.
Norman is from Greenwood, S.C., the town that gave us Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall and Chicago Bears’ receiver Armanti Edwards.
Norman was a big star at a small school, Coastal Carolina, the college that spawned fullback Mike Tolbert.
This is Norman’s third season with the Panthers. He was going to be good, you could tell. He started 12 games as a rookie. Of course, he made mistakes. But he often made up for them. He even intercepted a pass.
But in 2013, Norman was diminished. He played in seven games and didn’t start any. He lost credibility and playing time after the Sept. 15 game against Buffalo.
With two seconds remaining and the Bills on the Carolina 2, cornerback D.J. Moore signaled Norman to switch. Norman didn’t. Receiver Stevie Johnson cruised into the left corner of the end zone and caught the pass that crushed the Panthers and won the game.
Yet isn’t every cornerback occasionally torched? In an interview in Spartanburg last week Norman talked about how strongly he believed in himself. He talked so passionately and so sincerely that by the time he finished some of the writers and broadcasters around him also wanted to believe.
Carolina’s roster of cornerbacks includes Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Charles Godfrey, Josh Thomas and rookie Bene’ Benwikere.
A fifth-round pick (the same round in which Norman was selected) out of San Jose State, Benwikere makes you notice. If a cornerback flies through the air to knock the ball away from a receiver in training camp, it’s often him.
We see what Benwikere can do. We have yet to see what he can’t. That’s the advantage of being new.
Against Buffalo last season we saw what Norman couldn’t do.
On Friday night, we saw what he could. In exhibitions last season we saw what he could.
Norman has the size, the drive and the talent.
Although he dominates August, I doubt he cares about a bust in Canton, N.C.
He wants to avoid being a bust in September.