Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman still remembers growing up in Greenwood, S.C., playing football video games with his brothers.
Norman would take the Indianapolis Colts – with quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Marvin Harrison – as his team and beat everyone.
Now he’s playing against Manning, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
“I was playing the game back in the day and whoopin’ guys, takin’ their money,” Norman said Thursday. “This is the guy we’re facing. It’s so unbelievably great that God allowed it to happen this way.”
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This, of course, isn’t the same Manning from the video game. This Manning has had four neck surgeries and is about to be the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history.
Manning doesn’t have the same zip on the ball that he had when Norman used him on a PlayStation back in the day. He threw 17 interceptions in an injury-shortened season, and there may be opportunities for more next Sunday in Santa Clara.
“We know that. We know that,” Norman said when told this isn’t the same Manning. “We will calculate our risks when they come.”
Anxious to play
It’s obvious Norman is anxious to play. He described playing on the game’s biggest stage as his destiny, and he got goosebumps when he started realizing the parallels between this year’s Panthers team and the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team that included Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
Rivera is keeping the same routine despite the magnitude of the game. Light practices on Wednesday and Thursday followed by a fully padded practice on Friday. The Panthers board a plane Sunday morning and fly to the Bay Area, where things will be even more regimented.
Norman usually watches movies during game week, and he figures he’ll have do watch more than just “Gladiator” or “300” to keep his mind occupied. He watched the 2015 action film “Hitman: Agent 47” this week as a new part of the rotation.
But Norman has clearly taken a more calm approach since his early-season exuberance. Where he used to wave goodbye to quarterbacks throwing pick-sixes or deliver an impassioned post-game interview after feeling disrespected by Dez Bryant, Norman has since leveled off.
Some of that may have stemmed from his Week 15 rumble with Odell Beckham Jr. Norman has seemingly taken a less flamboyant approach since becoming the talk of the NFL for a week.
“Early on in the year he was a specific way, and now you see him build up to it,” Rivera said. “And this is him. It’s his personality. It’s who he is. I think he’s in a good place right now and again I really appreciate his whole approach and the way he’s able to do things.”
A new challenge
In the Super Bowl, Norman will face the task of defending Demaryius Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver who has at least 1,300 receiving yards in each of the past four seasons.
Thomas only had two catches for 12 yards in last week’s win against New England, but Norman said that was more because of the Patriots’ scheme. New England wasn’t going to allow Thomas to beat them, so the Patriots rolled coverage to his side.
That, in turn, opened up things for Emmanuel Sanders, who led the Broncos with five catches for 62 yards.
But Norman doesn’t think that will happen again next week.
“That’s the guy we’re facing. He got 70 mil,” said Norman, referring to Thomas’ five-year, $70 million contract extension last offseason. “They’re not going to go away from him. They paid him all that money. It’s going to fun. It’s going to be interesting and exciting.”
Norman idolized Manning growing up, he said. He even referred to him by his seldom used nickname of The Sheriff when speaking to media Thursday.
He said if he’s fortunate enough to intercept a Manning pass – which would be his first interception since Week 4 – he’d probably bow to him because he respects him so much.
Norman, nor anyone else for the Panthers, is taking Manning’s lack of arm strength seriously, though. Several players said they still see a quarterback who can get the ball down the field.
When Norman watches film of Manning, he sees the quarterback sometimes overthrow his receivers. Other times he notices a cornerback squatting in a zone waiting for a pass to come up short when instead it goes over the player’s head.
“We’re not going to look too much into his arm strength because it’s deceptive in a way. It’s like a Decepticon,” said Norman, referencing the main antagonist from the Transformers series that he loves to watch. “You feel like you’re going to get him and then he’s going to dink you over the top. I ain’t got time for that.”