Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was walking through the locker room Monday when he noticed a group of reporters interviewing cornerback Josh Norman.
Rivera slowed down, looked toward Norman and smiled.
It took more than a year and change in attitude and approach for the third-year cornerback, but Norman appears to have escaped Rivera’s doghouse.
Rivera said Monday that Norman will start Sunday against Chicago in place of Melvin White, who gave up several big plays to Baltimore receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith during Sunday’s 38-10 loss.
Norman said he hadn’t heard the news until media members told him. He reacted with little more than a shrug.
“It’s one of those things where, what – do you go home and celebrate it? Nah, not really,” Norman said. “I’m one of those guys that I’ve (had) that mindset since Day 1.”
Norman started 12 games as a rookie in 2012 before he was benched for playing soft and too far off receivers during a loss at Kansas City.
His four preseason interceptions last year were the most in the league, and Norman was in the cornerback rotation until a breakdown on Buffalo’s winning touchdown in Week 2.
Norman said he never got D.J. Moore’s call to switch on the Bills’ combination route – although the TV replay shows Moore clearly signaling to Norman – and Stevie Johnson was left wide open in the end zone.
Norman, a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina, has never doubted his physical abilities. If anything, he had too much confidence in himself, prompting him to stray from the scheme and coverage responsibilities to try to make a play.
Norman was inactive for nine of the final 13 regular-season games last year, as well as the playoff loss to San Francisco. Sitting on the bench gave Norman time to think about what he needed to change if he wanted to play.
“Fitting into the defense, I feel, is the biggest thing that was my biggest Achilles’ heel the whole time,” Norman said.
“Just going through the defensive schemes and the calls and what we’ve got to do and formations. … It was more or less playing out there to my abilities and wanting to do things in the way that they want.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Norman is better prepared this year and has a better understanding of the system.
“He’s got to continue to develop and take the bull by the horns. And he’s done that,” McDermott said. “He’s a young, developing player, just like a couple of the other players in the room are. … We need him to step up and do a good job for us.”
Norman played 44 snaps against the Ravens after replacing White, who allowed Smith to get behind for two touchdown catches – one a play Rivera called “fortunate” when the ball glanced off the hand of tight end Owen Daniels and to Smith.
Rivera thought Norman played “pretty well” but has areas to improve.
“There were a couple times you’d like to see him squeeze the routes a little bit more. … A couple times he was a little undisciplined with his eyes,” Rivera said. “I thought his positioning, his vision was very good.”
McDermott and Rivera said White would continue to play. But in benching White, Rivera made it clear he wanted to “send some messages” that inconsistent play would not be tolerated.
Norman, 6-foot and 195 pounds, will be tested this weekend by one of the league’s bigger receiving tandems in Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) and former South Carolina standout Alshon Jeffery (6-3, 216).
Norman said the Panthers defensive backs have experience against big wideouts, with two games a year against Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Roddy White.
“So if you’re going to say who is the better duo (or) tandem, either those guys in Chicago or those guys in Atlanta, which ones would you take?” Norman asked reporters. “I mean, toss them up. Any day, any one of them can go off.”
It will be Norman’s job to help keep Marshall and Jeffery from doing so. He will have to fight his natural instinct to do too much.
“Being a guy that you want to make every play, I’m that guy. I want to make every play,” Norman said. “I want to go out there and compete … Sometimes I over-compete – and I think that’s more so what you’re saying– and don’t really take heed to my instructions.
“Sometimes I get out of place, where I should be.”
Starting Sunday against the Bears, Norman will be back in the place he wanted to be all along.