Scott Fowler

Alternate universe: How the Panthers’ season would have gone if Josh Norman had stayed

On April 20, 2016, the Carolina Panthers removed the franchise tag from cornerback Josh Norman. That move allowed Norman to leave for Washington, where he quickly became the NFL’s highest-paid player at his position. It was the first big domino to fall in a nasty season for the Panthers, who are 5-8.

So cue the mysterious music and imagine with me an alternate universe in which Norman actually did play for Carolina this season. Norman said Thursday the Panthers would be better in this scenario.

“Definitely so,” he proclaimed.

And yes, the Panthers would have been better. But how much better? Norman couldn’t have solved the major problems on the offensive line, for instance. The rest of this column is “fake news” – and it’s also the way I believe things would have really turned out if Norman had become a one-year rental for Carolina this season.

April 19, 2016 – Norman, who along with his agent had resisted signing the Panthers’ one-year, $13.95-million “franchise-tag” contract as a negotiating ploy, has a change of heart. He comes into Bank of America Stadium and signs the one-year deal. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who had been prepared to rescind the franchise tag the next day, alters his draft strategy as a result.

April 28-30, 2016 – Because the Panthers now have their shutdown cornerback in the fold for one more year, they draft only two cornerbacks instead of three. Instead of cornerback Zack Sanchez in the fifth round, they take offensive tackle John Theus out of Georgia.

July 28, 2016 – On the opening day of training camp, Norman says he wants to become the Panthers’ highest-paid defensive player, surpassing Luke Kuechly and every defensive lineman. Teammates quietly shake their heads. The Panthers and Norman will never come close to reaching a long-term agreement all season.

Aug. 10, 2016 – On the one-year anniversary of the Cam Newton-Norman fight in training camp, Cam and Josh yell at each other at Wofford College during a game of “rock-paper-scissors,” then hug it out.

Sept. 8, 2016 – Norman intercepts Denver’s rookie quarterback Trevor Siemian in the fourth quarter of the season opener, allowing Carolina to win 20-14.

Oct. 2, 2016 – Carolina loses to Atlanta to fall to 2-2. Julio Jones gains 167 yards receiving with Norman covering him about half the time, but the Falcons still win by a touchdown.

Oct. 10, 2016 – The Panthers edge Tampa Bay on “Monday Night Football” to go to 3-2, as Norman’s second fourth-quarter interception of the season – vs. Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston – proves crucial.

Oct. 23, 2016 – Norman says he is unlikely to play for the Panthers in 2017 unless they ante up in free agency. In a six-minute answer to a single question, he reiterates that he wants to be the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.

Nov. 13, 2016 – Carolina edges Kansas City at home, 17-13, stopping the Chiefs on a fourth-quarter drive thanks to a pass breakup by Norman.

Dec. 4, 2016 – Carolina loses at Seattle 30-7 as the offensive line problems continue. Norman fumes after the game that the Panthers did not show enough fight.

Jan. 1, 2017 – The Panthers beat Tampa Bay to finish the season 9-7. They lose the NFC South to Atlanta (10-6) but make the playoffs for the fourth straight season, this time as a wild card and the No. 6 seed in the NFC.

Jan. 8, 2017 – Carolina goes to Detroit and upsets the Lions, the No. 3 seed, 24-17 in a first-round NFC playoff game. Norman gets burned for a touchdown, but also has a sack and interception. Norman predicts the Panthers will win the Super Bowl.

Jan. 15, 2017 – The Panthers travel to Seattle for another playoff game and lose to the Seahawks 27-17. Seattle sacks Newton seven times. An emotional Norman says after the game he thinks he may have played his last game for Carolina.

March 9, 2017 – On the first day of free agency, Norman flies to Washington and signs a five-year, $80-million deal to become the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback.