Following the Carolina Panthers’ unforgettable 2015 season, I undertook a journey to find out how that group had become one of the NFL’s elite teams.
The result is “Panthers Rising” – my 284-page hardcover book that was just published by Triumph Books. The book is based on fresh interviews and new research, as well as my own experience covering Carolina since the team’s inception in 1995.
“Panthers Rising” concentrates particularly on 2013-2016, when the Panthers became not just a team that makes the playoffs occasionally but one that could be counted upon for sustained success.
The Observer will publish a couple of excerpts of “Panthers Rising.” This first one is based on an exclusive interview I did during this past offseason with cornerback Josh Norman.
Norman talked in detail about his training camp fight in August 2015 with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. The cornerback also had a lot to say about his running feud with New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., including his theory that Beckham became famous over “one stupid little ball.”
Norman and I spoke after the Super Bowl but before he left the Panthers for Washington – where he will now face Beckham and the Giants twice each season. His Washington team also hosts Carolina Dec. 19th.
‘A sniffing kind of respect’
On the training-camp fight of 2015: Norman and similarly confident quarterback Cam Newton both liked to strut after big plays. They both understood each other’s ability, but they weren’t particularly close.
“Cam’s a good guy, but we didn’t really talk,” Norman said, referring to the duo’s relationship before their fight. “We had an admiring respect. A respect, like, a sniffing kind of respect. You know when two dogs sniff and they know what’s good and then they go their different ways? And don’t really play with each other? Like that. I just wanted to one-up him, and he just wanted to one-up me.”
Both Newton and Norman were prone to flaunting their success during practice. With the No. 1 offense and defense going against each other often in training camp in Spartanburg, this was a pot that was about to boil over. On Aug. 10, 2015, it did.
“Right before the play,” Norman said, “Cam was just lighting up our defense. Whatever he wanted to do, he just did it. He was out there making a big show. Fans were going crazy, he was swinging his arms, doing a dance, and laughing. Being a big kid. I was like, ‘You know what? Enough is enough.’”
Newton then tried to thread a pass to a receiver that Norman was guarding. Instead, Norman made a sliding interception, got up and started running. By the unwritten rules of training camp, Norman could have stopped once he made the interception. By those same unwritten rules, quarterbacks are never supposed to try and make tackles because of injury risk.
Instead, Norman didn’t stop, and Newton came after him. “I palmed the ball with one hand and I went back with it,” Norman said. “Cam was in chase mode so I was like, ‘Man, OK.’ I juked one offensive lineman and here he (Newton) comes. I stiff-armed him, but I didn’t think I stiff-armed him that hard. I just thought I was going to score or whatever. And then I threw the ball. And here he is, all 6-foot-5 of him, and he was like ‘Throw that ball at me again!’ I was like ‘Who do you think you are?’ and then we were clutching each other. I grabbed his facemask and then somehow his helmet came off. He grabbed me. ... It was mayhem.”
The only photographer with any decent pictures of the scuffle was David T. Foster III of the Observer, and the one that was published most widely showed Newton with his helmet off and a fierce smile, throwing Norman to the ground as the two headed toward the turf together.
“He had a piece of me, and I tried to sling him,” Norman said. “I tried to hip-toss him. And they got that picture of him smiling and he’s got me clutched up – of all pictures to get!”
Norman can laugh about the incident now, because he believes it ultimately made the team better in 2015. Newton would say much the same thing the next day. “At the end of the day, we’re both better from it,” Newton said. “There’s no hard feelings. I bring out the best in Josh, and he brings out the best in me.”
‘One stupid little ball’
On Odell Beckham: “I’ll be honest,” Norman said of Beckham, “I don’t care for the guy at all. ... Now don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player or whatever, but he’s not what he thinks he is. If you hit guys like that, if you completely jam them and shake them up, they can’t relate to that. So they start making excuses like, ‘Oh, he touched me.’ They don’t know how to respond because they never got hit like that. So me, every time I see him, I’m going to hit him in the mouth. I don’t care. Until he stops crying and b----ing.” ...
Norman and Beckham also continued their feud on and off through Twitter in 2016. In March 2016, Beckham “subtweeted” Norman – referring to him without mentioning his name – on Twitter as Norman made a national TV appearance. “That boy should thank me for all I’ve done for you !!!” Beckham wrote.
This made Norman seethe when we talked for this book, as he made a reference to Beckham’s amazing one-handed catch in 2014 on a Sunday night game giving Beckham more publicity than he deserved.
“He’s yapping over there,” Norman said of Beckham. “And (Beckham doesn’t) even sound like he’s making any sense. He just went (in the draft) in the first round and everything is handed to him. He gets to New York. ... He catches one stupid little ball, and everybody in New York (loves) this guy, because that’s the biggest amount of media in the world. ... So all that went to his big old head, and for some odd reason he thinks he’s somebody that he’s not.”