Tom Sorensen

Charlotte misses Josh Norman, and not just because he’s good at football

Cam Newton on Josh Norman

Following practice on Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton spoke about former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman's competitiveness and analogies.
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Following practice on Wednesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton spoke about former Panthers cornerback Josh Norman's competitiveness and analogies.

This is Josh Norman.

It’s the summer of 2015, and Norman is going to drive a race car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. During a long pre-drive briefing he and the other NASCAR Racing Experience students are told their cars have a top speed of 150 to 160 mph.

As Norman waits in his 3,400-pound car to take a turn on the track, I ask him what he envisions.

“I envision 170,” Norman says.

Ah, Josh Norman. Don’t you miss the guy?

Norman embraced by Hip-Hop entertainer

Of course, you miss the way he plays cornerback. Last season the Carolina Panthers could operate as if one side of the field was off limits for the other team’s receivers. Linebackers could gamble because they knew Norman, who was to that defense what a shot-blocking center is to a basketball team, could cover for them.

The Panthers have a philosophy. Draft a player, train the player and, when he proves himself, pay the player. But Norman wanted $15 million to $16 million a year and the Panthers weren’t going to pay it. So last March they applied the franchise tag.

Norman, however, didn’t sign it. The franchise tag dangled until April when Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman unexpectedly yanked it back. So Norman, who grew up in Greenwood, S.C., played collegiately at Coastal Carolina outside Myrtle Beach and spent his first four NFL seasons with the Panthers, left the Carolinas and signed with Washington. He got his $15 million a year.

The Panthers play Washington on Monday night. The last time the Panthers played on national TV Cam Newton didn’t wear a tie and Seattle beat them 40-7. So an upset against Washington could offer some atonement.

But it’s Norman who makes the game special.

Panthers LB Thomas Davis on Panthers rescinding Josh Norman's franchise tag.

All week we’re going to hear that the Panthers are playing Washington and not Josh Norman. But the order is wrong. The Panthers are playing Norman and not just Washington.

Norman, who turns 29 Thursday, is as interesting as any player who has worn a Carolina jersey. I always write about the last player to break camp in Spartanburg and in 2015, a month after he raced at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was Norman.

Long after his teammates left the field, and Spartanburg, Norman did a drill in which he lays on the ground and has two equipment room employees stand on either side of him and, a few seconds apart, fire passes at him.

But this was a preliminary. Norman’s main event at camp was his tiff with Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. When the offense does good work at camp, Newton talks loudly about it. When Norman intercepted a Newton pass, Norman talked loudly, too.

Norman stiff-armed Newton as he approached the end zone and Newton grabbed Norman’s helmet. Norman knocked Newton’s helmet off and they went to the ground.

I was right at ringside and despite the size differential thought Norman was ahead on points.

Again, Norman comes from a humble place – he walked on at Coastal Carolina. But that doesn’t mean he has to be humble. I met the Legend of Josh Norman at mini-camp when he was a rookie and lined up against Carolina star receiver Steve Smith. Asked how he felt going against Smith, Norman said he was “up for a challenge.”

Later he said that Smith was frustrated because he couldn’t shake Norman. When they got to Spartanburg, Smith shook Norman every chance he had, which was pretty much hourly.

Wouldn’t you love to watch that one now?

Norman once told me that before every game he watches a warrior movie. His favorite is “300,” and he was appalled that I’d never seen it. So I saw it, and Tweeted that, yeah, it was good.

“I told you!” Norman Tweeted back.

He said he pulls out 300 “only if it’s a special game.”

Wonder what he’ll watch before this one.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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