One team has won three straight to sit in first place in its division. The other has dropped three straight to land at the bottom.
There are two sides of the Josh Norman transaction at the moment, and the defending NFC champions are not the ones on top.
Nothing about this was normal, from the post-draft timing to the way the team that lost the Super Bowl was ultimately the one severing ties with one of its best players. But general manager Dave Gettleman’s reasoning, that his 15-1 team was not one player away from anything, banked on a defensive scheme that was supposed to rise above one breakout cornerback. Zone coverages, heavy pass rush and the flanking and dropback abilities of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were supposed to make it so that plenty of players could effectively guard the perimeters in Carolina’s defense.
It’s the type of defense that supposedly helped elevate a former fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina to an All-Pro season. At least that was the narrative haunting Norman after the Panthers released him from the franchise tag and he signed with Washington at five years, $75 million with $50 million guaranteed.
Still, here the Panthers are at 1-4 following Monday night’s 17-14 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They look like more than one player away, but the Norman departure looms particularly large. If the rest of the defense is what aided Norman, then that defense plus Norman most definitely aided the cornerbacks behind him. Ben Benwikere, for example, played 13 games last season largely as a nickel corner before stepping in as a full-time outside starter this season. It took him four games and a near-historic 300-yard performance from Julio Jones before he was released.
More than simply losing a defender with outstanding ball skills and game-changing ability, the Panthers’ decision to release Norman without investing real resources to replace him exposed the depth problems that can create a bleeding weakness. Carolina has two rookie cornerbacks, second-round pick James Bradberry and third-round selection Daryl Worley, who have been respectable in coverage. Entering Monday night’s game in which they held Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers to 219 yards and 1 touchdown pass, they ranked 19th in defensive pass DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). It hasn’t been a cratering weakness for most weeks.
But it was against the Falcons and Matt Ryan, who threw for 503 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 48-33 win. That’s when Bradberry missed the game because of a toe injury, which pushed Benwikere into assignments where he could be picked apart. In a league built around finding weaknesses and game-planning to exploit them, Norman’s ability to lock down one spot helped the Panthers limit theirs. He also gave them a player to stick on an opposing No. 1 receiver so he wouldn’t have 12 catches and 300 yards.
Gettleman’s long-term view on Norman and how an expensive cornerback fit into his deep, layered, zone-heavy secondary was certainly sound. Saving money by moving from Norman to a player on a rookie deal opens cash to re-sign more important players, such as star defensive tackle Kawann Short. With essentially a third safety locked up long-term in Kuechly, cornerback theoretically should never be a pressing need.
But time is still at a premium in the NFL, and coming off a season that went so right until it came up just short, the Panthers certainly could have used one more year of Norman on the franchise tag. He’d probably price himself out by the end of the season, but that would have meant producing another Pro Bowl type of year, which would have benefited the Panthers immensely.
Norman would not have kept Cam Newton from absorbing big hits given up by his struggling tackles, and he wouldn’t have kept Jonathan Stewart healthy either. But he could have helped the defense stay elite again, shortening the margin of error. He wouldn’t have the Panthers at 5-0 right now, but they also likely wouldn’t be 1-4 and feeling like their season is already over.