Josh Norman is paid to be the focus of the Redskins' defense, not the distraction

This much we know: On the play on which Drew Brees became the NFL’s most prolific passer ever, neither Tre’Quan Smith nor Cameron Meredith had a Washington Redskin within 30 arms’ lengths of him. Brees doesn’t need choices, but he had them. He chose Smith, who scored on a play that covered 62 yards. You can watch the replay a thousand times. You’ll never see Washington cornerback Josh Norman.

We also know this: Norman did not play the opening series of the second half, and Saints receiver Michael Thomas thus tweeted: “I made that boy check out after the first half.” Predictably, from there, it degenerated into the kind of post-midnight, reputation’s-at-stake 21st-century back-and-forth.

“You clout chasing,” Norman tweeted back.

What clout, exactly, does Norman have?

“Josh is, I think, in love with being a celebrity right now and not necessarily being a football player,” retired defensive back DeAngelo Hall, a former Norman teammate, told the Junkies on 106.7 The Fan Tuesday morning.

Here we go with the story line that’ll dominate the week before Washington plays Norman’s former team, Carolina. Parse through all the particulars and the pettiness, and we’re left with this: Washington has an issue with Norman. He believes he is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. He is paid like one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. And he simply doesn’t produce like one. Rather, he finds himself in the middle of outside chatter, if not outright controversy.

It’s only Tuesday, but Norman’s week already has included a benching, a postgame cool-down period in which he was consulted by Washington public relations staff to make sure he had collected himself, an outwardly even-handed approach to Coach Jay Gruden’s decision not to play him to start the second half, a self-assessment that he “would not waste my breath” by talking about Thomas, an external assessment from a “Monday Night Football” analyst that he wasn’t Washington’s best cornerback, and a twitter war with a player from a team that throttled his by 24 points.

Washington is not deep enough or talented enough for its best players to perform like anything less than its best players. It needs Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne to stuff the run. It needs Ryan Kerrigan to get to the quarterback. It needs Alex Smith to take care of the football and find the open man. It needs Jordan Reed to be the open man.

And it needs Josh Norman to be a player worthy of the five-year, $75-million contract they granted him back in 2016.

Related: Josh Norman’s last interception came Dec. 24, 2016. He has played 34 games with Washington. He has an interception in two of them.

Now, true shutdown corners can’t make opposing quarterbacks throw in their direction. But there is advanced data that would suggest when quarterbacks do throw Norman’s way, he’s not exactly performing his shutdown duties. Witness, according to Pro Football Focus, the passer rating against Norman in coverage: 156.3.


Again, Hall, who is familiar both with the role of off-the-field distraction and with playing defensive back at a high level:

“Josh needs to kind of refocus, get back to the grind, get back to the basics technique-wise and really work, because he’s not going to live off the reputation of being Josh Norman,” Hall said. “Teams are starting to go at him and he’s either going to have to make plays, or somebody else is going to get an opportunity to play.”

That process actually started Monday night in the 43-19 debacle against the Saints. Norman, among others, notably didn’t make a play on the Brees record-breaker. That was discussed internally at halftime — we need to get at the details of that discussion, because they promise to be juicy — so Norman sat to open the third quarter.

Gruden did his part to defuse the situation and make it go away. “That was me,” the coach said, adding “everything’s fine” and “it’ll be back to normal” and saying Norman will “play the rest of the year.”

Except it wasn’t really Gruden driving that decision. That’s all a coach who’s trying to hold on to both his team and his job can do: Make sure there are ramifications for poor performance. This situation is on Norman. Had he come close to playing the correct coverage against Smith on the play that blew open the game, he would have been on the field to open the second half, not standing on the sideline watching. What he saw from that vantage point, standing with his helmet off: Tre’Quan Smith waltzing past Washington defensive back Greg Stroman, the rookie who just happened to be Norman’s replacement, for a 35-yard scoring pass from Brees.

Is that on Gruden for benching Norman? Or Norman for putting himself in position to be benched in the first place?

Go back to the egregious error from the first half, and listen to the coach. He didn’t mention Norman by name. But he spoke with both candor and disgust that a veteran player could mess up what sounded like a basic assignment.

“It can’t happen in pro football,” Gruden said. “You don’t see that happen in pro football. We’re together too long. We’ve run the same coverage for too many times. We have to coach it better. We’ve got to make sure that never happens again. That’s an absolute embarrassment.”

This is not at all to defend Gruden. But let’s leave the questions about whether he’s the long-term solution for this franchise for another day. Washington has a referendum coming up on Norman as well. He counts $14.5 million against the salary cap in 2019, $15.5 million against the cap the following year. He’s not only failing to make plays. He’s now messing them up.

“You 30 years old dude,” Thomas tweeted at Norman. “Life comes at you fast.”

The entire exchange was ridiculous, but Thomas hit on a painful truth right there. Careers in the NFL can come to an end with remarkable swiftness. This is not to say that Norman’s career is approaching that point. But it’s fair to ask, following a night on which he blew a coverage and was subsequently benched: Is Josh Norman part of the problem or part of the solution? Monday night, the answer was obvious, and it wasn’t pretty — not on the field, not from the sideline, and not in the twitterverse afterward.

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