Josh Norman Is Not Expendable for the Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers rescinded Josh Norman's franchise tag on Wednesday. Should they have retained him?

“Either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That’s football, guys. That’s all it is.”

Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Sunday will send shudders down any movie buff or sports fan’s spine. It’s the classic rousing halftime speech that we see in all sports movies, but laced with a sense of something else: loss. Mortality. Pacino’s Tony D’Amato tries to instill in his players that there is a greater idea than the concept of self in football; there is the team.

In this film that holds true, but there are many instances on the gridiron where one player puts his team on his back and carries them. Super Bowl 50 would have had a greatly different outcome, had the  Denver BroncosVon Miller been merely a roleplayer and not a one-man wrecking crew. The Carolina Panthers may never have made it to that title match without the dual-threat improvisation of quarterback Cam Newton.

One thing is certain: there’s no way they would have made it there without the cinematic performance and steely-eyed play of cornerback Josh Norman. He was the individual star that helped make the Panthers’ defensive team in 2015. 

But they rescinded his franchise tag on Wednesday, allowing him to sign freely with any NFL team. 

Will they be able to survive without him?

Are You Not Entertained?

Norman was a theatre major in college -- like myself -- and famously takes on a different film character every Sunday when he prepares for a game. Nonetheless, his week-in, week-out role was that of leading lockdown man for the Panthers’ dogged defense that has ranked as a top-10 unit in the league in numberFire’s Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play in for the last three years.

NEP is an analytic that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and show how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Norman allows a 5-yard reception on 3rd-and-2, for instance, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Now, we unfortunately don't have NEP metrics for individual defensive players because it's difficult to show who's at fault on that side of the field analytically, but we can still use the metric to see how players affect their opposition’s offensive play. 

There Are No Pacts Between Lions and Men

Norman is a highly versatile defensive back, as he can play zone on the right side of the field or play man-to-man on a team’s best receiver. In 2015, he spent a fair amount of his time playing on the right side of the field, and there were eight games where he played no man coverage (shadowing), or shadowed the opposing top receiver less than half of the time. We’ll get into his matchups with receivers shortly, but let’s look at how he can lock down half of the field first.

We -- of course -- have to start with the passers. The quarterback position is the focus point of the offense, and it’s also where Norman focuses to dissect the opponents’ passing attack. How did the quarterbacks in those eight games do when passing to the right side of the field?

The table below shows the sum total of the quarterbacks’ passing rates and values between the two sides of the field. Was Norman able to lock down the opposition?

Pass Side Comp% Yd/Comp Passing NEP Per Drop Back Success%
Right 56.52% 10.35 -50.14 -0.44 38.26%
Left 62.99% 10.99 -18.58 -0.15 48.03%

That’s holding the line in a way that would even make King Leonidas proud. 

Sure enough, in the eight games that Norman held down one side of the field, he could have probably taken on the entire Persian army of 300,000 soldiers alone (I’d see that film).

On the whole, Norman allowed three times less Passing NEP (points added on passes) per drop back than the cornerbacks opposite him when in zone coverage (-0.44 to -0.15), not to mention a completion rate a full 6.47 percent lower and a Passing Success Rate (the percentage of passing plays that gain positive NEP) nearly 10.00 percent lower. While his presence didn’t fully deter opposing passers, he did encourage 12 fewer targets and allow 15 fewer completions.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles' Sam Bradford, for instance, Norman allowed a meager 43.75 percent completion rate and -0.64 Passing NEP per drop back on the right. The left side of the field allowed Bradford a whopping 72.73 percent completion rate and a not-nearly-as-bad -0.16 Passing NEP per drop back. Despite allowing a completion rate 15.04 percent better than his teammates against the Green Bay Packers, he held quarterback Aaron Rodgers to 0.30 less Passing NEP per drop back than the other side of the field. Only Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks actually did better while throwing towards Norman than away.

Norman can clearly blanket one side of the field, but was this legendary warrior a true man-to-man hero?

The Hero We Deserve

One of the final lines of The Dark Knight explains that the Batman must be a vigilante because he “is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now." 

Norman, too, is a man of many masks (cowls?), and can take on a variety of roles for his team. 

One of those roles is to be involved in one-on-one matchups against a particular “supervillain” (or wide receiver). We saw how he dominated half of his schedule in zone coverage, but he spent eight games this year in primarily man-to-man matchups as well. Was he as good when called on to single-handedly save the day?

The table below shows the eight wideout matchups he played in shadow coverage against in 2015, comparing their Reception NEP per target (efficiency at the wide receiver position, per NEP), Catch Rate, and Reception Success Rate in the week they faced Norman to their total for the rest of the season. How did they fare?

Week Player Rec NEP/T Catch% Success%
2 DeAndre Hopkins -0.34 -13.11% -16.23%
4 Mike Evans -0.55 -13.21% -29.10%
8 T.Y. Hilton -0.63 -39.25% 5.88%
12 Dez Bryant -0.21 -20.31% 20.69%
14 Julio Jones -0.17 3.16% -28.91%
15 Odell Beckham 0.21 6.27% -16.23%
16 Julio Jones 0.66 15.67% 4.64%
17 Mike Evans 0.31 -5.92% -5.71%

This is where we see some fall-off for Norman’s coverage prowess. Man-to-man is tough to play, sure, but his effectiveness waned in the final weeks of the season, when facing Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons twice, not to mention the New York GiantsOdell Beckham and Tampa Bay BuccaneersMike Evans.

Despite two big blow-ups against Beckham and Jones in back-to-back weeks, Norman allowed his man-to-man matchups a total of 0.07 Reception NEP per target less, 7.54 percent less in Catch Rate, and 12.06 percent less in Reception Success Rate than they earned in all other matchups in 2015.

He held opposing wideouts below their season Catch Rate in six out of eight games, and severely dampened their Reception NEP per target in five of these games to boot. He completely locked down the Houston TexansDeAndre Hopkins, who had arguably the best season of any wide receiver in 2015, allowing him a paltry Reception NEP per target of 0.43. That doesn’t seem like a total shutdown until you consider that Hopkins generated 0.77 Reception NEP per target in the 15 other games he played this year.

If he re-signs with the Panthers or moves on to a new team in 2016, Josh Norman is clearly a force to be reckoned with in an NFL defensive backfield. The data shows that he’ll continue to be able to stand and deliver, whether he’s playing a dead zone or man on fire.