When the Carolina Panthers made the decision this summer to rescind the franchise tag and let Pro-Bowl cornerback Josh Norman become a free agent, they gambled that their team was strong enough to survive without him.
You could almost understand the logic: they had reached the Super Bowl, finished the regular season with a league-best record of 15-1, and had two of the league’s best players, Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton, to anchor their defence and offence, respectively.
Norman, meanwhile, was demanding a big contract. As he told Business Insider’s Scott Davis this summer, he would have staged a holdout if the Panthers kept him under the franchise tag. And so the Redskins swooped in, offered him $15 million a year, and away he went.
Fast forward to the present and the Panthers are 1-3. Their defence — their secondary, in paticular — is in shambles.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Panthers are giving up a whopping 29.5 points per game (28th in the NFL), and their opposing quarterback QBR, at 99.0, is the second worst in the league behind only the 49ers — all per ESPN.
On Sunday, the Falcons torched the Panthers, 48-33. Matt Ryan threw for 501 yards, 300 of which went to Julio Jones.
Historically, Norman was one of the few cornerbacks to successfully slow down Jones. In 2014, he held Jones to 107 yards on 10 catches in two games, and last year when Norman covered Jones he held him to nine catches and 113 yards in two games.
Carolina’s current secondary simply hasn’t been good enough. Rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere couldn’t handle Jones, and even admitted after the game that Norman had been better on Jones than he was.
“Josh has been doing his thing on Julio since they have been starting that matchup,” Benwikere said. “It’s on us [now]. Josh is not here. We cannot dwell on Josh.”
Jones, too, recognised that going one-on-one against a rookie cornerback gave him a huge advantage.
“They put the young corner on me man-to-man,” Jones said. “If they would have put two men on me or cheated a safety over, Matt would have made great reads and hit the other guys that were open. They singled me out today, and Matt made some great decisions.”
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted, the Panthers have especially struggled on long-throws.
The short takeaway: map on the left is Panthers passer rating by ten-yard zones in 2015. Map on the right is 2016. https://t.co/ZEg0khmBlW pic.twitter.com/hCHwZt9FS0
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) October 3, 2016
All that red is worrying for Carolina. And as Barnwell explained, part of the reason why that chart looks the way it does is because when the Panthers don’t get pressure on the quarterback, they are giving up huge plays.
“Last year, when the Panthers couldn’t get pressure on the opposing passer, they were still third in the league in opposing passer rating and 11th in QBR. This year, when they leave the quarterback alone, Carolina is 19th in opposing passer rating and 28th in QBR.”
It’s still early, of course, and Norman’s absence isn’t the only reason why the Panthers’ defence is struggling, or why the team is 1-3. But they are unquestionably worse without him.
Norman seems knows that, too. When asked to comment on Jones’ big game against his former team, Norman stayed mum.
“I’m just gonna sip my tea on that one.”