Analysis: With Bucs next, Panthers are paying the price for letting Norman walk away

Redskins cornerback Josh Norman shoots an imaginary arrow after a fourth-quarter interception against the Browns. [Nathan Newton, The Washington Post]
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman shoots an imaginary arrow after a fourth-quarter interception against the Browns. [Nathan Newton, The Washington Post]
Published Oct. 4, 2016

The Panthers are suffering the consequences for their curious offseason move of getting rid of cornerback Josh Norman.

This isn't a second-guess. There was a first-guess at the time. From the moment the Panthers removed the franchise tag from Norman in April, making him an unrestricted free agent and allowing him to sign with the Redskins, the move seemed odd. Some people within the league were puzzled by it, and there appeared all along to be a reasonable chance that the Panthers would end up regretting it.

General manager Dave Gettleman certainly deserves credit for his part in assembling last season's Super Bowl team. The Panthers are a well-run organization with a superb coach in Ron Rivera. But what were the reasons for getting rid of Norman? That his excellence was a product of the Carolina pass rush? That a defense should be built with financial resources devoted mostly to the front seven and not to the secondary? That there could be problems down the road with Norman's contract that might disrupt the Panthers' harmony?

Well, the current Carolina secondary does not look so great playing behind that front seven. Devoting a little more money to the defensive backfield might have helped the Panthers to avoid their current 1-3 start. And who cares about the potential for future discord? The Panthers are now trying to improve on last season's showing by winning a Super Bowl. It's about the here and now for a team at this level, and Norman could have aided that push for a championship. He wanted to stay and the Panthers had his rights secured.

The Panthers yielded 503 passing yards Sunday to Matt Ryan in a 48-33 loss at Atlanta. Wide receiver Julio Jones had a dozen catches for 300 yards and a touchdown.

"There is no way he'd have 300 yards if Josh was still there," former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said.

Say what you want about Norman having some difficulties Sunday dealing with Browns wideout Terrelle Pryor. Norman nabbed an interception in the Redskins' 31-20 triumph over the Browns and Pryor finished with five catches for 46 yards. It's not about Norman's performance for the Redskins, anyway. There is no disputing that Norman was one of the league's top defensive players last season while with the Panthers. His presence at the Georgia Dome on Sunday almost certainly would have helped them to avoid a 500-yard passing performance or a 300-yard receiving day.

The season clearly is not over for the Panthers. who host the Bucs on Monday night. The young secondary could improve. The team could steady itself and be a top NFC contender again. The last seven NFL teams to lose the Super Bowl have rebounded to reach the playoffs the following season.

But for now, there are serious issues. Carolina already trails the Falcons, who are 3-1, by two games in the NFC South. Quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning league most valuable player, suffered a concussion Sunday, leaving his playing status uncertain for the Tampa Bay game.

The Panthers need to get things straightened out relatively quickly. If they don't, there will be plenty of room to wonder how much their handling of the Norman situation contributed to their 2016 demise.