Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Redskins
Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Redskins

Josh Norman Grinds Toward Greatness

If anyone doubts the Washington Redskins’ decision to make Josh Norman the highest-paid cornerback in the National Football League, it’s certainly not Coach Jay Gruden.

The plain-spoken head coach told On Tap during the team’s training camp in Richmond that despite signing a whopping five-year, $75 million deal in 2016, Norman shows no signs of complacency and routinely works harder than anyone on the team.

“He’s a great player and leader for us,” Gruden said. “When you sign a contract like Josh signed, the other players can take it a couple of different ways. But when they see how hard he works and how hard he prepares before and after practice, and they see him with a soccer ball, his work ethic just rubs off on everybody.”

Wait, what – a soccer ball? Sure enough, when On Tap caught up with Norman after practice, the team’s marquee defensive player nonchalantly dribbled a red, white and green soccer ball off the football field. Asked to explain, Norman smiled and said it’s just another way to improve his football – not futball – game.

“It’s about footwork and disciplining your feet – always having something on your foot moving around,” he explained.

The unorthodox approach and tireless work ethic seem to be paying off for the high-dollar cover corner, and not just at the bank. Norman made the Pro Bowl in 2015, and despite failing to repeat the achievement in 2016 (at least in part because of a weaker defensive supporting cast), he remains one of the most respected cornerbacks in the NFL.

Although he didn’t make the Pro Bowl last year, Norman said he thinks 2016 was his best season yet. Redskins coaches routinely asked the South Carolina native to cover the league’s toughest receivers, including the Giants’ Odell Beckham and the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant. Norman rarely came up on the losing end of those matchups.

A Coastal Carolina University alum, Norman was once viewed as a marginal pro football prospect. That’s undoubtedly part of why the sixth-year pro is regularly the last guy off the practice field and voracious in the film room, devouring video of opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers in an effort to learn their tendencies and fine-tune his timing and instinct for the ball.

“Wherever I am on a list [of pro cornerbacks], I really don’t care because I rose from the bottom to the top,” he said. “I’m a boss at my position. Just ask the receivers I go against. I’ve been everything you can be as a defensive back, and the only thing that I’m lacking now is a Super Bowl.”

Winning a Super Bowl, of course, is the ultimate goal in the NFL. So, what do the Redskins – who made the playoffs in 2015 and then missed them in 2016 – have to do to not only get back to the postseason, but ultimately attain football’s holy grail?

“We have to play sound, disciplined football with everybody doing their job,” Norman said. “It’s the offensive line coming off the football, the defensive line playing with gap integrity [filling gaps in the offensive line], linebackers coming downhill [rushing toward the ball carriers], and safeties and corners breaking on the ball. Those are the key components of winning any football game, and if we focus on that, we’ll go far.”

Norman also warned his teammates against complacency.

“We have to always outwork ourselves and our opponents,” the 29-year-old player said. “We can’t have that lull, that lax, in our brains where we say, ‘This is just a game,’ and we can roll over and just win by a field goal or seven points. We have to treat every game as if it was our last, and by having that mentality and being aggressive, we’ll be fine.”

Speaking of being aggressive, Redskins Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky plans to use the blitz more this season, allowing Norman to play off the ball and take advantage of his natural instincts.

“I like being aggressive,” Norman said. “I play a style of defense that knows this aggressive blitzing mentality. It causes multiple turnovers and big plays. We’ll see how it plays out in the games.”

When Norman isn’t studying film, or practicing with his teammates, he can often be found working with his charity Starz24, a reflection of his jersey number. The charitable, nonprofit organization works with youth in underprivileged communities to encourage healthy and active lifestyles, while providing good role models and mentoring. Norman launched the charity during his three-year stint with the Carolina Panthers, and relocated it to Washington when he took a job with the Redskins three years ago.

“When I first got drafted, my hometown [of Greenwood, South Carolina] was dealing with some pretty grim statistics,” he recalled. “We were pretty high up there with violent crimes and other negative statistics that prompted me to do something about it.”

Norman said he knew he wanted to address some of the heaviest issues faced by the Greenwood community.

“We are newly active in the DC area, as we just launched publicly in DC. There are challenges that come with any region. There are pros and cons, but I see the entry into the DC market as an exciting next step for us.”

The celebrity football player said Starz24 is more meaningful to him than he can explain.

“I believe that [for] those who are given much, much is required,” he said. “It means something when I am able to help do my part to better the lives of others. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what I’m all about.”

Learn more about Starz24 at www.starz24.org, and the Redskins’ 2017 season at www.redskins.com.