The Washington Redskins were the beneficiaries of the Carolina Panthers’ strange decision to play hardball with All-Pro corner Josh Norman. The Panthers hit Norman with the franchise tag rather than negotiate a long-term deal. Norman held out. Carolina, rather than negotiate, simply cut him. And the Redskins stepped in to swoop him up.
This is the second time in three years the Redskins have benefitted from another team’s curious choice to cut a good player loose. The first time was Desean Jackson prior to the 2014 season. The wide receiver clashed with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. The ‘Skins got him, and got the best big-play receiver in football. Is that history going to repeat itself on the other side of the line of scrimmage?
It depends on how the Redskins’ coaching staff approaches this. One thing to note with Norman is that while he was the best corner in the game last season, he’s not a classic lockdown corner that you simply assign to the other team’s best receiver and have him cover man-to-man all over the field. Norman did his work last year in a scheme that emphasizes zone coverages.
I don’t think this is a bad thing for Washington though. The area that this defense made tremendous strides last year was in disciplined tackling. The days of simply throwing short to get twenty yards while some us shouted in frustration at the three missed tackles were gone. It was validation of a theory I hold which says that any bad NFL team can get to mediocrity quickly simply by playing better fundamental football.
But there’s also a ceiling to this and without a significant influx of talent, the Redskins are going to stay in a range of 9-7 to 7-9. There was no greater area of talent need than the back seven of the defense. The lack of speed and ability to pursue across the field was exposed in a playoff loss to Green Bay, when Randall Cobb consistently beat Washington defenders to the edge. You can play sound fundamental football, but you can’t tackle what you can’t catch and an increase in speed was paramount.
That brings us to the zone. I think a zone-based defensive scheme is the best approach for Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry. It’s easier to tackle in the zone, where you play facing the quarterback, as opposed to man where you have to chase and react. The acquisition of Norman gives Washington an opportunity to build on its strength rather than give away the progress of 2015.
In the late ‘00s, the Redskin secondary was filled with freelancers, notably LaRon Landry, who all seemed to be aiming for the SportsCenter highlight play. We don’t need to revisit those days. DeAngelo Hall is still around and can be the one freelancer. Everyone else should settle into a more disciplined, focused way of playing football. The Josh Norman acquisition facilitates that and makes the Redskins a lot better in the process.