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Josh Norman: Returning to his roots, with Panthers "DNA"

Josh Norman

CHARLOTTE — Josh Norman wasn't necessarily looking for work when he called Steve Wilks around lunchtime on Sunday. As he was leaving church, he was just thinking about his former coach and his family and wanted to say Merry Christmas.

As it turns out, Wilks was watching tape of the Panthers' win over the Lions from the day before, and thinking about cornerback Jaycee Horn's injury.

That sparked the second phone call on Sunday, later in the day. That one included travel plans.

Less than 24 hours later, the Panthers' interim coach and former cornerback are reunited, with Norman signing to the practice squad, and he could possibly be activated for Sunday's crucial game against the Buccaneers.

"It organically happened, in a sense," Norman said late Monday afternoon as he signed his paperwork.

Josh Norman

No matter how this turns out — and there's still no guarantee he'll be activated this week — that's the key part of this story.

Norman was planted here as a fifth-round rookie in 2012. He was cultivated by Wilks, who was his defensive backs coach in those formative years. And he grew from a player with promise to an All-Pro. So coming home, rejoining his former coach, to play whatever role is something Norman is eager to do.

"Everything we've done, all this time we've been in the league, has been off this mantra of Steve Wilks," Norman said. "The mindset, the four weapons: your eyes, feet, hips, or hands. Literally, that will either make or break you. The mentality is never going to waver in that sense. It's always stuck with me.

"When we say 'Keep Pounding,' we really mean that in every sense of the word. So the mentality is almost a loss for words; it's more action than anything else. The pedigree that I stand on, the footsteps I walk in, the Luke Kuechlys, the Charles Johnsons, the Thomas Davises, and the people who stand here now, it's the ghost of their past. And I carry that."

The 35-year-old Norman is part of that past, having earned All-Pro honors in 2015 as a part of a defense with a specialty. Back then, he was the youngster, and they brought in veteran Charles "Peanut" Tillman for his final season. The longtime Bears corner taught all the kids here the power of the Peanut Punch, and it worked.

The 2015 Panthers led the league with 39 takeaways — 24 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles. Those turnovers led to 148 points, and the Panthers got on a roll that carried them to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl.

So even if Norman can't run the way he used to (and he never was the fastest cornerback in the league, running a 4.66 40-yard dash at his Coastal Carolina pro day), he remembered those tricks.

Last year with the 49ers, he forced an NFC-leading seven fumbles, showing he still can make plays the way Tillman did, and now teach it to another generation. The Panthers could use it, as they have 15 takeaways and five forced fumbles this year, which both rank 29th in the league.

Josh Norman

But Norman's never been one to soft-pedal his own abilities (he lived the Batman lifestyle), and he said he hopes to be more than just a teacher here for the rest of this season.

"No, I see myself as a playmaker," he said when asked if he considered himself a mentor. "When I step on the field, I want to be the best, regardless of who it is. When Peanut was here, I was able to see what he did that was best because he was the best at it. So I took some of his skills and trainings and put it into my repertoire. My belt, the Bat-belt. We did that, and we took the ball away.

"Now it's just the ability to, no matter if it's in the ground or the air, I feel like it's mine. So it's just bringing that mentality of the game into the locker room. No matter what happens, that ball is live."

With a young secondary stinging from the loss of Horn (who will have surgery on Tuesday and whose status moving forward is unclear), Norman could at least add an element of confidence.

Wilks knows that and values it, saying when he discussed the move with general manager Scott Fitterer, it became clear to him that Norman still had something to offer.

"When Scott and I talked about it today, he has experience in this league, brings veteran leadership. And most importantly, I feel like he possesses our DNA," Wilks said. "I know him personally; he played for me.

"He understands the culture that we've tried to create here and the element of play that we're looking for."

There's still a physical hurdle to clear. Norman has been working out, but that's not the same as football, and he hasn't been in a camp or practicing since last year with the 49ers. And he's still 35, and that matters.

But he said Monday that he wants to "get in the mix" in practice and see what happens.

And if something grows, he's glad to get a chance to harvest something here. He never thought he'd get the chance when the franchise tag was removed in the 2016 offseason and he left for Washington as a free agent. But Monday, he was back.

"To be honest, that's why I say God's got the wheel; I'm just a passenger," Norman said. "I tell you right now; I didn't know if I'd ever come back in these doors since I walked out of here in 2016. I never thought I'd step back in there. But you make plans and God laughs at them. I didn't think there was a chance. I went to other teams, and we did really well. I didn't think this was a thing we could do. But something inside me was pulling, gravitating toward Carolina.

"Other teams and I might have had conversations. It just never sounded as sweet as Carolina. And I think for me, it's overcoming a lot of obstacles. I always fought from the bottom. So I always guided from the bottom. And what can you do to bring people to the top? That's why I always thought, why would I want to be on a team that's already on top? That's never been a thing for me. That's easy. I want to do it the hard way. The strong way. That's where you really see who you are and match yourself up to be the best."

Josh Norman was originally drafted by Carolina in the fifth round in 2012. He played four seasons (2012-15) with the Panthers, earning All-Pro honors during the team's Super Bowl run in 2015. Norman then played for Washington (2016-19), Buffalo (2020) and San Francisco (2021).

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