CHARLOTTE – Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was fulfilling a dream and reaching his goals at the start of his rookie season.
The fifth round selection out of Coastal Carolina, who started 32 of 34 games following his freshman year, entered the league with hopes of starting on Opening Day.
In Week 1 at Tampa Bay, he took the field as a starter.
Norman proceeded to start the next 11 games and recorded his first career interception along the way, but prior to Week 14 against the Falcons, Norman's role changed.
He was replaced by second-year cornerback Josh Thomas in the starting lineup, and Thomas started the final four games of the season.
"It was huge. That was a life-changing moment for me," Norman said. "I'd never had that ever happen. I had never gone through anything like that before. I'm starting and then I'm not playing."
Norman's play began to slip as the season progressed. Call it the proverbial "rookie wall" or chalk it up to youthful inconsistency. The coaching staff felt a change was in the best interest of the team and Norman, who could benefit from a chance to observe the action from the sideline.
What he watched was the culmination of a four-game winning streak to end the season.
"I had to look within myself and constantly tell myself, 'continue to work, continue to work,'" Norman said. "For me, getting benched really stuck, because it happened toward the end of the year when we started putting together wins.
"My hat goes off to the guys that were playing and the coaches. That winning streak was great but it's unfortunate I wasn't able to be as much a part of it."
With his first NFL offseason underway, Norman is taking a deep breath and regrouping.
"I just need to collect my thoughts, rest up a bit," Norman said. "I'm using the offseason to sit back and reflect on what I did – the good and the bad."
And he plans on returning to the practice field with increased urgency and a renewed focus.
"When I get back I need to hit it hard. Hit it hard," Norman said. "I feel as if I'm understanding things and I know more now than I did when I came in last year. It's all a process. You can't get to step two without going through step one."
And his goal in year two is to prove a challenging rookie campaign has made him a better player, a player worthy of reclaiming the starting job he desperately wanted and painfully lost.
"Whatever my role is – for me, personally – I'm coming back with a level head and a strong mind," Norman said. "I'm going for No. 1 again."