Unbeaten Panthers should make exception and pay Josh Norman now

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Josh Norman showed something in his aggressiveness two plays before his game-saving interception Sunday that made New Orleans Saints quarterback Luke McCown believed the Carolina Panthers cornerback was vulnerable.

McCown was so convinced Norman would bite on wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ first move that he ran over to coach Sean Payton and said, "We need to call that play again."

Norman didn't bite.

He bit back.

The fourth-year player out of Coastal Carolina went up high and came down on his back with an interception in the end zone that was every bit as athletic as quarterback Cam Newton's 2-yard touchdown flip a week earlier.

"Just thank God I was able to come down with it," Norman said. "He gave me the wings and I went to go fly."

The play preserved a 27-22 victory that improved the Panthers to 3-0 for the first time since the 2003 team that went on to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

The Panthers aren't playing at a championship level, but Norman is. He had an interception returned for a touchdown and a forced fumble in the red zone in a Week 1 win at Jacksonville. He stymied Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins last week.

Now this interception.

Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman may have a policy of not negotiating contracts once the season begins, but perhaps he should make an exception with Norman.

Pay him the $10 million a year he wants now instead of waiting until after the season for the price to go up.

Sure, Norman sometimes gets what coach Ron Rivera calls "dirty eyes" with his aggressiveness. He sometimes does things to upset Rivera's stomach.

Plays such as the interception make it worth that.

"When the young man gets the opportunity to play with a vision, he gets the opportunity to make plays," Rivera said.

The Panthers' vision is to do one better than the 2003 team that lost to New England in the Super Bowl. Norman's vision is to help Carolina get there and ensure his financial future.

If he continues to play at this level, both goals are attainable. The Panthers are undefeated despite being without their best defensive player, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the past 2½ games because of a concussion.

They could be without defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring) and outside linebacker Thomas Davis (shoulder), both injured in the second half, next week at Tampa Bay.

Sunday's defensive effort was as sloppy as the weather that produced a steady mist throughout. The Panthers allowed McCown to dink and dunk them to death for a rating of 89.7.

But Norman continued to play like one of the top five cornerbacks that he wants to be known as. His teammates aren't surprised.

This past week in practice, Norman made a similar play on a pass from Newton during a two-minute drill.

"I think it's safe to say that I gave him his preparation for McCown trying to throw the fade," Newton said with a smile.

Newton didn't have a bad day, either. He passed for 315 yards and two touchdowns, and ran 13 yards for another. It was only the second time in nine games in which he surpassed 300 yards passing that Newton won.

But Newton's effort would have been wasted had it not been for Norman's heroics. The Panthers will need that kind of an effort from him against Tampa Bay's Mike Evans, who had seven catches for 101 yards in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

Norman relishes the opportunity. He believes he's "locked into this thing mentally, physically and spiritually." He often talks about angels and other things that get him ribbed by teammates.

"We're not going to let him get away with talking crazy," Roman Harper said. "He's going to say some off-the-wall stuff. It's what he does, man.

"We encourage him to be that guy."

That's because they know the Panthers are better with Norman than without him.

"Keep going, J-No," Harper said. "Don't slow down. Don't think about what you're doing. Just continue to play."

And one day you'll get paid.