We tend to take poetic license when we talk about sports, because it’s more fun that way. “Battle” is the easiest and most common theme to reach for when doing so — and again, that’s mostly mendacious bullshit — but there are times when describing the grueling individual exertions of sports with the narrative of single combat is a perfect fit.
In football, “quarterback duels” are a little out of the square. There can be enmity there, but Carson Palmer and Tom Bra — I mean, Jimmy Garoppolo don’t have to see each other face-to-face until they’re shaking hands after the whistle, when one says “Good game” and the other says “Yeah I know, lemme know when I have a bad one, bitch” or whatever. For it to be a real “duel,” the two combatants have to line up across from each other for the better part of the game. I suppose there are some linebackers and offensive tackles who don’t like each other all that much, but I don’t give a shit about that, and I don’t think it’s a leap to assume that you don’t either.
So who does that leave us with? To answer a question with two more questions: Who are the loudest, craziest, most colorful characters on any football team? And who’s got the longest reach, the quickest feet, and the nicest hands? Cornerbacks and wide receivers.
Richard Sherman vs. Michael Crabtree. Andre Johnson vs. Cortland Finnegan (which, come to think of it, was more of a public spanking than a duel). Darrelle Revis vs. a not-as-over-the-hill-as-Revis-thought Randy Moss. And on Sunday, when the Washington Redskins play the New York Giants, we’ll be treated to Part II/Round 2 of the latest and greatest saga, Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Josh Norman.
When the Panthers made the trip to East Rutherford, New Jersy, last season, Norman was blossoming into the best zone corner in the league. And Beckham, who was the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, had shown himself to be one of the league’s most dangerous weapons, despite standing a shade under 6 feet. Who ended up being the “winner” of that matchup depends on who you ask.
Beckham got the last laugh when he dipped on Norman in single coverage on a slant and Iversonned him in celebration. That touchdown tied things up, though the Panthers stole a win with a last-minute field goal. But Norman successfully got under Beckham’s skin like a clover mite early on, and Beckham, to put it delicately, lost his goddamned mind. Norman had two personal fouls to his name in that game, but Beckham notched three, the most incriminating of which was a truly boneheaded helmet-to-helmet hit, one he seemed to be planning for the entirety of his running start.
That hit got Beckham a one-week suspension. What we saw that day seemed like a genuine, enduring distaste for one another. Norman mocked Beckham on Twitter soon after the game. Beckham subtweeted Norman when he gave up a touchdown against the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs a month later. Norman shaded Beckham on SportsNation in the offseason, Beckham reacted, Norman clapped back, and so on and so forth, seemingly ad infinitum. It was snowballing into a rivalry that had the trappings of an all-timer, including the crucial meta-narrative: Beckham, the golden first-round draft pick and media darling, versus Norman, the resentful late-rounder who clawed his way into prominence with a string of gritty performances. The latter with a massive chip on his shoulder that could be partially attributed to being counted out early in his career, and also because that rise to prominence can — more than partially — be attributed to his feud with the former. Or at least Beckham had the grounds to claim so.
Things only picked up steam after Norman inked a $75 million deal ($50 million guaranteed) with Washington, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. In an August interview with ESPN the Magazine in which Norman licked shots at ever-ee-body, the defensive back said that a “couple people” had a “hit out on [Beckham],” which read a lot to me like, “I got goons everywhere.” I wasn’t sure if that was true, and I was even less sure if it mattered to me whether it was true or not because, you know, it was good theater.
But this excerpt from Scott Fowler’s Panthers Rising, published in the Charlotte Observer earlier this month, really underpinned Norman’s hatred for Beckham, in very final, “fuck this dude forever” terms:
“I’ll be honest … I don’t care for [Beckham] at all. … Now don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player or whatever, but he’s not what he thinks he is. If you hit guys like that, if you completely jam them and shake them up, they can’t relate to that. So they start making excuses like, ‘Oh, he touched me.’ They don’t know how to respond because they never got hit like that. So me, every time I see him, I’m going to hit him in the mouth. I don’t care. Until he stops crying and bitching.”
In sum: “When I see Odell Beckham Jr., it’s on sight.”
Norman will be shadowing Beckham for the whole of Sunday’s game, except for when Beckham lines up as a slot receiver. And being that Beckham spends minimal time there at all (23.7 percent in last year’s game against the Panthers, 21.6 percent overall in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus), the two of them will have loads of time to discomfit each other. And the TV coverage of the game will likely have all the good stuff: plenty of B-roll from their respective warm-ups, sideline dispatches about pregame mission statements, gratuitous close-ups of their furled, glistening brows as they contemplate how to kill each other, and plenty of color commentary with allusions to the epic corner-receiver battles of old.
On the blue side of this clash, Beckham has been fairly mum or otherwise dismissive in the lead-up. On Wednesday, he was asked about how he plans to handle Norman, and said, “What about him? What do you mean?”
It would seem that the game plan is “out of sight, out of mind” for him and the Giants, and with good reason: there’s some, but not a whole lot to suggest that Norman could put the clamps on Beckham aboveboard, absent of all the … extracurricular activity. Norman didn’t have many opportunities to line up against two of the league’s best wideouts in the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown in Washington’s first two games, but was effective in breaking up plays when he did. Norman’s recovery speed makes him a bad penny; he keeps coming back. But that’s just it — Beckham’s ability to make plays with the separation he gets is just, well, greater. The last time they met — the time with all the fireworks — Beckham roasted Norman on the spit over and over again, including one catch early on that should’ve been a 52-yard touchdown, but for an absent-minded drop in the home stretch. If Beckham can keep his head on straight, it seems like there’s only one way this can go. Of course, like anyone else, all I have to go on is past and present; when it comes to the future, we’re all really just taking wild stabs in the dark — especially when this much emotion is involved.
Either way, Sunday’s game is a must-watch. And not because of the larger clash between two storied franchises at very different ends of the spectrum; the Giants atop the NFC East with a perfect 2–0 start, and the Redskins at the bottom, yet to win a game. The main attraction is Norman and Beckham in a thunderdome, exercising their mutual antipathy. We blow so much smoke about “battles” every week. Well, this is as close as we’re going to get to a real one.