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‘How do you get over it?’ Football, grief and hope two years after Parkland

FORT MYERS, FLA. — Willis May keeps reminders everywhere. A framed team photo sits behind his desk. So does a white mini helmet with an Eagles logo and the number 17 in the center, encased in a plastic cover. Resting on top, a black wristband with bold white letters spelling “Coach Feis.” In his phone, a final text message to his best friend, asking, “Where’s the shooter?”

There are more subtle reminders of the day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that changed everything. The sound of balloons popping startles him. His new athletic director will not let anyone rattle May’s doorknob or approach his office during lockdown drills. His mom asks him all the time, “Are you sleeping better?”

Willis May tells her he is, but he doesn’t tell her much more. What he wants to say to her is finding peace is impossible. That he is racked with guilt. That he feels like he let his best friends and innocent students down. That yes, he is sleeping and yes, he is happier, but no, he will never be completely better.

At least, that is how he feels today, two years after a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas left 17 people dead, including his two best friends — assistant coach Aaron Feis and athletic director and wrestling coach Chris Hixon. May, the Stoneman Douglas head football coach at the time, put his own grief aside to coach his devastated players through the 2018 season.

Every day of the new school year, every football game under the Friday night lights, felt more exhausting than the next. May pushed forward because he needed his players to think everything would be OK, even though he felt the opposite. When the season ended, his own anguish reached such an agonizing level, May could think about only one thing: leaving.

So he did. Last spring, May made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Parkland, Florida, and move west across I-75 to coach at South Fort Myers High School. When he arrived, he found a program and players who needed him just as much as he needed them.

The move has allowed him to stop thinking, every single day, about the horrors of Feb. 14, 2018. But on the other hand, it has been impossible to completely block out that day and how it changed what it means to be Willis May, to be a resident of Parkland, to be a student or teacher or parent or administrator at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

May wants to coach football, the way he has for more than 20 years, but he is now a mass shooting survivor, and with that comes complex, dueling emotions that are hard to accept, let alone understand. He needs to move forward, but moving forward feels selfish because 17 others cannot. He wants to turn South Fort Myers into a state champion, but he needs his experience coaching Stoneman Douglas to help. His new life does not exist without his old life, so he forces himself to remember when there are days he would rather forget.

Says May: “How do you get over it?”

THE SUN STARTS to set on a muggy October day in Florida. Gary May waits on the football field for his brother, with bags of red, white, silver and black spray paint cans on the back of a golf cart. He already has laid down the Wolfpack logo stencil at midfield. They need to paint the field, the same way they did at Stoneman Douglas.

Willis May emerges from his office inside the school building, tells Gary where to start, then grabs red paint and begins to go over the yard marks. South Fort Myers has a big game the next night against rival North Fort Myers, and the May brothers stay out here for four hours making sure the field looks perfect.

At South Fort Myers, Willis May inherited a proud, young football program. The school counts Kansas City Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins and Minnesota Vikings safety Jayron Kearse among its football alumni. This program knows how to win. But when May arrived, he said, the program was in disarray. The locker room and weight room were a mess. Players had quit on their coach and one another during a 1-9 season in 2018, and the hostility among them had seeped into everything they did. Classmates and teachers made fun of them to their faces. May’s job was to tear it down and build it back up, to rebuild and restore.

As he explains what he found here, it’s clear he’s not just talking about his program.

May never sought help after the shootings. He has not spoken with a therapist. He rarely shares what happened. His wife, Melissa, tells him he has survivor’s guilt. He agrees he probably does.

Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, co-authored a study in 2017 that examined the mental health consequences of mass shootings. The study found post-traumatic stress symptoms, major depression and other psychiatric disorders among the most common outcomes for survivors. While the studies she found on school shootings focused mainly on student survivors, only a handful detailed the impact on teachers and staff.

“We don’t necessary think of the adults and their losses and suffering,” Lowe says. “The adults affected by the trauma have by default the responsibility of helping their students heal. It can be hard to be there for other people when you’re suffering yourself.”

The thing is, May, 52, has never been someone to share his feelings. Rather than speak, he acts. He fixes. He makes things around him better, and that makes him feel better. At Stoneman Douglas, he couldn’t make anything better anymore. But he can here, at South Fort Myers.

So he remodeled the weight room and locker room, painted walls with his mother, put up Wolfpack decals, tore down old cabinets and bought new carpet, spending some of his own money to get it done.

The idea to paint a wolf at midfield also came from May. He brought his booster club president from Stoneman Douglas to help raise money for new clothes, gear and more. They bought an inflatable tunnel with a giant wolf at its mouth for players to run through and onto the field. His parents helped make an “Alpha Wolf” — a statue of a howling wolf on a painted base they placed next to the end zone for players to rub as they exited the tunnel.

“He put a new pair of shoes on this school, and when you put a new pair of shoes on any kid’s life, they’re going to feel like they’re 7 feet tall,” South Fort Myers athletic director Chris Harris says. “These kids’ confidence just boosted up.”

To May, players are players, no matter who they are or where they grow up. Therefore, he wanted his South Fort Myers players to have everything his Stoneman Douglas players had. Mind you, the two schools could not be further apart in location or student population.

Stoneman Douglas benefits from being in Parkland, where median household income is $107,000. The Florida Department of Education has rated Stoneman Douglas a School of Excellence for three consecutive years.

South Fort Myers is a Title I school with a high concentration of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is located in Lee County, where students have the ability to choose the school they want to attend. South Fort Myers offers vocational training in areas like plumbing, welding and automotive to help attract students interested in those fields.

Coaching transcends so many of these differences, serving to unify players toward one common goal. May changed nothing about his approach at his new school. He emphasized discipline, accountability and responsibility. Miss three practices without prior approval, and you’re no longer on the team. Weight room sessions became daily competitions, and players saw jaw-dropping gains, many improving their squats and lifts by more than 100 pounds in just eight weeks.

He introduced 40x40s: 40-yard sprints, 40 times, every Monday. The first time they did them, it took the entire practice to complete.

“What he was offering was better than what we just went through,” offensive lineman Jake Bond says. “You have to buy in 100 percent. The intensity was on another level. We all worked so hard over the summer, there was no way we were going to go 1-9 again. It wasn’t possible with how hard we worked.”

By mid-October, the Wolfpack were 6-1 with rising playoff hopes. His new team had come so far in six months. Football began to mean something again to his players, his school and his community. They had support. Fans showed up. Faculty showed up. His players believed in him, but more than that, they started to believe in themselves.

Surely, he is happy now. So you ask: Are you happy now?

May pauses. He has no idea what to say.

MAY GREW UP in Logan, West Virginia, and spent 19 years at Hurricane High in Hurricane, West Virginia, including eight as head coach, taking one team after another to the playoffs. He had just gotten the program a new turf field in 2011, expecting to finish his career there and retire.

But his wife got a job offer in South Florida that would greatly increase her pay and responsibility. They hated to move, but believed it was in their best interest. So the Mays and their three sons left for Florida, not quite knowing what to expect. May interviewed at a few high schools in the Fort Lauderdale area, but someone told him he ought to check out Stoneman Douglas because its coach was from West Virginia, too.

May liked the school. He believed it was safe and the best fit for his family. He signed on to be an assistant for the 2012 season, and his middle son earned a spot on the football team. But after the season, then-Stoneman Douglas athletic director Mitch Kaufman replaced coach Rick DiVita with May.

That was how and why a self-described country boy from West Virginia found himself locked in his office in Parkland six years later. May had helped stabilize the football program, going 28-21, but there was still work to do to chase down an elusive playoff spot. He thought they were getting closer. Plus, he was happy. Two of his sons were coaching with him.

His brother Gary would drive from his home in Fort Myers on Thursdays to help him paint the field for home games. His parents would drive from Fort Myers on Fridays for every game. May preached family to every team he coached. Stoneman Douglas was family now. Stoneman Douglas was home. He never wanted to leave.

May was hosting college recruiters on Feb. 14 when a former student walked onto the Stoneman Douglas campus with a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire. May heard someone mention the sound of firecrackers on his walkie-talkie before the school went on lockdown. May locked everyone inside his office and sent a text message to Feis, a school security guard, assistant football coach and his best friend.

Feeling restless and helpless, May left the office to check the closest hallway. He heard faraway shots. Then the SWAT team told him to get down. Shortly after, as the school was being evacuated, one of his players ran up to him.

“Coach Feis is dead!”

May refused to believe it. He walked off the school grounds and stood at a gate along the perimeter. He saw a sheriff’s officer who was the father of another player. May said, “Tell me the truth. Is Aaron dead?”


Feis was the first person May met at Stoneman Douglas, and they formed a tight bond. Every morning, Feis would give May a ride on his golf cart from the parking lot to their office on the other side of campus. Their desks were next to each other. Chances are if you spotted May on the football field, Feis was not far away.

In the weeks and months that passed, nothing felt normal, no matter how much May wanted them to be normal. He lived in suspended reality. One night, he saw the door to Hixon’s office open and thought for a brief moment that his old friend was about to walk out the door to tell him something.

It was the janitor.

May had to remind himself all over again that his friends were gone.

You start to question your sanity in these moments, maybe more than the hows and the whys and the unfairness of it all. Yet as hard as it was for May to grapple with the tragedy and loss, he knew it was far harder for his young players. May vowed to keep his players together, no matter the cost to his own health.

As the new school year rolled around, the shooting became such a divisive issue, lines were drawn and no one could talk freely about how they felt. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission was set up. Investigations were launched. Lawsuits were filed. Douglas was under a microscope, and nobody knew who was in charge. By November, three assistant principals and a security specialist were reassigned, and Broward County Sherriff’s deputy and school resource officer Scot Peterson resigned amid furor that he did nothing to mitigate the attack. (He was later charged with 11 counts of felony neglect of a child, culpable negligence and perjury. He has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending.).

The incoming freshmen could not possibly conceive what their older classmates had been through, and the callousness among some devastated others.

A book thudding to the ground set off waves of panic. May saw this post-traumatic stress reaction in his players earlier in the spring, when he took them on a visit to Florida Atlantic football practice. The pop of a nail gun from a construction worker in the football facility lobby sent them crouching to the floor, looking for cover.

A woman standing near them turned to May with a puzzled look on her face.

“We’re from Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” he said.

She started bawling.

No matter how the students at Stoneman Douglas dealt with the tragedy individually, May wanted them to have something to collectively cheer — their football team. May and his players dedicated their season to the 17 people who died, putting the number inside the Eagles logo on their helmets. He made an acronym out of Feis: “Fearless, Emotion, Intensity and Sacrifice.”

Every day at practice, May reminded his players they were strong, and if there was one thing they would always have, it was their football family. But the toll of the tragedy weighed on May. Every day on the way to his office, he walked past the spot where Feis was murdered. He walked past the now-empty building where students were murdered. Every day inside his office, he stared at the empty desk next to his, and the empty office on the other side. Every Friday before their games, another well-meaning school would offer their own prayers and tributes, stirring up a blizzard of emotions all over again.

He pushed it all away, feeling as if he had no choice but to keep going — for the players, their season and for Feis. He didn’t want to be the one to pull them apart. So he kept coaching. After a disappointing 5-5 season ended, he took stock of the preceding nine months. He loved his players dearly, but he hated going to work. Some days, the campus felt like a prison. The guilt made being inside the school even worse. He should have run out to help Aaron, he told himself over and over. Why didn’t he just ignore the lockdown and run out to help him?

“He couldn’t save Chris, and he couldn’t save Aaron, he couldn’t save anyone, so I think he felt like it was his duty to help the players through all of their firsts,” says Mandy Goodman, who runs the Stoneman Douglas and South Fort Myers Booster Clubs. “The first day, the first football game, the first anniversary, I think he pushed himself probably to his own mental and emotional detriment to get the kids and the program through all that.

“Something clicked with him after the first anniversary. Once he got these kids through all their firsts, I think he gave himself permission to breathe and to grieve.”

GARY MAY WAS the first to tell his brother that the South Fort Myers job was open. So Willis got his resume together and sent it, not knowing what to expect or whether he really wanted to leave.

South Fort Myers principal Ed Mathews, a former football player himself on the very first Florida Atlantic football team, was intrigued. He, Harris, bookkeeper Kenny Revels and a student on the search committee crowded into Mathews’ office for the initial phone call with May.

“As he got on the phone and we started talking to him, we all looked at each other, like …” Mathews pauses, nodding his head and smiling, recreating the collective reaction. “You could feel the passion. It was an emotional connection.”

Mathews joined South Fort Myers in 2016 in the wake of a sex scandal that had impacted both the school and football program. A 15-year-old girl and multiple male students, including football players, had sex in a school bathroom after dismissal, and videos of the encounter later circulated on social media. Sixteen students received suspensions, one student was charged with cruelty to a child and possession of obscene material, and the school district launched an investigation. The principal was reassigned, and Mathews was named to the position. Ultimately, head football coach Anthony Dixon was suspended without pay before being reassigned to another school, and an assistant lost his job on the football staff.

Mathews needed to restore discipline and accountability, as well as student, parental and community pride in the school itself — in addition to reshaping its outside perception. He made himself a visible presence on campus and knew when it came time to filling the football opening, he needed someone as committed to the students as himself.

Mathews invited May to campus for a visit to look around the school. He asked the football team to gather in the auditorium to meet him. May told them a little about himself and sold them on his vision: They would be a family, and they would work hard and represent their school with pride and they would absolutely win again.

He brought a passion and intensity that the players responded to right away. Afterward, a player walked up to May and said, “Coach, I hope you come and be our coach because this is all I’ve got.”

Mathews wanted to hire him, but May was torn. He was miserable at Stoneman Douglas, but he always put his players first. Should he take care of himself, or to take care of the Stoneman Douglas students who still needed him? As he walked out of the school, his phone rang. It was his dad.

“What did you think?” Willis May Sr. asked.

May told him he loved the school and believed the players had a drive to win, and he could be happy there.

Without missing a beat, his dad asked, “Can I come to practice every day?”

May had his answer. But it was not easy. He would have to go back to Stoneman Douglas and tell his players he was leaving. May made sure his defensive coordinator, Quentin Short, would get promoted to head coach. His players knew Short, and they trusted him.

“It wasn’t a normal ‘coach taking another job’ type deal,” Short says. “There were no hard feelings from anyone. Everyone completely understood. I’m glad he felt like it was in good hands leaving it with me. He did such a great job building this program. I hope that the move made it easier for him, as far as recovering.”

Though May believed his departure would be better for the program and the players, explaining this to teenage boys, still reeling from tragedy, spurred a new wave of guilt.

“They didn’t take it well,” May says. “I’ve always tried to make my teams be like family, us against the world, and they felt like I was leaving them. I was leaving them out to dry. I wasn’t sticking to my word. I was going against what I preached all the time, and that bothered me. I said, ‘I can’t take it anymore, and it’s not you all.’ They knew I was miserable. They knew I missed Aaron, they knew I missed Chris.

“I didn’t want to be sad no more. I didn’t want to feel like I was constantly at a funeral every day. Most everybody’s gone. They got a new administration, a lot of the teachers left because maybe they felt the same way I did, and I felt sorry for the kids. They’re making the best of it. In four years when those freshmen are gone, maybe it will be better. I don’t know.”

“He didn’t abandon these kids,” Goodman says adamantly. “He gave them everything he had and then some. Have they felt that way? Probably, but they’re teenagers. He presents himself as 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I think when you get down to it, the kids didn’t know how to articulate, ‘Oh man. Our superhero’s human, too.'”

Like every superhero, May wants to be the one to save the day. It’s why he’s in Fort Myers now. It’s why he still has so much guilt. It’s why he tells his coaches, his players, his parents, his wife, everybody who knows him that he already has a plan if he’s ever in the same situation.

He might have left Stoneman Douglas, but he left it for another high school. He might have stopped thinking about the shooting every day, but he also knows each day he goes to work, someone could get into the building with a gun and open fire.

“No school is safe,” May says. “It can happen in the blink of an eye anywhere, I don’t care what you do. I don’t care if you’ve got 10-foot-high fences all the way around it. If they want in, they will find a way to get in.

“And if I know something like that’s going down, I mean it with all my heart, I will kill them or they will kill me. But I won’t live through that again.

“I won’t.”

THE CROWD SLOWLY trickles in for the Friday night home game against North Fort Myers. Rain is expected. Up in the bleachers, the May family sets up camp. So do Short and Goodman, who were free to make the two-hour drive from South Florida because Stoneman Douglas played Thursday night.

South Fort Myers faculty can go on the track around the field to watch games. Tim Greenwell, a welding instructor, stands with his rainbow umbrella. “I can’t say enough about Coach May,” he says. “He’s made such a huge difference in such a short time.”

South Fort Myers takes the lead into halftime, but too many second-half mistakes doom them. May sees old habits creep back in again, all mental. As soon as they hit a patch of adversity, his players let one bad play bleed into the next. Though South Fort Myers loses, they never give up, and May refuses to be upset. He gathers his players on the field after the game. He tells them he loves their fight, and they will see when they watch the tape how close they came to winning. The little mistakes will bother them. He reminds them they are still in the playoff mix, too, but to get there they have to remember one thing:

“It ain’t one. It’s all,” he says. “They break their huddle with “Family!”

It has taken some time for May to reach the point of living those words here. At first, he stayed mostly to himself. He rarely spoke, and nobody asked him about what happened at Stoneman Douglas. They figured he wanted to leave all that behind. Working with assistant coaches he hardly knew, May often took over drills or ran practice on his own.

His assistants have wondered, “What is he doing?” Defensive coordinator Matt Holderfield, who led the team to a 9-2 record as interim coach in 2016, finally decided to say something.

“I called him and said, ‘You’ve got to quit being down on yourself,'” Holderfield says. “‘You have to understand we’re going to take care of all this.’ I think he needed somebody to say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It was almost like hugging him without hugging him.”

May has dropped his guard some. He smiles more. Laughs a little more. Winning helps. But after the North Fort Myers loss, the Wolfpack’s playoff prospects were nearly gone. On the final Friday of the regular season, South Fort Myers needed a win, and it needed Barron Collier to lose.

Players heard a score update on the loudspeaker while they were on the field in their own game — Barron Collier was up big at halftime. Some of them prayed. Fortunes changed. Barron Collier lost. South Fort Myers won. On Saturday, the playoff field was announced: at 7-3, South Fort Myers pulled a stunner, taking the final at-large spot in its region.

“I was cutting my lawn when coach texted me. I almost drove into a ditch,” guard Isaiah Hood says. “My uncle comes outside and starts screaming, ‘What are you doing?’ So I scream back, ‘We’re going to the playoffs!'”

May went all out to reward his players. He and his staff catered a pregame barbeque. They chartered buses for the 40-minute ride over to play Naples High. May wanted them to understand that making the playoffs was special, and far different from taking a yellow school bus to a game.

“The second we stepped on the field in Naples, it was a whole new feeling, something I never felt before playing football,” Bond says.

On the very same Friday, at the very same time, on the other side of Florida, Stoneman Douglas kicked off its playoff game against Miami High. Short had led Stoneman Douglas to an 8-1 regular-season record, its first district title in 18 years and its first playoff appearance since 2007.

You could say May helped two teams make the playoffs.

“It was meant to be,” May says. “It was perfect for everybody. I’m very proud of them, proud of what they accomplished and proud of what we did. I wanted to come in and set the world on fire and have everybody accept me and think I did a good job and I was a hard worker, and man, we’re going to turn this place around.”

Both Stoneman Douglas and South Fort Myers lost their playoff games, but that didn’t outweigh their accomplishments.

In December, May put on an elaborate banquet for his team that players described as unforgettable. He gave shadowboxes to the seniors with pictures from the season, and dog tags to his players with their names and numbers, and the phrase, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf.” They received blankets and new T-shirts that simply said “FAMILY” across the front. The next day at school, players proudly wore their new shirts.

“When he first came in the room talking about changes he was going to make, Coach May fulfilled his prophecy,” receiver Joel Rene says. “He made us believe that we could do anything.”

After the season, May moved on to his next priority: getting his players recruited. He has worked hard to emphasize academics and the SAT. No grades and no test score would mean no scholarship possibilities. Since his arrival, nearly every player has made significant academic gains, and several received offers they did not have previously.

“You asked me if I was happy,” May says. “I’m happy. There’s a lot of potential, and I love coming to work because we’re getting better. I’m getting better.

“I’m healing, having this to work on. It allows me to set my mind on something that needs me. I’ve got things I want to accomplish here, people to make proud here, to do right by here.”

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Tim Tebow says he’s had conversations with XFL but wants to keep playing baseball

Tim Tebow doesn’t seem very eager to put the football pads back on, even if there’s apparently some interest. Instead, he wants to continue his pursuit of a career in professional baseball.

The former Heisman winner and NFL first-round pick reported to New York Mets‘ Spring Training this week and spoke to the media for the first time on Sunday. The quarterback-turned-outfielder revealed that he’s received some interest from the XFL and has “had communication” about a possible return to the football field, but those conversations haven’t gone anywhere substantial because Tebow is still committed to baseball.

“Yeah there was some communication,” Tebow said, via SNY. “We had a couple conversations… I love what they’re doing, and I think it has a chance to have success, and I think that’s great.

“I think there needs to be a place for a lot of players that are really good, and should and could be playing in the NFL, and are better than a lot of NFL players. There’s a chance they’re going to be seen. So I think it’s awesome, and I think it’s good for a lot of guys that are going to get a spot on an NFL roster because they’re going to show a team they’re worth it. But for me, this is what I wanted to do and pursue it, and be all in.”

Tebow, 32, hasn’t played professional football since his NFL career came to a halt in 2015. After his gridiron dreams flamed out, Tebow decided to pursue a career in baseball and has been with the Mets organization since 2016. He has played with the organization’s minor league affiliates and has made it as far as Triple-A. 

Though he’s getting older and has yet to crack the majors, Tebow isn’t giving up the diamond dream. On Sunday, he gave a very thoughtful answer to a question about the doubt and adversity he has faced over the past few years.

The XFL is currently in its second week of action since being revived and the league has received plenty of positive reviews through its first couple of weekends, including some praise from Tebow. But it seems that we shouldn’t be expecting to see the former Gators quarterback to line up under center for any of the league’s eight teams anytime soon.

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Texans’ J.J. Watt marries soccer player Kealia Ohai

Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt married Chicago Red Stars midfielder Kealia Ohai in the Bahamas on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, he posted several photos and tweeted, “Best day of my life. Without question.”

The pair were introduced by former Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who is married to Ohai’s sister. Cushing is now the Texans’ assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Watt and Ohai got engaged in May 2019.

Ohai was drafted by the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2014 but was traded to Chicago in January. Ohai, 27, has made three appearances for the U.S. women’s national team. Watt will turn 31 next month.

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Vanderbilt athletic director Malcom Turner resigns, Candice Storey Lee steps in to make history

Vanderbilt athletic director Malcom Turner has resigned after just over a year on the job, the school announced in a release on Tuesday. He will be replaced on an interim basis by Candice Storey Lee, who makes significant history as the first African American woman to lead an SEC athletics department as well as serving as the first female to helm the position at the school. Lee previously held the position of Turner’s deputy athletic director. The former Vanderbilt women’s basketball player holds three degrees from the university, including a doctorate in higher education administration.

“Candice embodies the Vanderbilt Way, which is our commitment to ensuring that student-athletes excel on the field of play, academically and in life,” Vanderbilt interim chancellor Susan Wente said in the release. “Candice is a trailblazer. Her unparalleled work ethic, energy and vision, and steadfast commitment to the Commodore family, will only build on our momentum.”

Lee’s appointment to the lead role within the university’s athletic department follows a year in which Turner made several major, somewhat controversial decisions after being hired away from his role as president of the NBA G-League to serve as an athletic director for the first time in his career. Turner decided to retain football coach Derek Mason after the Commodores finished the 2019 season 3-9 (1-7 SEC) in Mason’s sixth season on the job. He also hired former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse as Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball coach. Before he could make that move, Turner had to fire Stackhouse’s predecessor, Bryce Drew, after just three seasons. That decision was made easier after the Commodores finished the 2018-19 season with an 0-18 record in SEC play.

“In a year of change and transition, it’s been a privilege to be a Commodore and witness firsthand the transformative power of the intersection of higher education and athletics,” Turner said. “Vanderbilt Athletics has accomplished a great deal during my time at Vanderbilt, and the university’s athletics program and student-athletes are poised for future success. However, at the onset of this next critical phase of key athletics initiatives and after considering certain family commitments important to me, I have elected to pursue new opportunities. I fully support what will surely be an exciting next chapter for Vanderbilt athletics and wish the entire Vanderbilt family the very best going forward. Thank you.”

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Preseason SP+ college football rankings — Alabama back at No. 1

Each offseason, after the recruiting season has been finalized and the first major wave of transfer portal entries has come and gone, I publish preliminary SP+ ratings for the coming season. I base these projections on three primary factors, weighted by their predictiveness:

1. Returning production. Last week we published my initial returning production rankings for 2020, based on players graduating, leaving for the pros, transferring, etc. Estimating improvement or regression based on these percentages and applying it to last year’s SP+ ratings accounts for more than 50% of the overall numbers below.

2. Recent recruiting. After determining how much of last year’s team is being brought back, the next step is to determine the caliber of the players who will be filling in the missing returning production. To do that, I use a weighted mix of recent recruiting rankings. They primarily pull from the past two recruiting classes, but I have begun to incorporate older classes as well, to a lesser degree. No matter what the “stars don’t matter” crowd will tell you, recruiting rankings are extremely predictive, and these projections are more effective because of them.

3. Recent history. While last year’s SP+ ratings are taken into account with the returning production estimates above, I’ve found that involving previous years’ performances as well gives us a nice way of estimating overall program health. It stands to reason that a team that has played well for one year is less likely to duplicate that effort than a team that has been good for years on end (and vice versa), right? Recent history accounts for less than 10% of the overall projections; it is a minor factor, but the projections are better with it than without.

Using this mix for last year’s projections was incredibly effective, as evidenced by SP+’s 58% performance against the spread in the first five weeks of last season. Hopefully this year’s will be as effective.

I will update these numbers in August, once further transfers, injuries and more can be taken into account. But here are the estimates to date.

A reminder on SP+: It’s a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. I created the system at Football Outsiders in 2008, and as my experience with both college football and its stats has grown, I have made quite a few tweaks to the system. SP+ is intended to be predictive and forward-facing. That is important to remember. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling — no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you’re lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you’re strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.

Note: In-season, SP+ also takes special teams into account. But I have not yet established a solid way to project special teams ratings, so for these projections it is assumed that everyone’s ST rating is 0.0.

SP+ vs. conventional wisdom

For the most part, these projections match up reasonably well with our offseason assumptions. Sure, you might have the top three teams in a different order, but you still probably have Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson in your top three, or very close to it. Meanwhile, the presence of LSU, Georgia, Florida, and Oklahoma, in some order, near the top feels about right, too.

Still, SP+ offers some differences in opinion. Using Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early 2020 Top 25 as our guide, here are some of the teams for which the stats and eyeballs might be in a little bit of disagreement.

No. 1 Alabama

Schlabach ranking: No. 3

I was expecting Ohio State and Clemson as the top two teams here, and you probably were, too. But the injury that defined Bama’s 2019 season helped boost its 2020 odds. Losing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to injury for four late games meant that backup Mac Jones got an extended audition in the starting role, and he looked mostly great. He produced a better passer rating against Auburn than LSU’s Joe Burrow and a better rating against Michigan than Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

Because the Tide return Jones’ 1,503 passing yards (plus 100 more from Taulia Tagovailoa) — not to mention the contributions of receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, running back Najee Harris, most of the offensive line, and most of the defensive front seven — they boast a better returning production ranking (88th) than Ohio State (93rd), Clemson (96th), LSU (127th), etc.

That, combined with consistently elite recruiting and performance (the Tide haven’t finished lower than third in SP+ since 2008), pushed Bama to the top. Disagree if you want, but allow this to be a reminder that Nick Saban’s run of greatness in Tuscaloosa probably isn’t over.

No. 5 Penn State and No. 9 Wisconsin

Schlabach rankings: Nos. 9 and 14, respectively

Most people view Penn State as a potential top-10 team for sure, but James Franklin’s Nittany Lions stole a top-five slot primarily because of experience. They return starting quarterback Sean Clifford, their top three running backs, four of their top six receiving targets, and six offensive linemen with at least 250 snaps in 2019. Plus, while they have to replace a few disruptors in the defensive front seven, the secondary — by far the most important unit on your defense from a returning production perspective — is deep and seasoned.

Wisconsin might be a bit higher than expected, too, benefiting from the fact that losing rushing production (like Jonathan Taylor‘s 2,000 yards) doesn’t hurt you that much in the returning production formula. That, and look at the defense the Badgers are returning. They ranked 14th in defensive SP+ last year and are currently slated to bring back every defensive back, every defensive lineman, and four of their top six linebackers. That bumps them to a No. 4 projection on defense.

No. 13 Oregon and No. 15 USC

Schlabach rankings: Nos. 5 and NR, respectively

The narrative early this offseason is that the Pac-12 race is Oregon vs. the field. Mario Cristobal’s recruiting is strong, and the Ducks are the defending conference champions.

SP+ never got fully on board with the 2019 Ducks, however. They finished just 15th thanks to inconsistency on both sides of the ball, and now they have to replace not only star quarterback Justin Herbert, but also five of their top six offensive linemen. The defense is deep and experienced and is projected to leap into the top five in defensive SP+. The offense, however, is projected 51st.

(Cristobal potentially made an offensive coordinator upgrade in bringing in Joe Moorhead, but that’s not something the numbers take into account.)

Oregon is still the top-ranked Pac-12 team, but only by two points because of what USC brings back offensively.

USC often gets overhyped because of typically great recruiting rankings, but SP+ likes the Trojans despite their recruiting, which barely ranks at a top-40 level thanks to a dud class in 2020.

But coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense improved dramatically last year and returns quarterback Kedon Slovis, three of four primary WRs and virtually every running back. Plus, for what it’s worth, 14 of the 16 defenders who logged at least 13 tackles last year (note: I count assists as 0.5 tackles) are back as well, virtually guaranteeing improvement there.

No. 14 Texas and No. 25 Nebraska

Schlabach rankings: No. 24 and NR, respectively

Numbers and conventional wisdom agree most of the time, but there’s no question that, like the people who design them, systems like SP+ can have an anti-social streak.

SP+ was adamant that both Texas and Nebraska would drastically struggle to meet the hype they brought into 2019. Tom Herman’s Longhorns began the season 10th in the preseason AP poll, and despite eight wins in two years, Nebraska began the season 24th. SP+, instead, ranked them both outside the top 30 and projected 14 wins between them. They won 13.

That was last year, however. This time around, the Horns and Huskers might be … gasp … underrated? Texas just signed another elite recruiting class and, more importantly for SP+’s purposes, brings back quarterback Sam Ehlinger and a defense with infinitely more experience, especially in the secondary. Nebraska returns almost everyone on offense and is projected to make a major leap there. Defense could still hold the Huskers back, but they’re experienced in the secondary, at least.

Evidently 2020 is going to be the year 2019 was supposed to be for these two once-mighty programs.

No. 18 UCF and No. 34 Cincinnati

Schlabach rankings: NR and No. 17, respectively

That Cincinnati retained head coach Luke Fickell despite major overtures from Michigan State was a massive offseason victory. The Bearcats could enjoy top-20 hype heading into 2020 but might struggle to clear a high bar for two main reasons:

1. Offense. UC has improved in this regard for each of the past two years but only incrementally. The Bearcats finished 65th in offensive SP+ last year and are projected to rise to only 57th this time. That could hold back what might be an incredible defense.

2. UCF. Josh Heupel’s Knights got a dose of bad close-game fortune for the first time in years last fall, losing three games by a combined seven points. They finished as high as ever in SP+, though, and now they bring back quarterback Dillon Gabriel and a massively experienced defense. (They might also have quarterback McKenzie Milton, whose recovery from a gruesome 2018 knee injury is still ongoing.) UCF will begin the season as the top-ranked Group of 5 team.

No. 21 Oklahoma State, No. 30 Iowa State, No. 33 Baylor

Schlabach rankings: Nos. 16, 20 and 13, respectively

While SP+ is extremely high on Texas for a change, it’s not nearly as bullish on the other major contenders for the No. 2 spot in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma. It ranks Oklahoma State five spots lower than Schlabach does, ISU 10 spots lower and Baylor 20 spots lower. The major reasons why:

  • Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy’s Pokes are dragged down in part by iffy recent recruiting rankings (No. 41 per my weighted average). They’re still 21st, though, and less than two points away from 18th.

  • Iowa State: If returning production and last year’s SP+ rating were the only factors in these projections, Matt Campbell’s Cyclones would nearly be a top-20 team. But the Cyclones are recruiting at a barely top-50 level, and while they’ve improved in SP+ every year under Campbell, they still have only one top-35 performance on their track record. SP+ is slow to warm to teams like this.

  • Baylor: Granted, Schlabach’s No. 13 ranking came before head coach Matt Rhule’s NFL departure. It probably wouldn’t have been as high with that taken into account. SP+ doesn’t do anything with coaching changes but still has major doubts about the Bears, who have to replace four of five linemen, three of four linebackers and four of five DBs from a top-20 defense.

No. 23 Miami

Schlabach ranking: NR

SP+ seemed to have a strange crush on Manny Diaz’s Hurricanes last year, continuing to rank them in the top 30 no matter how many unlikely ways they found to lose football games. A combination of bad breaks and bad offense led to a 6-7 finish, and while Diaz can’t do much about the former, he addressed the latter by bringing in not only a new offensive coordinator (Rhett Lashlee) but also Houston quarterback D’Eriq King.

The U also brings back five of its top seven receivers and basically every offensive lineman. The defensive front seven will need a lot of new contributors to step up (the addition of star Temple end Quincy Roche will help), but the secondary is seasoned, at least, and there aren’t usually many reasons to doubt a Diaz defense.

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Mason Rudolph, Mike Tomlin respond to Myles Garrett’s latest slur allegations as agents hint at legal action

Now fully reinstated to the NFL, Myles Garrett says he wants to move on from the incident that landed him an indefinite suspension by the league in 2019, when he swung a helmet at the head of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. The move sparked a full-on brawl between the two teams that led to 33 suspensions and more than $700,000 in fines being handed down by Roger Goodell, and Garrett not-so-surprisingly bore the brunt of the commissioner’s wrath. 

Initially, both Garrett and the Cleveland Browns issued formal apologies to Rudolph and the Steelers, which were undercut by subsequent accusations by Garrett that Rudolph used a racial slur toward him, which he allegedly reacted to with his helmet. The league cited no witnesses who could back Garrett’s claim, but that hasn’t stopped him from doubling down on it following his reinstatement.

In an interview with Mina Kimes of ESPN, Garrett continued his allegations against Rudolph. The Steelers quarterback issued a response, labeling it a character assassination attempt.

Rudolph wasn’t the only one to issue a formal statement, with head coach Mike Tomlin doing so as well and, in the process, providing more insight into what occurred the evening of Nov. 14.

“I support Mason Rudolph not only because I know him, but also because I was on that field immediately following the altercation with Myles Garrett, and subsequently after the game,” Tomlin said. “I interacted with a lot of people in the Cleveland Browns organization — players and coaches. If Mason said what Myles claimed, it would have come out during the many interactions I had with those in the Browns’ organization. In my conversations, I had a lot of expressions of sorrow for what transpired. 

“I received no indication of anything racial or anything of that nature in those interactions.”

The most fiery response came from Rudolph’s agents, Younger & Associates, who stopped just short of promising legal action against Garrett.

“We waited to hear the entire interview. Garrett, after originally apologizing to Mason Rudolph, has made the ill-advised choice of publishing the belated and false accusation that Mr. Rudolph uttered a racial slur on the night in question. Note that Mr. Garrett claims that Mr. Rudolph uttered the slur simultaneously with being taken down, and before Mr. Garrett committed a battery by striking Mr. Rudolph on the head with a six-pound helmet. His claim is ludicrous. 

“This obviously was not the first time Mr. Rudolph had been sacked by an African-American player. Mr. Garrett maliciously uses this false allegation to coax sympathy, hoping to be excused for what clearly is inexcusable behavior. Despite other players and the referee being in the immediate vicinity, there are zero corroborating witnesses — as confirmed by the NFL. Although Mr. Rudolph had hoped to move forward, it is Mr. Garrett who has decided to utter this defamatory statement — in California. 

“He is now exposed to legal liability.”

The NFL as a whole, and especially the two clubs involved, had presumably hoped to move past the event as both sides ready to begin building for the 2020 season. And while a reinstated Garrett openly says he wants the same, his comments have now thrust the details of Nov. 14 back onto center stage, and Rudolph — along with his representation and the Steelers organization — refuse to stand by idly and allow the accusations to continue without response or possible consequence.

Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess, but Rudolph’s legal team is now involved and words like “defamatory” and “legal liability” being tossed around appear to set the stage for what could be a looming court battle.

If that happens, one of the darkest days in NFL history will become that much more so.

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Josh Norman ready for ‘something new and fresh’ after Redskins release

ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Redskins have released cornerback Josh Norman, the team announced Friday.

“It’s their choice, not mine,” Norman told NBC Sports Washington on Friday. “Now I can start something new and fresh.”

Norman said new Redskins coach Ron Rivera, who coached the cornerback in Carolina, called him Friday morning to inform him of the release.

The move will save the Redskins $12.5 million in cap space, money that could be used in part to sign another cornerback. The move was widely expected, even though Washington hired Rivera after the season. Norman’s best work came in Carolina, where he was named a first-team All-Pro after the 2015 season.

That honor coincided with Norman’s first venture into free agency. After the Panthers rescinded the franchise tag they had placed on Norman, he quickly signed a five-year deal with Washington worth up to $75 million, making him the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback.

Norman intercepted seven passes and forced eight fumbles in his four seasons, but he didn’t provide the game-changing plays that he did in his final season with the Panthers. That season, he intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns, and forced three fumbles as Carolina reached the Super Bowl.

He often was on the wrong end of some long receptions with Washington, though there were times when he anticipated safety help that didn’t come. He also was asked to play different styles than what made him successful in Carolina, where he played a lot of cover-2 zone.

Washington benched Norman late last season. He played in only two games, covering 10 snaps, over the final six games. In another game, his only work was two special-teams snaps. Even as the Redskins needed to sign other cornerbacks off the street, they held firm to not playing Norman.

Washington also has a decision to make on starting cornerback Quinton Dunbar, who is seeking a new contract. A source close to Dunbar said he wants to be traded or released if he doesn’t get a new deal and that he won’t negotiate after training camp begins.

Dunbar, who has missed a combined 14 games the past two years because of injuries, has a base salary of $3.25 million this season, none of which is guaranteed. He was set to meet with Rivera about his situation.

The Redskins also released receiver Paul Richardson, which will save them $2.5 million against the salary cap — but he’ll count $6 million in dead cap space.

Washington signed him two years ago, but he ended both seasons on injured reserve after initially playing through the injuries.

He caught 48 passes for 507 yards and four touchdowns in 17 games with Washington. A source had previously told ESPN that Washington was intent on finding another starting receiver to play opposite Terry McLaurin, making it clear the team would move on from Richardson.

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College football recruiting: 2020 National Signing Day key announcement times, predictions, picks

The first Wednesday in February looks a lot different than it has in the past. Once a day filled with frenetic activity, a grand culmination of years of work that could alter the future of a football program, it is now roughly 25 percent of itself. That’s because the early signing period has arrived to scoop up roughly 75 percent of FBS signees off the market.

The monsoon of action may be gone but scattered thunderstorms of drama remain. In addition to a host of uncommitted four-star prospects and some committed prospects with decisions to finalize, there’s also the race for a No. 1 recruiting class and some final statement recruiting battles to sort out. Here’s a primer to get you through the busy day.

The Storylines

The big picture storyline to watch is a student versus teacher battle for the No. 1 class in the country. Kirby Smart enters the day with the No. 1 class, and it is possible that Georgia can finish the day in that spot. But if it doesn’t, it will be Smart’s former boss in Nick Saban that tops him. That swap will likely boil down to whether Alabama can land four-star defensive lineman McKinnley Jackson. (More on that later.)

The highest-ranked uncommitted prospect is five-star running back Zachary Evans, but we expect Evans to skip out on signing day altogether and bypass making any public decisions after already signing in the December period with Georgia and then backing out of that decision. He wouldn’t be able to sign a second letter of intent regardless, but more visits may come in March and a decision doesn’t appear to be imminent.

So where will the surprises come from? Committed prospects like Jordan Burch (South Carolina), Broderick Jones (Georgia), Sedrick Van Pran (Georgia), Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech) and Ashaad Clayton (Colorado) are all generally expected to stick with their current pledges, but there’s a reason none of them have signed a letter of intent yet. It’s a surprise for a reason.

The Announcements

All times Eastern and subject to change

  • 9 a.m. — Three-star CB Ennis Rakestraw: A senior riser that emerged as a priority target for some heavyweights late, Rakestraw took official visits to Alabama, Missouri and Texas in January with the in-state Texas visit coming most recently.
  • 9:30 a.m. — Four-star WR Savion Williams: TCU will be looking to add one of the top uncommitted wide receivers in the second signing period with SMU, Arkansas and Texas all heavily involved in January.
  • 10 a.m. — Five-star OT Broderick Jones: A Georgia commit who didn’t sign in December, Jones appeared to be deciding between Georgia and Auburn before cancelling an Auburn official visit last weekend and now Georgia appears to be optimistic he sticks.
  • 10:30 a.m — Four-star DT McKinnley Jackson: A commitment that is likely to decide the No. 1 class, Texas A&M and Alabama appear to be the most likely landing spots for the Mississippi native.
  • 12:30 p.m. — Four-star DB Avantae Williams: A one-time Oregon commit, Florida appears to be the favorite over Miami down the homestretch.
  • 1 p.m. — Five-star DT Jordan Burch: South Carolina, where Burtch is committed, has been forced to sweat after Burch declined signing his letter of intent during his December commitment ceremony. After a January official visit for LSU, the Gamecocks seem to be poised to hang on.
  • 1 p.m. – Four-star WR Malachi Wideman: One of the top remaining targets for Mike Norvell at Florida State, the two-sport star that excels on the basketball court — and who is already committed to the Seminoles — has been seriously considering Ole Miss and Tennessee and also took a visit to Oregon.
  • 3 p.m. – Four-star QB Malik Hornsby: Arkansas and Baylor have been battling for one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the Class of 2020 with the 247Sports Crystal Ball currently favoring Sam Pittman’s Razorbacks.
  • 3:20 p.m. – Four-star DE Princely Umanmielen: After January official visits to Florida and Texas, the big-bodied defensive lineman is also considering Baylor. This would be a big win for Dave Aranda, but Florida appears to be pushing hard.
  • 4:50 p.m. – Four-star DL Alfred Collins: After a monster senior season, Collins’ recruitment narrowed into a race between Alabama, Oklahoma and the in-state program Texas.
  • Check out the full list of announcements this week from 247Sports.

The Predictions

There are eight prospects inside the national top 100, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, that have let uncertainty linger ahead of their final decisions. One of those, Evans, is unlikely to make any decision at all. For the other seven, here are my predictions a day before the action hits.

  • Five-star DT Jordan Burch (South Carolina commit): An unofficial visit last weekend to South Carolina and the long-term comfort level at the home-town school wins out over LSU. Pick: South Carolina
  • Five-star OT Broderick Jones (Georgia commit): Georgia has had Jones committed for more than a year. After OL coach Sam Pittman’s departure caused some uncertainty things seem to have settled back down. Pick: Georgia
  • Four-star DB Avantae Williams: Dan Mullen will get a big win in the Sunshine State and stretches his lead as the clear winner in that important battleground state. Pick: Florida
  • Four-star C Sedrick Van Pran (Georgia commit): Despite official visits in January to Alabama and Florida, Georgia hangs on to the Louisiana native. Pick: Georgia
  • Four-star DT McKinnley Jackson: This is a toss-up and if I could, I’d wait to make the pick until the morning of signing day. Who knows what persuasive phone calls may be coming tonight. Texas A&M and Alabama are both confident. Pick: Alabama
  • Four-star DE Alfred Collins: Texas is going to make a splash, and big Alfred will be a reason why. The Texas legacy sticks with the Longhorns. Pick: Texas
  • Four-star RB Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech commit): Despite some of the heaviest of heavy weights giving chase, Gibbs sticks with his initial pledge to Geoff Collins. Pick: Georgia Tech
  • Check out the latest Crystal Ball predictions for every Class of 2020 prospect from 247Sports.

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Ex-Badgers WR Marcus Randle El charged in double homicide

CHICAGO — A former Wisconsin football player who is the younger brother of a standout in Super Bowl XL surrendered to Chicago police on Saturday in connection with the deaths of two people who were found with gunshot wounds on a road in Janesville, Wisconsin.

Marcus Randle El, 33, turned himself in Saturday afternoon and was charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, Janesville Lt. Charles Aagaard said at a news conference. Officers from the department were in Chicago during the surrender, he said.

A motorist found 30-year-old Seairaha Winchester and 27-year-old Brittany McAdory suffering from multiple gunshot wounds early Monday afternoon. They were taken to a hospital, where they were pronounced dead. Randle El was accused of taking their SUV, which was found in Justice, Illinois, about 30 miles northwest of Randle El’s hometown of Homewood, Illinois.

Randle El’s brother Antwaan Randle El was a star quarterback at Indiana and spent nine years in the NFL, including as a receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, starring in their Super Bowl victory to cap the 2005 season. He is currently a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ coaching staff.

Aagaard said video from early that morning at the T.A. Express gas station showed the two victims leaving in the SUV. He said the investigation turned up evidence that Marcus Randle El was in the area at that time and had planned to meet them.

Illinois Department of Corrections records show Randle El was released from jail on parole in October 2018 after serving time for an incident in 2014 in which he abducted his daughter at gunpoint, WMTV of Madison, Wisconsin, reported.

Randle El played wide receiver for the Badgers from 2004 to 2007. In 2005, he was charged with battery involving a woman on campus and was arrested for battery again later that year after punching a teammate, the TV station reported. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to complete counseling for anger management.

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NFL free agency 2020: Top possible landing spots for Josh Norman following his release from Redskins

Life comes at you fast when you’re an NFL player, as Josh Norman himself found out in 2020. It was only four seasons ago when he was heralded as the best cornerback in the league, going on to land his first Pro Bowl nod and First-Team All-Pro honors in 2015. He delivered a career-high four interceptions with two defensive touchdowns for the Carolina Panthers that season, but when the two sides couldn’t come to terms on a longterm deal, the team sent Norman packing in the offseason to follow.

He was quickly snatched up by the Washington Redskins on a historic five-year, $75 million contract, but his body of work in the nation’s capital not only failed to match the expectations that come along with such a massive deal, they also failed to mirror or best the numbers he put up in Carolina. 

So when former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was signed by the Redskins, Norman’s days were numbered, and that number is now called — the team opting to release him in 2020 and save roughly $12.5 million in cap space.

And with that — Rivera’s second release of Norman — the former Pro Bowler finds himself looking for new employment, but it’s expected he’ll land somewhere in the league. The demand for his services and the pay to be offered will be a fraction of what they were four years ago, but several teams have a need at cornerback heading into free agency. Whether he can be a starter again depends upon where he lands and the fit, so let’s take a look at who would be justified in giving Norman a call this spring.

This list is unranked.

Kansas City Chiefs

Role: Backup/Rotational

It’s tough to imagine the Chiefs need anything coming off of a 12-4 season and a victory in Super Bowl LIV, but head coach Andy Reid will be the first to remind you there are still areas they need to improve upon. The cornerback position is one of them, and they’ve tried several times in recent seasons to solve that problem. Veteran cornerback Morris Claiborne did little to contribute last season and fellow former Cowboys starter Orlando Scandrick became a failed experiment as well, as the Chiefs continued to mine the veteran free agency pool for answers. Adding Norman for depth wouldn’t be a bad idea, but he’d need to be OK with likely playing backup.

Philadelphia Eagles

Role: Starter

Norman is known to enjoy a bit o’ revenge when he can have it, and he’d view remaining in the NFC East to prove himself better than the Redskins think as a reason to have a discussion with the Eagles. It’s well known the situation at defensive back got dire in Philadelphia in 2019, and they’re looking to shore up the position in free agency. There are better cornerbacks to look into — Byron Jones being one of them — but if they can’t secure a top flight corner, landing Norman as a bridge and going high at the position in the draft could be a thing.

New York Giants

Role: Starter

Keeping in the vain of Redskins rivals who need help at corner, the Giants could do worse than finding out how much Norman would cost. Their secondary hasn’t been worth writing home to mother about for quite some time, and the divorce from Janoris Jenkins in 2019 only makes their situation worse. Norman would be a starter in New York and, like the Eagles blueprint above, would still give them the opportunity to address the position in this year’s NFL draft.

Houston Texans

Role: Starter

Norman could easily be a starter for the Texans in 2020, because despite his tarnished brand, the coverage in Houston leaves much to be desired. The unit graded out quite poorly in 2019 and must now contend with both Johnathan Joseph and Bradley Roby set to hit free agency. Vernon Hargreaves, III delivered zero interceptions for the club last season and CB unit as a whole had only three. Yes, Norman can be a liability, but no more so than several other CBs on the Texans roster. Plus, he has four INTs in the last two seasons, and with Justin Reid and Tashaun Gipson patrolling behind him, he could see a resurgence of sorts in Houston. By the way, they released Vernon Hargreaves, so add that to the pile of reasons for them to inquire about Norman.

Atlanta Falcons

Role: Starter

Don’t rule out a possible return to the NFC South for Norman, a division he knows quite well from his time spent in Carolina. The Falcons would love some assistance with their secondary, but more specifically at cornerback. Despite playing in only nine games last season, Desmond Trufant reeled in three interceptions, and while that’s impressive on an individual achievement front — the fact he’s the only corner on the team who grabbed an INT is unacceptable. Like the Texans, the Falcons do have solid safety play that would help keep Norman from being stretched downfield, which is where most of his biggest weaknesses are put on full display.

Denver Broncos

Role: Starter

There are a ton of questions surrounding what the Broncos will do at cornerback, but what’s clear is they need to do something. They will be another big player at the CB free agency table this offseason, and have eyes on big fish like Jones in Dallas, but they need more than one move to get their secondary back on track. The only interception by a Broncos cornerback in 2019 came at the hands of Chris Harris — who had only a single INT himself — and Harris is set to join Norman in free agency. Harris will garner interest from other teams on this list and even if he remains in Denver, he needs assistance, and Norman can provide it. If the can’t retain him, well, adding Norman as an inexpensive stop-gap makes that much more sense.

Las Vegas Raiders

Role: Starter/Rotational

As an organization, the Raiders have never been afraid to bet on a player who’s supposedly aged out of the NFL prematurely, and head coach Jon Gruden fancies himself a mechanic of player’s brands. While the latter failed to achieve such a goal with wide receiver Antonio Brown, it’s possible he could do so with Norman. No Raiders cornerback registered more than one interception in 2019 and trading away Gareon Conley removed a body in the unit, which could be made worse if Daryl Worley walks as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. The Raiders need depth at cornerback, but more importantly they need starters, and might roll the dice on Norman as they head into Vegas — hoping to not come up snake eyes.

Carolina Panthers

Role: Backup/Possible starter

Sounds weird when you say it out loud, but there’s definitely logic behind a possible reunion between Norman and the Panthers. For starters, the regime that divorced him in 2016 is long gone, and new head coach Matt Rhule has no reason to turn a blind eye to Norman based upon what happened or did not happen in yesteryear. Even ownership is brand new, with David Tepper taking the reins from an ousted Jerry Richardson in 2018. With the slate essentially now clean, and with the Panthers standing to benefit from veteran depth behind James Bradberry and Donte Jackson, you can’t dismiss this renewing of vows outright — especially considering Bradberry himself is a free agent who’ll field calls from other clubs after a career-best three INT season. 

Maybe we see an NFL swap, with Norman’s release by Rivera not only opening the door for a reunion between the coach and Bradberry in Washington, but also reopening a window for Norman and the new-look Panthers to have a discussion.

Stranger things have happened.

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