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Panthers’ Munnerlyn savors chance to get over .500 for first time in NFL career

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

When Carolina drafted cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in the seventh round in 2009, the Panthers were coming off a 12-4 regular season and a playoff berth.

Munnerlyn was fired up. He had played collegiately at South Carolina and had been drafted by the neighboring NFL team, a squad he thought was on the verge of even bigger moments.

“I thought we had a pretty good shot at going back to the Super Bowl,” Munnerlyn said.

Instead, that 2009 team went 8-8. The next three went 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9. Because the Panthers always lost their season opener, they never had a winning record – not even for a week.

“I’ve been here five years,” Munnerlyn said. “And I’ve never been over .500. I know it’s sad to say.”

Now comes his shot. The Panthers are 3-3 and have won three of their past four. On Thursday at 8:25 p.m., they play 0-6 Tampa Bay on the road.

Munnerlyn freely acknowledges that this could be a “trap” game. The Panthers have lost plenty of times against seemingly overmatched opponents before, and the Bucs are going to win one at some point. They aren’t nearly as awful as, say, Jacksonville.

Said Munnerlyn: “We can’t take them lightly. Hopefully we’ll go out there and execute the game plan and win on Sunday – I mean, win on Thursday.”

The Thursday start is hard for everyone to remember, so geared are the players and coaches to the NFL’s once-a-Sunday timetable. It has compressed the Panthers’ weekly schedule, with Tuesday – the players’ usual day off – devoted instead to what will be the hardest practice of the week.

Munnerlyn had his most significant play of the season Sunday. On St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford’s first play from scrimmage, Munnerlyn intercepted a deflected ball by diving for it. Then he got up, tiptoed the left sideline – he said his size-8 shoes helped him stay inbounds – and ran 45 yards for a touchdown.

It was 7-0 after 21 seconds.

“Biggest play of the game,” Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said. “That kind of said, ‘This is what we’re here to do. Can you match it?’”

It was Munnerlyn’s fourth interception return for a TD – commonly known as a “pick-six” – in his five-year NFL career. That ties former safety Mike Minter for the all-time team high in that category.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s crazy, man. I’m only 25 years old. ... And I’ve got four for a touchdown. Seems like every time I touch it, I’m taking it to the house.”

At 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, Munnerlyn is short for an NFL corner. But he has kept hold of a starting position for most of his NFL career.

“They say I’m too small to be a starting cornerback,” Munnerlyn said. “That hurts me.”

The Panthers’ secondary will have a large challenge Thursday – Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson, who is 9 inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Munnerlyn.

When I mentioned to Munnerlyn on Monday that Jackson was targeted 22 times by rookie quarterback Mike Glennon in Tampa Bay’s last game, he had one word:

“Wow.”

But Munnerlyn is naturally verbose, so after that he had a lot more words.

“We’ve got to be physical with him and knock his timing off,” Munnerlyn said. “I might be small, but I’m pretty strong.”

That is not a bad description, although coach Ron Rivera had a more colorful one of Munnerlyn in training camp this summer, likening No. 41 going after the ball to a terrier going after a bone.

Said Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott of Munnerlyn: “He kind of defines and personifies what we’re all about in terms of physical and tough and guys who take a lot of pride in their work.”

Rivera had told Munnerlyn the cornerback “owed” the team two interceptions before Sunday’s game – the coaches believed Munnerlyn had a chance to pick off balls against the New York Giants and Buffalo but didn’t get them. But after the pick-six, in Rivera’s scoring system, Munnerlyn got credit for two big plays in one.

“He says I’m even because of the TD,” Munnerlyn said. “But I don’t like being even. I’d like to get ahead.”

So would the Panthers. They haven’t been ahead on their win-loss record for so long that the last time they were “Marley & Me” was America’s hot movie and Barack Obama was a few days from being inaugurated for his first term as president.

So here’s their chance.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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