Captain Munnerlyn swears it’s going to be different this season.
That’s what the Carolina Panthers nickel cornerback wants, anyway, after a 2017 that he characterizes as “very disappointing” — a season in which he said he was too often “pouting” and playing “with a lot of anger.”
Brought in on a four-year contract in early 2017 to be the Panthers’ nickel cornerback, Munnerlyn instead found himself spending large stretches of time on the bench last fall. He didn’t like it and made that dislike public, starting in the first month of the season when he played only 11 snaps in a September loss to New Orleans.
“I didn’t come here for that,” Munnerlyn bristled at the time.
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But life didn’t improve a lot for Munnerlyn the rest of the season. “I feel like every time there are three receivers in the game, I should be in the game,” Munnerlyn said Wednesday after a Panthers minicamp practice.
Steve Wilks, then the Panthers defensive coordinator, didn’t feel the same way. Looking for ways to get athletic linebacker Shaq Thompson more snaps, Wilks began playing the “big nickel” package more and more often in passing situations. With three receivers on the field, Thompson would often stay on the field as well instead of Munnerlyn subbing in as the third cornerback — with the idea being that the linebacker would be stronger if the play turned out to be a run and that Thompson could also cover slower receivers in a pinch.
Thompson ended up playing 64 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps in 2017. Munnerlyn played 39 percent. For context, NFL offenses now run a personnel grouping of at least three wide receivers a little more than 60 percent of the time.
The situation escalated enough that Munnerlyn was a “healthy scratch” for the December game against Green Bay, being put on Carolina's inactive list for what both he and coach Ron Rivera characterized as a disciplinary issue. Munnerlyn called that temporary demotion “a slap in the face” at the time. But with more time to reflect, he believes he should have handled all of last season differently.
“I’m disappointed in how I handled things,” Munnerlyn told me Wednesday. “I’m disappointed in how I reacted. I’m disappointed in how I played, because I played with a lot of anger. That wasn’t me. I should have just come out and done what I was supposed to do anyway. Even if it was third down (only), if it was 10 snaps or two snaps, I should have played to my capability. And I didn’t do that. I was too busy pouting. Mad. And (saying): ‘Why am I not playing?’ ”
And when Munnerlyn was playing last season, he rarely made much impact. For the second season in a row, he didn’t have a single interception. He did have two sacks and five passes defensed, but too often he was part of the problem in a secondary that let too many receivers run free.
A fresh start
Munnerlyn said Wednesday he is hoping for a fresh start this season and believes he will get one under new defensive coordinator Eric Washington.
“We’re playing more nickel (the personnel group that includes Munnerlyn) when three receivers are in the game,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s what I’m used to. That’s the whole tradition. Like I say, I love Shaq (Thompson) to death. But it’s different playing out there, trying to put Shaq on a receiver who can do a lot of shakes and a lot of wiggle. Even though I feel like Shaq is one of the best athletes on this team, it’s different. I’m just happy he (Washington) let me get the opportunity to play these guys in the slot like I’m used to.”
Munnerlyn, 30, said he has lost weight this offseason and is down to 195 pounds as he tries to prove to Washington that “it might be Year 10 (of Munnerlyn’s career), but I’ve still got a lot of good football left in me.”
'Needed my quickness back'
When I asked him what weight he played at last season, Munnerlyn laughed and replied: “I’d rather not say.”
“I just needed my quickness back,” he continued. “We have a new defensive coordinator. I needed to be in the best shape possible, to fly around and let him know, ‘Hey, I still can play.’”
Rivera, whose relationship with Munnerlyn dates back to the cornerback’s first stint with the team, said Munnerlyn has “done a great job” this offseason.
“It’s been exciting watching him,” Rivera said, “the way he’s prepared, the way he is practicing. Quite honestly, the elderly statesman he has become, dealing with these young players. ... You see his growth.”
Munnerlyn should play a lot during the Panthers’ first four games. With linebacker Thomas Davis suspended for those games because of a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, Thompson and Munnerlyn will often be on the field at the same time in passing situations.
After that, who knows? But Munnerlyn, long known as one of the most quotable players on the team, said he is going to tamp down the rhetoric the next time he encounters adversity and not start pouting again.
Said Munnerlyn: “What I wanted (last year) was to play more, but I spoke on it too much. … Actions speak louder than words. … And I’m ready to roll.”