Small player's big plays spur Panthers
CHARLOTTE — Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he has a case of "little man's syndrome."
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound cornerback isn't apologizing though, saying that's what has helped make him the player he is today.
The former seventh-round draft pick has beaten the odds to become a fixture in the Carolina secondary, developing a knack for the big play along the way.
Munnerlyn has two interceptions this season, returning both for touchdowns.
That's not all that unusual for the five-year pro — he returned two others for touchdowns last season.
Of Munnerlyn's seven career interceptions, the former punt returner has taken five back for TDs — the highest percentage in NFL history among players with at least five INTs.
"I still don't feel like I've made it and that is what makes me who I am," Munnerlyn said. "I feel like I have to keep going out there and playing with that chip on my shoulder. Being an undersized guy I feel like I always have to do the extra things."
The Panthers hope Munnerlyn can do the extra things needed Sunday when they host the New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide the NFC South division championship, as well as who gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.
He and his fellow defensive backs struggled in the last meeting with the Saints two weeks ago, allowing Drew Brees to throw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 loss at the Superdome, prompting Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes to call the secondary the "weakest link" of Carolina's defense.
Munnerlyn responded with a huge game against New York.
He had two sacks along with a 42-yard interception return for a score. Holmes was held to 17 yards receiving on two catches.
"Maybe because somebody made a comment about the secondary or just because he felt he needed to step up... but for whatever reason the switch has been flipped with him," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "And I hope it stays flipped."
Rivera said Munnerlyn is the defensive version of Steve Smith, Carolina's stellar undersized 5-foot-9 wide receiver.
"I think it's his tenacity," Rivera said. "He's not the biggest in terms of physical stature, but it's his attitude and how hard he plays. His desire."
Brees sees it too.
He's faced Munnerlyn for the past four seasons and has grown to respect his game.
"He's a gritty tough player and he can play all over the place — cornerback, nickel or inside," Brees said. "He's good in pressure and you can tell he's a headsy, smart player. Anytime you are playing against those guys it's kind of like the Ronde Barbers of the world where you know there is a level of intelligence. You want to know where he is on the field."
Munnerlyn called himself pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team's roster.
He said he can squat more than 500 pounds.
Teammates will counter with the notion he doesn't have to bend that far because his legs are so short.
"I don't like being called the little guy," Munnerlyn said with a smile. "But I'm not the shortest. I think I'm taller than (running backs) Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo (Williams). But they always come to me with the short jokes. I let them say that, but I'm not."
With that Tolbert came over to stand back-to-back with Munnerlyn next to his locker as TV cameras gathered around.
They appeared to be about the same height, although Tolbert walked away joking that that was impossible and Munnerlyn "must have five pairs of socks on."
Respect is something that has been hard to come by for Munnerlyn.
He left Steve Spurrier's program at South Carolina after his junior year upon receiving advice from scouting services that he'd be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
He wasn't drafted until the seventh.
"Yeah, it upset me," Munnerlyn said.
And even after four seasons spent mostly as a starter, Munnerlyn didn't attract much attention in the free agent market this past offseason. With no big offers on the table he re-signed with the Panthers for $1.1 million for one season.
He's hoping to parlay this season into a long-term contract with the Panthers, but right now his focus is on reaching the NFC playoffs for the first time.
"I know I wanted to be with the Carolina Panthers and I'm glad they got a deal done," Munnerlyn said. "Maybe I have to prove to the new general manager (Dave Gettleman) I'm capable of being a starting cornerback in this league."