Munnerlyn is short, but plays big

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn doesn't deny he has short-man's syndrome, that Napoleon complex that always has him trying to prove he plays bigger than his height. He's not willing to admit he's the shortest player on the Carolina Panthers' roster, which brought us to a somewhat comical moment on Wednesday.

It involved fullback Mike Tolbert, the player Munnerlyn believes is shorter than him.

So the two stood back to back for a size-off.

It took a few minutes to organize. First, Munnerlyn had to put on a pair of "Jordans" because that's what Tolbert was wearing. Yes, it was that petty.

Then there was the moment where Tolbert yelled, "Hey, get your butt off me," as the two tried to stand as tall as possible.

It was close, but Munnerlyn appeared fractions taller than Tolbert, who then said his teammate "must have five pairs of socks on."

Case closed, right?

Not really. Officially, Munnerlyn is listed as 5-foot-8 on the Carolina roster. Tolbert and fellow running back DeAngelo Williams are listed as 5-9.

Tolbert is going with that, so the jokes will continue.

"I don't like being called the little guy," Munnerlyn said. "I'm not the shortest. I think I'm taller than Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo. But they always come to me with short jokes. I let them say that, but I'm not."

What Munnerlyn has done on the field is no joke. In five seasons, he has seven interceptions. He's returned five for touchdowns, including two this season.

That's the highest percentage in NFL history among players with at least five picks.

So based on that, Munnerlyn stands tall.

But Munnerlyn is far from satisfied. The attitude he developed after being told he couldn't succeed at the highest level at his size continues to drive him.

"I still don't feel 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."

That chip never was more obvious than during Sunday's game against the New York Jets. Munnerlyn took it personally when Jets receiver Santonio Holmes called the secondary the weak link of Carolina's second-ranked defense.

It was almost like he'd thrown a short joke in the face of Munnerlyn, who responded with two sacks and an interception he returned 41 yards for a touchdown.

"Maybe it was because somebody made a comment about the secondary or maybe he felt he needed to step up, but he practiced pretty doggone good [last week] and he practiced good again today," coach Ron Rivera said. "Whatever switch has been flipped, I hope it stays flipped."

Rivera compares Munnerlyn's attitude on the field to that of wide receiver Steve Smith, who at 5-9 also plays big.

"It's really his tenacity," Rivera said. "He's not the biggest in physical stature, but it's his attitude, the way he plays, how hard he plays, his desire."

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who will face Munnerlyn in Sunday's NFC South showdown that could determine the division title and a first-round playoff bye, sees that too.

"He's a gritty, tough player and he can play all over the place -- cornerback, nickel or inside," said the 6-foot Brees, who is considered short for an NFL quarterback. "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."

There also is a level of confidence in Munnerlyn that can't be matched. He left the University of South Carolina with a year of eligibility remaining because the draft experts projected he would go in the first three rounds.

He fell to Carolina in the seventh.

That didn't make Munnerlyn happy, but it made the chip bigger. Not getting much attention on the free agent market this past offseason made it even bigger.

So Munnerlyn signed a one-year deal for $1.1 million to return to Carolina and prove himself all over again. He hopes it turns into a long-term deal to stay with the Panthers, but that's not at the top of his priority list at the moment.

Trying to find a way to stop Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory over Carolina two weeks ago in New Orleans, is.

Munnerlyn understands how big -- no pun intended -- Sunday's game is as far as Carolina's hopes of winning the division and getting a home game in the playoffs.

He understands how in the big picture, that could be huge for him, because the bigger the stage for the team the more exposure he gets.

"Maybe I have to prove to the new general manger [Dave Gettleman] I'm capable of being a starting cornerback in this league," Munnerlyn said.

He's already done that.

But it won't stop the short jokes.