Captain Munnerlyn came back to Wofford College on Tuesday. Not in the way he wanted. Not in the uniform he wanted. Not on the field when he wanted.
Munnerlyn, who for seven years was a Carolina Panther, suited up this time for the Buffalo Bills. He wore No. 26 instead of the No. 41 he has always preferred. But a few things remained the same, like when he and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton engaged in their usual verbal jousting.
“I got one question,” Newton said before the joint Bills-Panthers practice started. “Why’d you get 26? You think that’s cute on you?”
Munnerlyn countered by saying that Newton better watch out on the corner blitz, because if he got there, he was going to hit the quarterback — despite the coaches’ rules for the combined practice.
Said Newton: “Don’t test me. Don’t talk to me!”
That was about as spicy as it got, though. Despite Munnerlyn trying to talk his way onto the Bills’ starting defense to get a crack at Newton, his coaches kept him on the sideline when the Bills faced the Panthers’ quarterback in team drills (where quarterbacks couldn’t be tackled).
Munnerlyn did practice, but only with the reserves. He could only watch when Newton went deep on a soaring 50-yard pass to Curtis Samuel that drew the biggest cheers of the morning from Panthers fans.
“The fans went crazy when he hit Curtis with the deep ball,” Munnerlyn said later of Newton. “But he was sacked 3-4 times (by Bills players who touched Newton before the throw). So it didn’t count.”
Munnerlyn, 31, obviously is still feeling his way forward with his new team. The Bills — coached by former Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Employing so many former Panthers, they’re sometimes called “Carolina North” — signed Munnerlyn on Saturday. He had been out of the NFL for nearly six months, since the Panthers released him in February.
There’s no good way to get fired, but Munnerlyn’s was at least unique. He took an apologetic “Sorry, but we’ve got to let you go” call from Panthers general manager Marty Hurney right before he was about to board a cruise, along with 50 friends and family members. He still went on the cruise and tried to put the best face on the situation, but the midnight buffets tasted somewhat hollow after that.
“I was down for a little bit,” Munnerlyn said. “Because I came back to Carolina to finish a job. I felt like we let the coaches down, let my teammates down, let the city of Charlotte down. Because we had a chance to be very, very special. But we didn’t do it.”
The Panthers decided to get younger in the secondary after the 7-9 season in 2018, with Munnerlyn and safety Mike Adams both turning into salary-cap casualties. The market for a 5-foot-9 nickel cornerback with 10 NFL years on his body wasn’t great, and Munnerlyn didn’t get an offer he wanted until Buffalo came through this past weekend.
“The perfect situation for me,” Munnerlyn said. “I know the defense already.”
McDermott said Munnerlyn “brings an edge, and we need that.” But, the coach added: “He’s got to get himself into shape.”
Munnerlyn, a former South Carolina Gamecock and a seventh-round pick of the Panthers in 2009, also would like to get himself a new number with the Bills. He’s partial to 41, which he wore throughout his two stints with the Panthers from 2009-13 and then 2017-18. He played three years in between in Minnesota, where he was so flush with cash after signing a big deal that he once made a teammate a lucrative offer for a particular jersey.
“When I went to Minnesota, a guy had 41, and I offered him $41,000 for it,” Munnerlyn said. “I had just got paid ... But he wouldn’t go for it. So I wore 24.”
This time, Munnerlyn said, Bills linebacker Maurice Alexander had already tentatively agreed to give up number 41. The exact price, Munnerlyn said, was undetermined — but it would be a lot less than $41,000, he said, because he’s not making nearly as much money anymore.
“But 26 is not me,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s Donte Jackson and Daryl Worley.”
Those are the current and former Panther owners of the number 26. It’s natural that Munnerlyn used a Carolina reference, as so much of his personal history is tied to the team. He even has a notable cameo in Amazon’s “All or Nothing” documentary on the 2018 Panthers, when he and Adams are seen trying to make Jackson understand that Jackson’s early success in the league wasn’t necessarily going to translate long-term unless he worked harder.
Did Munnerlyn know the cameras were on at the time?
“No,” he said. “We knew cameras were in the room, but we didn’t know they were on for 24 hours (a day).”
Munnerlyn gave a lot of hugs to his former teammates Tuesday. And he watched closely as Newton threw the ball.
Although the two have always liked to spar, in reality they are friends and used to be occasional workout partners. Munnerlyn said he hurt for Newton last year, seeing how hard it was for the quarterback to throw the ball at the end of 2018.
And now, Munnerlyn said of Newton: “It’s like night and day. His arm looks a whole lot better. You can tell he’s been working. I’m expecting big things.”
As for Munnerlyn himself, he’s just glad to have another chance to play somewhere.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of football left in me,” Munnerlyn said. “This is a year I can go out there and show everybody that I’ve still got it.”