It’s rare when a veteran player is having what he views as one of his best seasons deep into his career. It’s the Catch-22 of the NFL. When a player is gaining a fuller understanding of the game, it can come about the same time that his skills begin to diminish.
Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is in his seventh NFL season and his second with the Vikings. He was brought in to be a presence in the slot in Mike Zimmer’s defense and, by his own admission, his first season in Minnesota was one of the worst of his career.
He often felt out of place in the new defense that Zimmer installed and had his share of struggles adapting.
A year later, it is as though a light switch has been turned on and Munnerlyn’s game has reached the next level. He has been playing consistent and making plays. Last week’s game against Kansas City was one of his best as a Viking and Munnerlyn feels like he has turned a corner in proving his value to the team.
“This year I’m more locked in, I’m more dialed in, I’m more focused,” Munnerlyn said. “I understand the guys I’m playing with even more. I understand the scheme. I understand what Coach Zim wants out of me. I definitely feel like this has been one of my best years of football because I’m so locked in and so focused in. I have a point to prove.”
Munnerlyn wasn’t shy about his frustration last year. He took ownership of his shortcomings with the media, and the fans started buying into the hype. He was given an honest assessment of his game and he wasn’t pleased with his own game. Neither were football critics, who often pointed at Munnerlyn as being a weak link in the Vikings defense, not a strength.
Over the offseason, Munnerlyn dedicated himself to trying to learn the nuances of Zimmer’s defensive scheme and silence the skeptics who were predicting last year and even into this preseason that he may not have a spot on the final 53-man roster.
“Last year wasn’t me,” Munnerlyn said. “I had a lot of people trying to write me off – ‘Oh, they’re going to cut Captain Munnerlyn’ or ‘He’s not good enough to be on this team.’ Stuff like that. I know last year wasn’t my best year, wasn’t my best year of football, but I know that I can still play this game at a very high level.”
There was a lot of outside speculation that Munnerlyn may not make the final roster coming off his sub-par 2014 season. The Vikings were adding more players to the defense that were viewed as “Zimmer guys” and players like Munnerlyn, the sentiment was, needed to really step up their game to secure a roster spot.
But Munnerlyn, Zimmer and the defensive coaching staff had big plans for him in 2015, whether they let on about it or not. Asked if he ever feared being released, Munnerlyn said it was never a concern because he knew he had a spot at the big table.
“It didn’t cross my mind,” Munnerlyn said. “I already knew what the plan was. Y’all guys just didn’t know. I knew what the plan was, because I was talking to my coaches at the beginning (of training camp) about it, so I wasn’t worried about it. You only can control what you can control.”
Munnerlyn’s frustration last season was grasping his role in the new defense. What he had been taught in five years with the Carolina Panthers was much different than what he was doing with the Vikings.
At times, he was internally questioning the wisdom of his assignments. They didn’t always make sense and he compensated by trying too hard to make big plays instead of sticking with his assignment. He felt a bit hamstrung because of his frustration, but eventually began to see the light.
“I wouldn’t say I was too much out of position, but I was trying to do too much,” Munnerlyn said. “I was always trying to make the home run plays, make the big plays. I was kind of battling with the scheme – what Coach Zim wanted me to do. Why did he want me to be outside leverage on this play when I think this is coming? I was always questioning myself instead of playing football. This year, I’m more locked in, I’m listening to Coach Zim and making plays.”
The results this season have been a night-and-day difference from last season and Munnerlyn is far from being a weak link on the 2015 Vikings defense. He has become a strength.
And, even though he admits it a bit begrudgingly, he has come to see that Zimmer was correct in what he was teaching and preaching.
“Yeah, he was right,” Munnerlyn said. “I hate to tell him, but he was right.”