CHARLOTTE — In Monday night’s loss to New Orleans, James Bradberry scooped up a tipped pass just before halftime for his first interception of the year. As he weaved his way upfield for a 29-yard return, Saints offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk tried to cut him off.
Not, however, if Captain Munnerlyn had anything to say about it.
Despite being outweighed 315 pounds to 195 — a differential Munnerlyn later said felt like “probably about 200 pounds” — the veteran defensive back squared up on Ramczyk, put his hands up and attempted to block him.
“I was just trying to get myself in his way and slow him down,” Munnerlyn said.
The result was not pretty. Munnerlyn was sent sprawling to the ground, about five yards out of Ramczyk’s path.
“I don’t think I want to see it (on tape),” Munnerlyn said. “It felt pretty embarrassing.”
The play was symbolic of the second half of the Panthers’ season. The team’s effort doesn’t appear to have diminished any. The players are still going full out and making the sacrifices. The results, however, have been dismal, as the team has lost six straight to all but fall out of playoff contention.
“We were able to give ourselves a chance, give ourselves the opportunity,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I thought the guys competed as a team. I thought they came out and tried to do some things. We had some pluses and some opportunities and, unfortunately, we missed out. I really appreciate the great effort and that’s all you can ask this time of year is that your guys go out and compete and give you great effort.”
On offense, quarterback Cam Newton has played the Munnerlyn blocking role. Fighting through a serious shoulder injury that has forced Rivera to replace him for last-second Hail Mary passes because he no longer has the arm strength to throw the ball downfield, Newton has seen his production drop during the late-season swoon.
On Monday, Newton had just 131 yards passing and, as has happened several times in late-game losses, struggled to complete passes with the game on the line.
The team’s record and Newton’s clear discomfort with throwing have raised the issue of whether he should continue to battle for the final two games, or whether the team would be better served by getting a head start on his recovery, whether he needs surgery or just rest and rehab.
“I think the thing is, when you talk to the different people who can help you with it, there is no magical surgery,” Newton said. “It’s just time.”
Newton has missed practice reps coping with the injury, which makes it even tougher to find the pinpoint accuracy at crunch time.
“That’s why I’m frustrated,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about practice, which it is to a degree, but when you’ve been doing something over a certain time, you kind of get in a regimen of when you’re supposed to do certain things. Obviously, my arm hasn’t allowed me to do a lot of practice. I’ve been on a pitch count for a long time, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. That’s not a scapegoat. That’s not something that I want people to bail me out on.”
While the pain may not be an excuse, it’s been a constant companion for Newton, even if the team doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong with the shoulder.
“Labrum? rotator cuff? Just shoulder soreness,” Newton said. “I wish I could say what the injury is because I don’t really know what it is either. No matter how much you push, no matter how much you ice, the anti-inflammatory you take. Trust me, I’ve done it. Acupuncture, massages. There’s not a night that goes by without me getting some type of work done on my arm. You just don’t have the strength. From the range of motion, you work on the range of motion then come game time and you never know how the game can play out.
“Of course you try to stay under 25-30 throws,” Newton continued, “but if you surpass that or you get hit on it or you have to run or you get tackled and fall on your shoulder, certain things happen. That’s the game of football. As far as stiffness, just muscle tension, there’s a lot going on. At the end of the day, it’s not something that hasn’t got worse over the weeks or hasn’t got better over the weeks. It’s just been the same.”
While Rivera and Newton both stopped short of saying that the quarterback would be shut down, it’s clear that his courage in grinding out the season is an inspiration to teammates, who are still willing to throw themselves in the path of an oncoming 300-pounder.
“Cam is one of the toughest players I’ve ever played with,” center Ryan Kalil said. “I’ve seen the guy take hits and get his body up game after game, season after season. Hits I’ve seen him take, other guys wouldn’t get up from. … He’s been fighting all season, and obviously he’s frustrated at how things have turned out.”