The “Welcome to Minnesota handshake” was followed by a sportswriter’s version of a quick slant off a three-step drop.
“Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers?”
“Which one is tougher to play against?” asked Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
“Whoo, man,” Munnerlyn said. “I have to go with … both.”
Sorry. Corners have to make the pick.
“OK,” said Munnerlyn. “Since I played Drew Brees a lot in the NFC South, I’ll have to go with Drew Brees.”
OK. “Matt Ryan or Jay Cutler?”
“Jay Cutler is a gunslinger, a Brett Favre type, and he can run a little,” Munnerlyn said. “I’ll go with Jay Cutler.”
We’re almost done. “Ryan or Matthew Stafford?”
“I’ll have to go with Matt Ryan,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s got more experience. Matthew Stafford is still learning, but he does have Megatron [Calvin Johnson].”
Six games a year against the Saints, Falcons and even the Buccaneers before Josh Freeman’s once-promising career imploded qualifies Munnerlyn as battle-tested heading into his first season in the NFC North.
But the sixth-year pro also knows what’s coming his way as the new face in a new division. Especially when that face stands 5-9 in the land of Megatron, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and other giant receivers.
“I think I’ll be tested often and early,” Munnerlyn said. “Until I make plays.”
In 20 games against Brees and Ryan, Munnerlyn’s teams were 9-11. Brees and Ryan completed a combined 66.4 percent of their passes with 36 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and an average of 285.1 yards per game. Munnerlyn’s only interception against the NFC South was a pick-six against Freeman in 2012.
In four games against Rodgers (one), Cutler (two) and Stafford (one), Munnerlyn’s teams were 0-4. Rodgers (19-for-30, 308 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), Cutler and Stafford completed 67.6 percent of their passes with 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and an average of 233 yards. None of Munnerlyn’s seven career picks came against the NFC North.
Judging Munnerlyn against any one receiver’s stats is difficult, because he doesn’t shadow any one receiver. He also has spent the past two seasons as a starter who moves inside over the slot in passing situations.
That special skill ranked highly when Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was shopping for a free-agent cornerback to replace Chris Cook this offseason. Last spring, Spielman released Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move that freed room to re-sign right tackle Phil Loadholt.
Spielman wasn’t the first GM of the salary-cap era to release a high-priced player on the doorstep of his 36th birthday. Also, keep in mind that 31 other teams played last season without Winfield.
We’ll never know how Winfield would have performed at 36. But we do know that Josh Robinson, Winfield’s presumed heir apparent as starter who can slide inside over the slot, failed when his timetable was accelerated by a full year. That’s why Winfield’s former jobs now belong to the 26-year-old Munnerlyn.
“The scary thing is it seems like I’m a natural over the slot,” Munnerlyn said. “I’ve only been playing it for two years, but I feel I’m one of the best to ever do it.”
The Captain also is smart enough to leave some future wiggle room in the “Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers” debate. Not a bad idea, considering Rodgers’ career regular-season stats against the Vikings include a 71.7 completion percentage, 26 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 117.9 passer rating that is the highest by one quarterback against a single opponent since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
“Man, that back-shoulder fade of Rodgers’ is really a beast,” he said. “If you play your man high, Rodgers throws that back-shoulder fade. If you play low, he leads his guy perfectly downfield. You turn your back on him and he runs for a first down.
“We play Drew and Aaron this year, but now that I’m playing Rodgers twice a year, I’m sure my answer might change.”
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org