It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. ~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The 2011 season was very interesting in regard to the cornerback position, as the two starters for Ron Rivera's defense were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum in quality of performance on the field. While it's fairly obvious to even the most casual observer which player was on which end of said spectrum, for the sake of comparison let's spend a little time and dig deeper into the stats to determine the strengths and weaknesses of both players.
Some of the information contained in this recap is going to veer into captain obvious territory, but there's really only one way to recap the 2011 season for Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn. And besides, every other player is getting an in-depth 2011 review, so it's only fair that Gamble and Munnerlyn get one too, no matter how obvious the review may be to us here at CSR.
Let's take a closer look at the cornerbacks after the jump.
After the 2010 season had concluded a lot of us in Panthers Nation thought that Gamble's days were numbered. Yes, he played poorly in 2010, far below the standard that we had grown used to since he was drafted in the first round back in 2004, and no one really knows what the cause of his troubles were. There are several theories that popped up at water coolers in the greater Charlotte area, and there were several ideas floating around the CSR boards as well. Most of them involved some form of the phrase "Chris Gamble just sucks. He doesn't get interceptions, and he can't tackle."
For the educated fan, this swiss cheese explanation just wasn't good enough. For the most part, it appeared that Gamble had just given up on playing in 2010 because of some sort of rift with then Head Coach John Fox, and Gamble found himself in Fox's world famous dog house because of it, causing him to miss the last five games of the season. Many of us thought the 2010 season would be his last in Carolina, because there was absolutely no way that a new coach would look back at 2010 and see a player that he wanted on his football team. There was just no way it would happen.
Well, it turns out we were wrong. Ron Rivera stuck with Gamble for the 2011 season, and it's a move that payed huge dividends for the rookie head coach, and for the team as a whole. Gamble still gets a lot of flack from many fans because he doesn't light up the interception meter every year, but there's a simple explanation for his lack of counting stats. It's impossible to intercept a pass when the opposing QB refuses to throw the football to the WR you're assigned to cover.
Yes friends, it's really that simple. Gamble can't get interceptions because the QB doesn't throw his way. He's so good in coverage that the opposing team basically leaves his side of the field alone and targets the other CB (more on that later).
So just how good was Gamble in 2011? I'm glad you asked. Please see the chart below with the WR's that Gamble was assigned to cover during the season, and notice the lack of statistics from those receivers.
* - Gamble missed part of the Jaguars game and all of the Bears game due to a concussion.
Notice some of the big names and the lack of production. Look at how he shut down Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson, two of the best WR's in the league. Notice they scored just as many touchdowns against Chris Gamble as you and I did. Also, if you notice some of the players with higher numbers, you can remember (if you watched the games) certain plays that didn't involve Gamble that accounted for many of those yards.
For example, we all remember Sherrod Martin filming his audition for Dancing With the Stars with Reggie Wayne. That wasn't on Gamble, as Wayne found a hole in the zone and torched Martin for the score. How about the Mike Thomas touchdown? Wasn't that the one on the bizarre hail mary at the end of the first half in the monsoon? That's not on Gamble either. It's funny, I can count on one hand the number of times Gamble truly made a bad play, or the number of times he was solely responsible for the opponent's WR scoring a touchdown. That in itself is enough to convince me, but perhaps you need more convincing.
If you're still skeptical, what if I told you that I'm not the only one who noticed Gamble's stellar play in 2011? According to Pro Football Focus, Gamble allowed a catch every 18.1 snaps in coverage. That's 2nd best in the NFL. QB's had a 45% completion rate when throwing at Gamble, which is 4th best in the league. Also, opposing QB's had a rating of 53.3 against Gamble, which is 3rd best amongst NFL corners. When the only two CB's better than you are and Asante Samuel in terms of QB rating against, you must be doing something right.
Let's not just take PFF's word for it though. Let's also look at Football Outsiders and see what they have to say. (Please note: these numbers are through Week 13 of the 2011 season. I don't have more current numbers because I don't subscribe to FO's premium content.)
Through Week 13, Gamble was the 12th best CB in the league with a 63% success rate, allowing 6.8 yards per pass and 3.1 yards after catch. Success rate is a subjective term, but FO's definition is "The percentage of plays targeting a defensive player on which the offense did not have a successful play". It's hard to determine if plays where the safety didn't help in coverage are counted, but the fact that Gamble was successful 63% of the time he was thrown at shows me that he's nowhere near as bad as the majority of fans think. In fact, he's pretty darn good.
I will say this though: one of Gambles weaknesses -- heck, it could be his only weakness -- is that he can't tackle very well. This was brought up in a fan post last week, but Pro Football Focus lists Gamble as 99th out of 101 CB's in terms of tackle efficiency (4.5%). That's not very good. But, on the other hand, Gamble doesn't have to tackle well if he continues to be solid in coverage, because you don't have to tackle a receiver if the QB doesn't try to throw him the football.
Aside from his suspect tacking efficiency, there is one other downside to having Chris Gamble on the field. The other downside is that he's too good of a cover corner to be with the current players that share the field with him. In order to take advantage of this shutdown abilities, you have to have a solid corner on the other side to handle the load since the QB has to throw the ball somewhere, and unfortunately this is an area where the Panthers struggled mightily in 2011, as we will see when we take a closer look at our #2 CB, Captain Munnerlyn.
Let me start by saying that I love Captain Munnerlyn. He's one of my favorite guys on the team because he played for my alma mater, so this review is not personal at all. But, I have to be honest: he was terrible in 2011. There's really no other way to say it. He proved in 2011 that he's best suited as a nickel corner that should only play bump and run coverage with a slot receiver, because as we witnessed (and as statistics show), he's not cut out to play the #2 WR on a consistent basis.
So how bad was he? Well, according to Pro Football Focus, he was the 2nd worst CB in the league. Remember when I said that QB's had a rating of 53.3 when they threw to Gamble's receiver in 2011? Well, when they threw to Munnerlyn's receiver, they had a rating of 126.9. Yes, I said 126.9, and it wasn't a typo. (For those of you scoring at home: The only CB worse than Captain in this regard was.)
Unfortunately, it gets worse. Munnerlyn's reception percentage in 2011 was 73.8%. Yeah, that's not a typo either. Essentially, 3 out of 4 times when a QB threw to Captain's man, he caught the football. That's a key stat, especially on 3rd down when the QB knows he needs an 8 yard gain. All he has to do is throw to Munnerlyn's side, and he has a 75% chance of getting a first down. It's a problem that needs to be corrected soon, and it's something that can only be accomplished through the draft as there are no free agent CB's who are affordable given the Panthers current salary cap situation.
Speaking of the salary cap situation, I must note that Gamble is in the middle of a 6-year, $53M contract with $23M guaranteed that he signed in 2008, so he's probably not a candidate for restructuring, but given that he's consistently shown (with the exception of 2010) to be one of the best cover corners in the NFL, I'd say he's well worth the price (and the cap hit).
I wish there was something positive I could say about Captain Munnerlyn's 2011 season that didn't involve statements like "well at least he didn't go on IR", or "well at least he didn't get suspended", but I can't. The best move for the Panthers re: Munnerlyn is to get a true #2 corner so he can move back into the slot where he belongs, and hopefully in 2012 the recap of his performance will be much better than it was this year.
The Panthers' 2011 season was truly a mixture of both the best of times and the worst of times for the CB position, as we were fortunate enough to see one of the best in the game shut down opposing receivers with regularity, but we were also tortured by seeing one of the worst in the game get beat on a frequent basis. Hopefully our 2012 season will be less "A Tale of Two Cities" and more "Great Expectations", but only time will tell.