If Shawne Merriman never plays again — which seems like a real possibility, in light of his release Monday by the Buffalo Bills — he'll be remembered by many as a guy who had a couple of really good steroid-fueled years, and after getting busted, was never effective again.
I can't speak to the accuracy of this perception. I'm not Sergeant Steroid. I don't know exactly what he took, how it affected his body, how long he might have benefited from it or what his career would've been like without it. These things are impossible to know.
It's easy to connect those dots, though, and say that Merriman couldn't play without the needle.
He definitely can't play without a team, and he's without one now. The Bills signed him in early 2011, and after giving them just five games in two seasons, they've tossed him aside. Buffalo's offseason acquisitions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson made Merriman very expandable, especially since he still had a relatively premium price tag.
Of course, that was Buffalo's fault, too.
For some reason, the Bills were in a huge hurry to give him a lot of money in 2011 when it wasn't a sure thing that anyone else was even interested. They didn't get much back on that investment.
Not that there wasn't some surprise to Merriman's release. In those five games he played in 2011, after being injured for all of 2010, he was at least serviceable. His sack numbers were down, but he played well for a defense that seemed to get worse as the year he went on, after Merriman left the lineup.
In the end, the Bills just didn't have it in the budget to pay that much to a backup who they can't trust to stay off the injured reserve. It's not crazy to think that some other team will pick Merriman up and gamble that he's got some health left in him. He's only 28 years old, and there's probably some team out there that could use the depth.
But it's no slam dunk that anyone will pick him up, either. For four straight years, he's been injured or ineffective. His willingness to play for the veteran's minimum will probably have a lot to do with his future NFL employment status.
Any of this would've been hard to believe in the early parts of the 2006 season. Merriman had 10 sacks in just 10 starts in his rookie year in San Diego, then had 17 sacks in 2006, even while missing four games on the steroid suspension. He was very good in 2007, too, with 12.5 sacks.
That's 39.5 sacks in the first three years of his career, which is a first-ballot Hall of Fame pace. If he could've kept up that pace for a nine-year career, he'd have been 15th all time in sacks. A 12-year career would've put him fourth all time. A 15-year career would've put him at a level only previously seen by Bruce Smith and Reggie White.
Twelve or 15 years of that pace would've been a lot to ask, though. Which I guess is why Bruce Smith and Reggie White are in the Hall of Fame.
Rare are the careers that start out so brightly, and then take a nosedive so quickly into a pile of mediocrity, invisibility and steroid jokes. There are a lot of one-hit wonders in NFL history, but when a guy goes so hard for three years, he's proven he's legit. But his fall-off was just as quick and just as thorough as Ickey Woods, Derek Anderson or Don Majkowski.
Not that I'm calling for any sympathy here. There's not much of that among sports fans toward those who get caught juicing, and rightfully so. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, though, I'd have liked to see Merriman have one more healthy year to see if he could regain the form of his first three seasons. But this time, we could trust that he was clean.
Hopefully, he can still get it.