SAN DIEGO – The quintessential Shawne Merriman moment came when the San Diego Chargers linebacker moved from one side of the defense to the other Sunday. Standing in an unfamiliar spot with the football about to be snapped, Merriman could hear what sounded like half the St. Louis Rams' roster screaming his name.
"The whole offensive line pointed at him," Chargers safety Marlon McCree recalled with a grin, after Merriman notched three sacks and multiple quarterback hurries in San Diego's 38-24 win. "When he moves, they know where he's at. We can tell how they are protecting, which way the offensive line is going to slide based on where Shawne is. And when we moved him today, they didn't know what to do."
This is what Merriman has become to this team. He's the soloist you can't afford to live without – the compass you can't afford to lose. Asking what happens to San Diego's defense if he is subtracted is like asking what the Earth would rotate around if the sun suddenly disappeared. It's generally not a pleasant concept. And yet, thus is reality for the Chargers.
"Better than Shawne? I would say one guy is as good – Julius Peppers," McCree said. "When I was in Carolina last year, I had never been on a team where a guy didn't play and I actually felt the difference on the field. I've always played on teams that if a guy missed a game or two, we always had a guy that could pick up the slack. If Julius Peppers missed a game, I knew it. And it's the same with Shawne Merriman. If he misses even a series, I can tell it."
Now the Chargers are on the verge of watching Merriman sit out four games for violating the league's policy on banned substances. Few within league circles are asking if Merriman will be suspended. All seem to be talking about when it will happen. The definitive answer to several questions comes soon, chief among them being whether Merriman will ditch his current appeal to the league's ruling. The appeal, which is slated to be heard Nov. 7, allowed Merriman to play against the Rams and would allow him to see action next week against Cleveland.
Theoretically, if a ruling is delayed it could afford Merriman a chance to play against Cincinnati on Nov. 12. But if that should happen and Merriman ultimately loses his appeal, his four-game suspension would cause him to miss both games against divisional rival Denver, with whom the Chargers currently share first place in the AFC West race.
Asked if he had decided forgo his appeal and get his possible suspension started sooner rather than later, Merriman said he had yet to make any decisions.
"No, not at all," he said. "I haven't gotten a chance to call anybody. I was really just concentrating on the game and that's what I'm still concentrating on from week to week until I find out exactly what's going to happen."
"Originally, when I got a chance to speak to the team [about the suspension], I said I wanted to do what was best for the team, always. And my teammates want me to do what's best for me. I don't know what's going to happen yet. … Everything's on the table."
As for the Chargers, they are making hay while Merriman still is on the roster – evident by the way they moved him around Sunday to keep St. Louis' offense off kilter. A handful of times, Merriman moved from his strong-side linebacker spot to the weak and consistently beat blocking schemes – including some double-teams – to harass Rams quarterback Marc Bulger into mistakes.
All the while Merriman drove home what has been made clear: In only his second season, Merriman has become to San Diego's defense what running back LaDainian Tomlinson is to the offense. He's the one player that changes the complexion of a game in an instant, and he must be accounted for by opposing quarterbacks, offensive linemen and coordinators on a play-by-play basis.
According to one AFC West scout, his team spent the offseason putting together cutups of every play of Merriman's rookie season in which he managed some kind of disruption – all in an effort to draw up protection schemes to keep him out of their backfield. That's treatment given to only the most indispensable players. And after watching Merriman against the Rams, in which he moved his sack total to 18½ in his last 19 games (more than any other player in the NFL during that period) – he might be able to lay claim to the best defensive playmaker in the league.
"I've gone against some great ones, and I'm not saying the Denver linebackers aren't good or the Pittsburgh backers aren't good," Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. "But the total package of what Merriman brings to the table is scary."
"And we saw it right away. When he first came into the league, just as a rookie, we had to do blocking one-on-one drills. And he drew Lorenzo Neal. You're talking about one of the best fullbacks to play in this game. And the way he came out against Lo Neal was as impressive as anything you'll see. Guys were just standing around in practice looking at each other like, 'Did we just see that?' This guy was a rookie, and he just took Lo Neal head-on and won. From that point, we all knew this guy had the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the league."
Now he has the potential to be one of the biggest turning points. On one hand, the Chargers are sitting at 5-2 and boasting a remarkably impressive offense, with quarterback Philip Rivers having developed at an astronomical rate and Tomlinson once again looking like the league's scariest offensive weapon (240 yards rushing and receiving against the Rams with three total touchdowns). On the other, they are staring down the barrel at losing a dynamic defensive presence in Merriman for a month, and then dealing with possible lingering calf problems to linebacker Shaun Phillips. And lest anyone forget to look at the standings; the Broncos might be the team to beat in the division, and the Chiefs are coming on fast.
"It's a tough [scenario]," Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo said. "We move Shawne around and we put him in different positions and really help other guys get kick started. We'll have to find another way to do that."
"But look at what Marques Harris and Carlos [Polk] did today in place of Shaun Phillips. They're kind of interchanging right now, and they're going to have to step up. The bottom line: We're not going to let one guy ruin our season just because we lost him."