It was a moment of weakness in an otherwise strong summer. Shawne Merriman(notes) was trolling the Internet and came across a list that had been floating around – a ranking of the NFL's best linebackers – and couldn't believe how far his retinas had to drop to get to his own name.
These are the moments that most fans don't see in an offseason of recuperative torment, when NFL players reconstruct their bodies and fight through doubt, all in hopes of recapturing – or even exceeding – what they once were. So in this particular instance, Merriman figured he deserved a little slack. If he were to give you his mission statement, 2009 is all about the here and now, and showing rather than talking. But roughly nine months after surgery on his left posterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments, he was incredulous. Twelfth?
"I was pissed off," Merriman recalled. "I'm sitting there like, 'Hold on, there are 11 guys in the league better than me? When did this happen?' I know I didn't play for a year, but I didn't know I had that much of a drop-off."
Make no mistake, the three-time All-Pro is no fool. He knows better than to react to every backhanded swipe – every little whisper suggesting that maybe the guy with 41½ sacks in his first three seasons (including playoff appearances) was poised for a fall from grace.
But it's hard to ignore all of it – particularly when the upcoming season represents a crossroads of sorts for Merriman.
Once considered one of the best players in football – not just defensive players, mind you, but in all the NFL – Merriman is perched on a potential career-changing season. He's in a contract year with a franchise known for letting talent walk in free agency (see: Drew Brees(notes) and Michael Turner(notes)), and he's returning to a defense that, in his absence, displayed the speed and agility of a cement mixer. With the major contract-extension hurdle of quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) still standing, and time running short for running back LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), Merriman's here-and-now urgency isn't being taken lightly – especially with an offense that looks Super Bowl-ready right now.
"It is up to us to pick up the slack," said Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. "I thought our last four regular-season games and then the [playoff] win against Indianapolis kind of showed that if we can play a high-caliber style of defense, we have an opportunity to be a team that has to be reckoned with. That's one of the things that we talked about when we first got together for our first minicamp – that we've got to live up to our end of the bargain now."
Defensively, that will have everything to do with Merriman, whose absence last season caused a severe rippling effect in the unit. Merriman attempted to play in the first game of the season but was ineffective, ultimately deciding on surgery before Week 2. That's when the dominoes began falling, with weak-side linebacker Shaun Phillips(notes) moving into Merriman's strong-side role. Phillips never looked totally comfortable in the role, and his absence on the back side of plays – not to mention his ability to play off Merriman – virtually eliminated San Diego's pass rush the first half of the season.
By the team's Week 9 bye, the Chargers had become one of the most porous defenses in the NFL, with the lack of a pass rush leaving the secondary at the mercy of patient opposing quarterbacks. After ugly back-to-back losses to Buffalo and New Orleans in Weeks 7 and 8, Phillips had only 3½ sacks and hadn't forced a single turnover. Worse yet, a Chargers team source said players began tuning out then-coordinator Ted Cottrell, who acknowledged to Yahoo! Sports during the run that he had pleaded with his players to at least "act like you are enjoying" playing.
Merriman is entering the final season of his contract. "I’m worrying about helping this team get back to where we need to get to," he said. "I’m going to be me."
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The result was Cottrell's firing during the bye week, at the urging of head coach Norv Turner, who replaced Cottrell with Rivera. Swift moves have been taking place ever since, and the first was Phillips' move back to his weak-side spot.
Now Rivera will employ more aggressive coverage in the secondary, with San Diego's cornerbacks using their size to attack wideouts at the line of scrimmage, and a less-conventional pass rush up front. Rather than sticking to the vanilla four-down approach that Cottrell used, Rivera is expected to mix in multiple blitzers in passing situations, using a shifting landslide approach that will include multiple linebackers such as Merriman, Phillips, Jyles Tucker(notes) and first-round draft pick Larry English(notes).
That foursome, along with the return of the frenetic energy often brought by Merriman, has created some lofty expectations internally. After getting off to slow starts the past two seasons, the Chargers brass – particularly general manager A.J. Smith – hasn't been shy about what needs to happen in 2009. With their health at an apex, the Chargers will be expected to perform well out of the gate, and with a defensive vengeance that befits the level of talent returning.
"Let's not kid ourselves – last year we struggled," Smith said. "We were inconsistent and had some problems. We were out of the playoffs, period, unless there was a total collapse in Denver. Those are the facts. If Denver doesn't go down that road, the San Diego Chargers miss at the end of 2008. But I will say this about our players: They realize our situation.
"I'm not ignoring offense. I'm not ignoring special teams. I know we have a quarterback I love. But defense – dictating, nasty, competitive defense – sets the tone for your entire organization and your football team. That's the basis for winning. Until we fix it and come up with answers, I don't believe the San Diego Chargers will get where we want to go."
And that has been the driving force for Merriman this offseason, as he has undertaken a consistent regimen of running, lifting and film work, typically ending with a grueling session of Muay Thai boxing – respected in many circles as one of the most difficult training regimens in the world. The result has been a sort of reborn Merriman. He claims he's less prone to talking trash and has finally recognized his own mortality within the sport – two things that have become daily themes on his ever-expanding Twitter account (shawnemerriman).
"People haven't seen the best of me, not at all," Merriman said. "In the past, I would tell someone, 'I'm about to go out and just kill it this year.' Now I want people to just watch. I had enough doubters around before, and some people felt like I was talking [trash] or just talking too much. My thing is, now I'm just talking about what I've done and what I'm doing right now – not about what I'm going to do."
And the contract? He just shrugs it off, knowing full well that no matter where he plays in 2010, his performance this season could make him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. That's if the Chargers don't slap the franchise tag on him following the season, which many believe the team is preparing to do not just in 2010 but perhaps for multiple years, a la Terrell Suggs(notes) in Baltimore.
"I have no idea what he's going to do," Smith said. "How do I know what's going to happen? Do you think I have a crystal ball? All I know is he's here this year, and I'm thrilled that he's coming back this year. I know that he went out last year and I was miserable over it. When you lose great players, it hurts. … I don't know what we're going to do, either, until the end of the season. At the end of the season, we'll make some determinations, as we always do."
Until that moment of decision arrives, Merriman will bide his time and remind everyone that his "Lights Out" moniker isn't a metaphor for the direction of his career.
"My future is one thing that I'm not worrying about," he said. "I'm worrying about helping this team get back to where we need to get to. I'm going to be me. If anybody thought I was good in the past, well, just wait. Now I'm healthy."