It was late in the summer of 2008. Football season was on the horizon and I needed a new Chargers jersey. The Chargers were coming off a promising year where they reached the AFC Championship Game and the excitement heading into the season was palpable. Since jerseys were $200 a pop I wanted a player that I knew would be around for a while. LT was on his way out so he wasn’t an option. My future wife had already decided on a Gates jersey and I didn’t want to do the "Couple With the Matching Jerseys" look. I would have rather worn a sign around my neck that read "This guy is whipped." With those two guys out of the picture, I narrowed my jersey choices down to either Phillip Rivers or Shawne Merriman.
The decision back in 2008 wasn’t as cut and dry as it would be today. It was obvious that Rivers was going to be the leader of the offense but he was coming off a year where averaged less than 200 passing yards per game and threw 15 picks. Everyone saw his potential to be a great player, but it wasn’t guaranteed.
Merriman, on the other hand, was firmly established as one of the top defensive players in the game. While he only had 12.5 sacks in 2007 it was considered by many to be his best all-around season. The year before that, he had 17 sacks and would’ve probably broken the single-season sack record had he not been suspended for four games after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Heading into the 2008 season everyone thought Merriman was going to have his best season yet and he was getting some serious DAP for Defensive Player of the Year.
I pictured myself in a Rivers jersey and getting dirty looks every time he threw a pick from my friends I watch football with. Then, I thought about getting to do the "Lights Out" dance with Merriman’s jersey on and high fiving all my buddies every time he made a play. The latter sounded a lot more fun so, I went with the Merriman jersey.
It was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made.
As it turned out Merriman’s decline had already begun before I had even bought his jersey. Merriman tore both ligaments in one of his knees in the playoffs the previous year. Instead of getting surgery during the offseason he decided to play through it. He lasted one game in 2008 before having to undergo season-ending reconstructive surgery on his knee. When he came back last year he wasn’t the same. Aside from his two sack game in a 21-20 win against the Giants, Merriman’s impact on the field was marginal. And when he held out of training camp this year, hurt his Achilles the week that he finally reported and missed the first game of the season, Charger fans shook their heads in dissapointment.
Over the past three weeks I have:
- Referred to Merriman as Brian Bosworth 2.0, noting that the time Maurice Jones-Drew blew him up was analogous to the time Bosworth got bulldozed into the endzone by Bo Jackson.
- Suggested he change his moniker to "Lights Out of Order."
- Compared him to a loud fart: Both come out quickly, both turn some heads, raise some eyebrows, open some eyes and both quickly dissipate.
- Wrote a blog post asking "Who Turned the Lights Out on Lights Out?"
So who or what derailed such a promising career that began with Hall of Fame potential? I thought about it and came up with four theories:
To clarify, Tila Tequila herself did not ruin Merriman’s career. However, the incident between them at the start of last season may have provided us with a window into seeing who Shawne Merriman the person is. In the days leading up to the incident where Tila Tequila accused Merriman of assaulting her, I was following their messages to each other on Twitter and wondered to myself, "What on earth is a guy like Shawne Merriman doing with an opportunistic, bottom-feeder like Tila Tequila?" Here’s Merriman, a football player who I thought was at the top of his profession; successful, a multimillionaire and he’s associating with some D-list reality TV personality. This made no sense to me. The 2010 equivalent to this would be Troy Polamalu dating Snooki except Tila Tequila was never even nearly as famous as Snooki is. It was crazy. Couldn’t Merriman at least hook up with a Kardashian?
After thinking about this some more I came up with a conclusion. I believe in the saying "You are who your friends are." It’s true on many levels. If you’re rich you probably have rich friends. If you’re funny it’s usually because you have funny friends. If you’re a drinker, people you socialize with tend to be drinkers too. So if we all agree that Tila Tequila is a low level wannabe celebrity who just wants to be famous, what does that make Merriman? Maybe our perception of Merriman the football player isn’t how he is perceived up in Hollywood. He may be a star on the football field but is it possible that in LA he was viewed as someone on the same level as a D-list celebrity like Tila Tequila? Maybe Merriman wants to but really can’t hook up with a Kardashian. If this is the case and Merriman’s focus is to be a social climber who just wants to be a star on the E! Network then we can see why he is no longer a star on the football field.
This is the big "What if?". What if Merriman never hurt his knee? Or what if Merriman, like Philip Rivers, had gotten knee surgery immediately after the AFC Championship game? If he had done that he would have missed a big chunk of the 2008 season recovering and rehabbing but he would have gotten into some games at the end of that season to get back into football shape and could have used the offseason to work out and condition for the 2009 season. Instead Merriman missed two years by waiting until the 2008 season started to get surgery. The 2008 season and offseason were spent recovering and rehabbing from surgery and last season was spent getting back into football shape. This basically means that this past summer was the first time in two years that Merriman had an offseason program where he could improve his strength and conditioning as opposed to rehabbing. If Merriman was preparing instead of rehabbing prior to the 2009 season he may not have had such a poor season and we would not be wondering whether or not he can revert back to his old form.
A big part of me wonders if people’s perception of Shawne Merriman would be different if he was with a different organization. AJ Smith is the NFL’s John Wayne and he and Merriman could not be more different. Smith has gone through great lengths to let people know he doesn’t care too much for Merriman the person. He has thrown Merriman under the bus on several occasions. If Merriman was with an organization like the Jets, Redskins, Bengals, or Raiders that is more supportive of players with outgoing personalities and he wasn’t being pushed out the door like he is with the Chargers, things would be different. Maybe he wouldn’t be viewed as a player who has Gone Hollywood. Maybe Merriman wouldn’t have been eying free agency two offseasons ago and would have gotten surgery after the AFChampionship Game. It’s hard to be a team player when the team you’re playing for has for has been implying for two years that they're not going to keep you around. And its hard to have a positive image when your team portrays you in a negative light.
The big elephant in the room. We will never know how much performance enhancing drugs helped Merriman from 2005 to 2007 just like we will never know if he just took a tainted supplement like he claims. But if you look at Merriman’s sack stats it reads a lot like a baseball player’s stats in the steroid era. For example, for the first 11 years of his career Luis Gonzalez never had a season where he drove in more than 79 runs. Then, between 1999 and 2003 he drove in 100 runs for five straight seasons. After that, he got banged up and never drove in more than 79 runs again in the last five seasons of his career. It you plotted Gonzalez’s numbers on a graph it would shoot upwards, peak briefly and then decline sharply. Merriman’s stats are beginning to look the same way and the way that his body appears to be breaking down is eerily similar to the way baseball players who allegedly took steroids broke down at the end of their careers. If Merriman can’t shake his injury bug that appears to have plagued him over the past three years, the steroid cloud that is hanging over him will continue to get bigger.
In reality, all these factors probably played some part in Merriman’s decline and only time will tell if he will ever be the player he once was. Merriman is expected to make his season debut this Sunday and I will have my #56 jersey on and will be rooting for him. I, like many Charger fans, can’t help it. We still remember the Merriman who was a dynamic, dominant player. I want him to get back to where he was in the worst way, but part of me knows he won’t. Part of me knows that I would have been better off going with the "Couple with the Matching Jerseys" look.
Follow me on Twitter at @KenCaminiti21