Although San Diego Chargers Mini Camp is just days away, there is still about 3 months left before the start of training camp. From now until the start of the season, I will be highlighting the biggest keys to the upcoming season and giving you my outlook on them (either positive, negative, or...at times...both). Today we'll start with quite possibly the biggest key to the 2010-2011 defense, Shawne Merriman.
Why you should ignore the haters:
It's not like I don't see the reasons some people have for not liking him. Yes, he wants to be a star. Yes, he probably shouldn't hang out in clubs and with reality stars and whatever. Yes, he wants to make as much money as possible before his career turns him into a cripple.
Here's whymy perspective may be a little different than your own: Shawne is only 6 months older than me. He probably graduated high school a year before me. I am living a 25 year old's life the same time as him. And you know what I'd be doing if I were him? I'd be having a good time. That's what he's doing. It doesn't make him stupid, it doesn't make him selfish and it doesn't make him anything other than human.
Is he healthy?
This is certainly the best opportunity to prove himself to be. Think about it, he was injured for the entire 2008 season. If you forget about him trying (unsuccessfully) to get through that season and playing only one quarter, the guy did not play real football for 20 months. TWENTY MONTHS. That's a lifetime, especially in football. There two big reasons that it's almost impossible for a player to come back strong immediately after missing 20 months.
- Mental - I remember listening to Brian Mitchell host a sports talk radio show in Philadelphia once, and he talked about how after he retired from football for a year his body felt really good and healthy. He thought that it was the best he had felt in years and wanted to give football a try again. He got himself into training camp with some team (I forget which) and immediately knew that he'd never be able to play in the NFL. I don't remember word for word, but in a nutshell he said "I suddenly realized that I was the only guy out there that was afraid. When you play, you have to forget any fear you have. That's easy enough to do when you're playing all the time, but when you spend a year or two in the real world it's almost impossible to go back to that place, in your mind, where you're not afraid of anything."
- Physical - We've all heard it before: the knee was not Shawne's biggest problem in 2010. Was it as strong as it could've been? Maybe, maybe not. However, and I mentioned this when I first saw him in training camp last year, I thought Shawne had gotten into really great "gym shape".....which doesn't always make for the best "game shape". He was big and bulky, but not necessarily fast, quick, agile and flexible....which a lot of times are more useful when rushing the passer (ask Shaun Phillips and Dwight Freeney).
So now Shawne will only be a few months removed from playing, and is certainly closer to being in "game shape" than he was last year. Add in another year to strengthen his knee and get his injury issues from last year healed up, and 2010 Merriman should look/feel more like 2007 Shawne than 2008/2009 Shawne.
Could he be a locker room headache?
Probably the biggest reason I've been a Merriman fan, and have liked him more as time has gone on, is that you can never question his dedication. Seemingly nobody works harder and longer than him, and there are few players that I can see caring more than him. When stories came out about Shawne calling out Antonio Cromartie twice during the 2009 season for his "heart"(read: Cromartie tackled like a 10-year-old girl), I was not the least bit surprised.
This may be considered a character flaw in some locker rooms, but even though he has a head for business....nobody seems to care more about his teammates, and more about winning, than Shawne (with the possible exception of Philip Rivers). That, and a few other things, are what make for a good leader. That's why I wasn't surprised when, at 23 years old, Shawne was named one of the defensive captains of the 2008 San Diego Chargers. It's why I wasn't surprised that he tried to play on his busted-up knee. He's trying to be smart about it and not throw away his career/body, but the guy just really wants to play football and win games. I don't think there's a chance in the world that he could cause locker room problems.
Sigh, get over yourself people. If I get into a car accident today, it's not going to be because I was drunk last weekend. If I take too long to answer a question next week, it won't be because I smoked some pot in high school. So the guy happened to have an absolutely incredible season the same year that he got suspended for testing positive for a banned substance. That also happened to be his second season, his first full season as a starter, so it wouldn't be real surprising if he was just reaching his potential.
But....But....But.....what about 2007? He only had 12.5 sacks in 2007!
First, let us not poo-poo 12.5 sacks. Sack-master Dwight Freeney has gotten more than 11 sacks only 3 times in his 7 seasons. 12.5 sacks is still a very good season, and those 12.5 sacks were gotten in a defense (run by I'm-too-scared-to-blitz Ted Cottrell) that survived entirely off of luck and turnovers. Teddy was fired half-way through the next season for not being nearly aggressive enough, so the change to his defense has to be focused on when somebody tries to claim that "Merriman hasn't done anything since they made him stop taking steroids."
So, what can we hope for from Merriman in 2010?
I'm not going to sit here and pretend this is Wade Philips defense, with Jamal Williams at the nose and a Pro Bowler everywhere else. Shawne probably won't break the sack record. Lucky for us, the Bolts don't need him to. As we saw last year, NFL teams know that Shawne is still a fearsome force when healthy. They know he still needs to be double-covered. If he can stay on the field and even rack up 10-13 sacks, he'll go right back to being the driving force behind a very good defense (because he'll free up guys like Shaun Phillips and Luis Castillo).
That's pretty much what I'm expecting to. And the love-hate relationship between Shawne and the Chargers fans will go back to romance, and we'll all scream for the team to keep him, and all will be well. All it's going to take is a little health, luck and flexibility.