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THE MOST talented team in football. For a couple of years pundits have been calling the Chargers that, and the mantle has not worn well. San Diego has lost 13 games over the last two seasons. The "most talented" team has been among the most disappointing.
"It's not a compliment anymore," defensive lineman Luis Castillo says.
"I like our team a lot," says coach Norv Turner, "but that's the kind of myth that can only hurt you."
It certainly was a myth in 2008. The Chargers finished 8--8, making the playoffs only because of a monumental collapse by the Broncos. When linebacker Shawne Merriman was shelved by a left-knee injury after just one game, the pass rush vanished and the San Diego defense struggled to a stunningly bad year: 25th overall, and 31st against the pass. The Chargers had just 28 sacks, and opponents completed 67.9% of their passes—the second most in the club's 49-year history.
Some of the players blame the schemes of coordinator Ted Cottrell, finding them too passive; Cottrell was fired after Week 8, and his replacement, Ron Rivera, produced a more aggressive unit that surrendered nearly a touchdown less per game.
But even with Rivera's leadership the Chargers missed Merriman's pressure—and his presence. Which is why the linebacker's return this season will be the biggest factor in determining whether San Diego can finally live up to the hype. "Last year was so tough to watch," says Merriman, who had reconstructive knee surgery in September. "Little things happened, and I'd be, 'Damn, if I was in there, they wouldn't have done that to us. I know they wouldn't.' I've heard from several offensive coordinators who've told me, 'We can't run counter and leave that backside open, because you'll run it down.' Or, 'We can't run power at you, because we know you'll blow it up.' So I'm looking forward to getting back and, hopefully, limiting what some of those offenses can do."
Merriman averaged 15 sacks and 21 tackles for loss over his previous two seasons. His replacement, Jyles Tucker, had 5½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year, and he wasn't the fire-and-brimstone tone-setter that Merriman had been during his first three seasons.
Looking to come back strong, Merriman has worked on his balance because he felt he was pushed over too easily at the point of attack. He also worked on sprinting off the line at the snap. "I've needed a faster takeoff, and even after the surgery I think I have it," he says. "I feel faster than I've ever been."
Merriman has an added incentive: He is one of the five-year veterans who could be caught in the middle of the NFL's labor trouble after the season. If the league doesn't reach a new contract with the players by March, four- and five-year unsigned vets, who are unrestricted free agents under the current system, will be restricted free agents. That means if San Diego doesn't sign him next off-season, the team that does will have to give the Chargers compensation—at least a high draft choice. That puts heat on Merriman to show potential bidders he's worth the added expense.
There also still seems to be a residue of resentment in the San Diego front office over the fact that Merriman didn't have the left knee surgery recommended last off-season by team doctors. If he had had the operation when the Chargers wanted him to, he likely would have been ready to play much, if not all, of 2008. So it wouldn't be surprising if they let him walk and take a pick or picks in return.