LOS ANGELES -- Early Monday evening, two hours before his annual bowling tournament was set to begin at Lucky Strike Lanes in Hollywood, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman approached a clerk and requested that one lane be opened. "I've got to practice," he said.
Never mind that his bowling tournament is a charity event and there are no designated winners or losers. Merriman could not stand to embarrass himself. So he walked to the farthest lane and tested out his surgically repaired left knee. When he started rolling strikes -- or at least some spares -- he could go greet his celebrity guests.
The Chargers miss Merriman for the way he spooks quarterbacks, disrupts offenses, commands two blockers and still bulldozes a path between them. But they also miss the way he gathers them in a circle before every game, a la Ray Lewis, barking in their faces and poking at their chests. The Chargers took on Merriman's image -- sometimes reckless but always competitive, whether they were blitzing or bowling.
The most significant knee injury of this season was suffered by Tom Brady. But the one to Merriman was almost as devastating for his team. With Merriman, the Chargers were a Super Bowl contender, led by one of the NFL's most hyperactive defenses that used to rack up 60-plus sacks a season. Without Merriman, the Chargers are 4-8, ranked 27th in the NFL in yards allowed, and have posted just 23 sacks. "I can't say I'm the reason," Merriman said. "There is still a lot of talent on our team, a lot of great players. Honestly, I'm disappointed. You don't look at them and see a 4-8 team."
The Chargers' roster has long been described as one of the most talented in the NFL, and in the past two-and-a-half years, the organization took extraordinary steps to protect that talent. The Chargers awarded long-term extensions to defensive end Luis Castillo, defensive backs Clinton Hart and Quentin Jammer, and linebackers Shaun Phillips, Matt Wilhelm, Stephen Cooper and Jyles Tucker. One of the few defensive cornerstones to whom they did not give a contract extension was Merriman, who has been selected to three Pro Bowls and is the most electrifying player on the team besides LaDainian Tomlinson.
By signing so many linebackers -- including Tucker, an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest who fills Merriman's spot on the outside -- the Chargers indicated they could replace Merriman and let him walk as a free agent after next season. But now that Merriman has spent three months on the sideline, his value has never appeared higher. "I think they knew my value before," Merriman said. "But some things in life can be taken for granted. ... I think it was just a situation where I was really taken for granted."
As Merriman spoke, he was standing in the VIP lounge of Lucky Strike Lanes, which is to bowling alleys what Nobu is to Japanese food. Lucky Strike may be the only bowling alley that has a red carpet outside. The Chargers have been concerned in the past that Merriman spent too much times in places just like this, trying to become a Hollywood star in addition to a NFL star. But there are other elite pass-rushers -- including Jason Taylor and Michael Strahan -- who have proven that you can be both.
Showing his dedication, Merriman tried to play this season on two torn knee ligaments, even though doctors recommended that he undergo surgery immediately, lest he damage the knee further. "I told the Chargers that if I had the slightest chance of being able to play, I would," Merriman said. Only after he watched tape of his performance in the opening game against Carolina did he recognize that he needed to have the surgery.
NFL teams do not like to award multi-year contracts to players coming off serious injuries, but if the Chargers do not extend Merriman's deal, they run the risk of repeating the Drew Brees experience. The Chargers let Brees go as free agent in 2006, after he tore the labrum in his right shoulder, and now Brees leads the league in passing yards. Merriman, who expects to be ready for mini-camp in May, believes he will be fully healthy next season for the first time since August 2005, when he was a rookie and tore one of the ligaments in his knee during the second preseason game against Minnesota.
Merriman said he has had no negotiations with the Chargers recently, and if he does not have a new contract by the time next season starts, he is inclined to test the free-agent market. Merriman comes with some baggage, having been suspended two years ago for violating the NFL's steroids policy, but edge rushers of his caliber do not often suffer from a shortage of suitors.
"I've seen a lot of guys complain about not getting paid and I'm not doing that," Merriman said. "I'm not complaining. I love San Diego. I love the fans in San Diego. I love my teammates. But I know what my value is and I know what situation I'm in. I'm going to be able to play football regardless of what happens."
The Chargers' problems run deeper than one player. The club must assess its offensive line, which is not sustaining blocks, as well as its coaching staff, which is not exploiting all that talent. But Merriman can reinvigorate the pass rush -- and by extension, the defense -- all by himself. His return, even with Norv Turner as head coach, makes the Chargers a threat in '09. Whether Merriman continues road-tripping to Los Angeles for television appearances and red-carpet events -- he has worked this season as a football analyst for Fox Sports Net -- is hardly the most pressing issue facing the team.
After all, Merriman's Lights On Foundation raised $75,000 for Feeding America and Stand Up For Kids at the bowling tournament Monday night. Singer Avril Lavigne showed up, as did actors David Arquette and Jerry Ferrara, better known as "Turtle" on Entourage. Merriman then flew home to Maryland on Tuesday for the coat drive he is holding at the University of Maryland basketball game Wednesday night. Merriman started the coat drive when he was playing football for the Terrapins and he now rounds up 6,000-8,000 coats every year for the homeless. Since Merriman was homeless for several stretches as a child, the coat drive is a way for him to reconnect with his past.
As Merriman crisscrosses the country, the Chargers digest the notion that they will miss the playoffs after being picked by many to win the Super Bowl. How they have fallen so far, so fast, is a question that will dog them into spring. There are no easy answers, except one. They could use Merriman, for next year and for years to come.