It's been four years since Shawne Merriman has been Shawne Merriman. Maybe that Shawne Merriman is gone forever.
On Sunday night in Bills camp, I asked him: "Can you be Shawne Merriman again?''
"Absolutely,'' he said. "No question. But it's going to be a little bit different. The year I got 12-and-a-half sacks, I was coming off a year where I got 17, 18, whatever. [Seventeen.] So I get 12-and-a-half, and all of a sudden, that's a down year for me. I don't think it was. I can't get caught up with the numbers, just with how I play. And I know I can be the kind of player I was back then again. I feel it.''
Merriman has been a physical wreck the last three years. In 2008, the Chargers wanted him to have postseason knee surgery, and he said he thought he could rehab the knee and proceed without surgery. He couldn't, finding out after one game he needed the surgery. Dumb decision. That began a rift with the team that continued in a diminished 2009 (four sacks in 14 games) and in a wasted 2010, when he played in only three games before being waived injured with an Achilles injury. Claimed by Buffalo, he rehabbed the rest of the season and spent the offseason in San Diego training to get the Achilles right; he says he feels fine now, with no lingering problem with the Achilles. Now the Bills have him playing outside linebacker on the right side, rushing the passer behind an improved defensive line -- tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams should sweep away some of the traffic in front of him -- and giving the Bills hope that, if his speed returns, his production will too.
Not many players who rely on speed can return to that level of production after nagging knee and Achilles injuries. Watching Merriman in some pass-rush situations Sunday, he looked quick, with a good burst, but there's no way of knowing what he'll be flashing until he gets into some live situations in preseason games.
"At least,'' he said, "I'm not holding back anymore. The problem last year is I wasn't able to explode. I had a partial tear, a 20 to 25 percent tear, of the Achilles, and it wasn't right. Just nagging all year. Then what happened is I tried to compensate for it, and other things started hurting. So it was good to have the entire offseason to make sure I got everything back to normal. That's what it feel like now.''
I asked Merriman if he was over the shock of waking up one day in San Diego, his adopted home, and then next day in Buffalo.
"It was a culture shock in so many ways,'' he said. "But the people in the organization, the coaching staff, the fans -- they've all been great. They've been so welcoming. It's such a great football place. But what I've learned is success depends so much on how you adapt to change. Life is all about change. This is been a good thing for me, to be able to get back and concentrate on football.''
Because the Bills have gotten nothing from 2009 first-rounder Aaron Maybin --who was supposed to be their pass-rush hope of the future -- their ability to get pressure on the quarterback depends on Merriman's ability to be what he was four years ago. It's the huge "if'' hanging over Bills camp.
Now on to your email.
• SIR, YESSIR!
Brian, it was a privilege and a pleasure -- and I can tell you from the reaction of the Lions organization after you left that those you interacted with -- the entire offensive line, the coaches, Matthew Stafford, the head coach -- you made a great impact on them as well. Thanks so much for coming and for reminding us that there's a real world out there. How fortunate we are to have people like you overseeing it.
• CONSIDER THE IDEA TRANSMITTED
I would write to Howard Katz, the NFL's broadcasting czar, at the NFL offices at 280 Park Avenue in New York (10011). What the NFL wants you to do is buy Sunday Ticket, obviously. But if you and others chip away at this idea, who knows? Maybe the policy gets changed.
• POINT 1 ABOUT GUN VIOLENCE
Thank you. We have to stop ignoring those stories. They're a blight on a thinking society.
• POINT 2 ABOUT GUN VIOLENCE
Point noted, and, obviously, this is not about taking guns away from hunters. Thanks.
• POINT 3 ABOUT GUN VIOLENCE
I don't blame the guns, sir. I blame, in part, the manufacture and availability of them.
• WHEN THE SUN COMES UP ON THE SLEEPY LITTLE TOWN ...
Excellent point. This rock 'n roll dolt appreciates the education.
• PITTSFORD CHECKS IN
Thank, Phil. Western New York is always one of my favorite stops on the training camp tour. Thanks to everyone in Pittsford for being so hospitable. I'm only sorry I couldn't frequent the bar with no signage.