It would not have been a complete bye week in San Diego had there not been some back-and-forth between Shawne Merriman and A.J. Smith -- and predictably, the linebacker and general manager delivered.
As if the Chargers don’t have enough issues right now at 2-2 and 2½ games behind the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos, this team always manages to find a little inner turmoil. Add it to the list of ongoing issues led by a spate of injuries to the defensive front that has crippled Ron Rivera’s unit, never more so than in the 38-28 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 4.
That was the last time the Chargers played, and now they’re preparing to host the Broncos on Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium. Coach Norv Turner has been a wizard in December and January in San Diego with a 12-2 regular-season record in those months. But if his team falls any further behind the upstart Broncos, it won’t matter if he’s perfect down the stretch. The fact is, the Chargers have once again found a way to dig themselves into a hole, and the Broncos aren’t going to grab a shovel and dig them out of it this year like they did in 2008.
“Everything is wrong with it right now,” Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune after the loss at Heinz Field. “I’m not the least bit happy in a lot of areas. I’ve seen us be tough and physical to soft and bewildered.”
Soft. There’s a word that doesn’t go over well in locker rooms, and Merriman took the bait as if on cue.
“I don't know too much of that. That's an opinion of a person, and it's not needed,” he said. “We know that we have to play better.”
Nose tackle Jamal Williams has been lost for the season, and the problems have only spread from there. Ends Luis Castillo (arm) and Jacques Cesaire (calf) have not been healthy, although the hope is that the bye week healed up some players, including Merriman, who has been battling a pulled groin muscle suffered in Week 2 against Miami. He’s coming back from major knee surgery and wasn’t expected to be 100 percent as it is. After the groin injury, he was on the field for only about one-third of the snaps at Pittsburgh. He has yet to register a sack, but he has caused two holding penalties.
If Merriman can be 80 percent of who he was before the knee injury, the Chargers will once again have someone that opposing offenses have to scheme against. As it is, the Chargers aren’t presenting a challenge, and that’s why Smith called it embarrassing. There’s an interesting dynamic between Smith and Merriman, and there’s widespread speculation that Merriman is in his final season with the Chargers. Merriman will be an unrestricted free agent after this season if there’s an extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If not, he’ll be restricted, allowing Smith the leverage to do as he pleases.
But there’s a bigger picture to Smith and Merriman, who’s represented by powerful agent Tom Condon and CAA. Smith detests Condon, and there’s a track record between the two going back to when Condon and the Manning family made it clear they didn’t want he Chargers drafting Eli Manning with the No. 1 pick in 2004. Since then, Smith has dealt with Drew Brees, Donnie Edwards and LaDainian Tomlinson, all represented by Condon. Former coach Marty Schottenheimer? You got it, a Condon client. Tomlinson’s reworked contract to remain with the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2001 didn’t get done until owner Dean Spanos got involved in the offseason, after Smith had mocked Tomlinson, according to the interpretation of some.
Smith is a veteran football man who can separate personal relationships and business. But when it enters a gray area, that’s when it gets interesting. At this juncture, Smith needs Merriman more than ever. The Chargers made a wise move in preparing for their future by drafting Larry English from Northern Illinois in the first round, a potential future replacement for Merriman, but he’s not that person right now.
San Diego’s defense is badly in need of an edge, an attitude. Merriman, banged up as he was, looked better in a short stint against the Steelers. He’s going to have to deliver much more against the Broncos or a late-season rally could be meaningless for the Chargers this time around.
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