CASSILO: Uncertain future places injured All-Pro on field

David Cassilo

There are many reasons why San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman has decided to play football this upcoming season instead of having surgery on his torn LCL and PCL. Merriman believes the Chargers are on the verge of a Super Bowl. He also knows that after the ’09 season, his contract is up, and missing an entire year would considerably hurt his bank account. However, perhaps the greatest reason of all is that Merriman is scared of someone. That someone is Jyles Tucker.

Who is Jyles Tucker? He is a second-year linebacker from Wake Forest University. After playing a reserve role most of the ’07 season, he showed his potential in a week 17 game where he had three sacks and garnered AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He has built on that performance with a strong preseason and is getting rave reviews from scouts and coaches. Most importantly, Tucker is the man who would take Merriman’s job if the All-Pro linebacker decides to have surgery.

Why should Merriman be afraid of an undrafted second-year player who has only played significant time when the Chargers rested their starters? You would assume that Merriman, who has countless more accolades than Tucker, would be given his job right back as soon as he recovered from surgery. However, this is the NFL, and in this league, that is not the case. General managers are always looking for younger, faster, cheaper options. There is very little loyalty, and with most contracts containing a small portion of guaranteed money, players can be cut very easily.

Just ask Daunte Culpepper how quickly an injury can change your career. In 2004, Culpepper had one of the greatest individual seasons ever for a quarterback while a member of the Minnesota Vikings. He led the NFL with 4,717 passing yards while also throwing an astronomical 39 touchdowns compared to just 11 interceptions. He had established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in all of football and was thought to be someone that the Vikings could count on to be under center for a long time.

Then came 2005, and for all the good he experienced the previous year there was an equal amount of misfortune that Culpepper dealt with that season. The Vikings quarterback got off to a rocky start, throwing zero touchdowns and eight interceptions in the first two games. Then in week seven, Culpepper went down with an ACL, PCL and MCL injury and his season was over. Backup Brad Johnson filled in for Culpepper and went on to win the next six games, and the Vikings finished 2005 with a 9-7 record.

During the offseason, Culpepper and owner Zygi Wilf argued over how the quarterback’s rehab process should take place. Soon after, Culpepper became upset because of what he viewed as a growing support for Brad Johnson over himself within the organization. Feeling disrespected, Culpepper demanded a trade, and just a short while later, he had officially played his last game as a Viking – just one year after arguably the greatest single season ever for a quarterback. Now, after two unsuccessful seasons with first the Miami Dolphins and then the Oakland Raiders, Culpepper finds himself unemployed with the season just days away.

Culpepper’s story is not an isolated incident within the NFL. Rudi Johnson, who ran for 1,300 yards just two seasons ago as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, was just cut following an injury-riddled ’07 campaign. Corey Dillon, who rushed for 13 touchdowns in 2006, could not find a job in 2007. Shaun Alexander set the single season record for touchdowns in 2005. Three years later, he does not have a spot on any of the 32 NFL rosters.

The NFL is a “what can you do for me today” league, and when it comes to making roster decisions, general managers could care less how many touchdowns you had last season or how many yards you threw for. There is always a cheaper and younger option waiting for his opportunity to prove to the league that he belongs on an NFL team. As Merriman knows very well, that cheaper and younger option could be Tucker.

When Merriman decides to go against the advice of four doctors and attempt to play in the ’08 season, he is not doing it because he thinks he is invincible. He is doing it because he realizes he is no different than Culpepper. If he does have surgery and misses an entire season, his career may never be the same again. His Defensive Rookie of the Year, three Pro Bowl selections and 39.5 career sacks will not be enough to have the Chargers automatically hand him his job back in 2009. Merriman may have all the awards and talent in the world, but it can all disappear by giving Tucker just one thing – an opportunity.


David Cassilo is a junior communication major from Chatham, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].