Merriman, Bills aim to tackle challenges
The frigid winters in Western New York will be a far cry from his playing days in San Diego. By the time it starts snowing this fall, his new team may already be out of the playoff race.
But believe it or not, there is no place else Shawne Merriman would rather be than with the Buffalo Bills.
Merriman legitimately loves the fact that he and the Bills are considered long shots entering the 2011 season. Skeptics doubt Merriman can once again justify his "Lights Out" nickname as one of the league's elite pass-rushers. For the past 11 seasons, the Bills haven't seen light at the end of the tunnel except for the long train of opponents that have kept the franchise out of the postseason.
Yet, this pairing is helping to provide both with a flicker of hope.
Merriman has emerged as Buffalo's biggest preseason surprise at outside linebacker. And while the Bills have drawn criticism for not being prominent players in the frenetic free-agent marketplace, there are earmarks that show Buffalo's 4-4 mark in the second half of last season was a sign of better things to come.
Merriman and the Bills took a leap of faith during that stretch. After he was claimed off waivers at midseason, Merriman could have declined a Bills contract offer and became a 2011 free agent. Buffalo could have taken a pass after he tweaked his Achilles' tendon in his first practice and landed on injured reserve without ever appearing in a game.
Merriman, though, signed a two-year, $10.5 million deal. General manager Buddy Nix admits this was a risk considering Merriman has basically missed two of the past three seasons with leg injuries and experienced a mediocre 2009 campaign in San Diego.
Merriman was taking a gamble, too. He put his NFL future in the hands of a franchise he admittedly "didn't know too much about" when joining an 0-7 Bills squad last November.
"I knew it was cold. I knew their record wasn't good," Merriman told FOXSports.com after Thursday morning's walkthrough practice at St. John's Fisher College.
"I honestly thought, 'What the hell are these guys doing over here?'"
Merriman, though, began gaining respect for a team that didn't quit despite getting off to the worst start in the NFL.
"When I re-signed I felt this was a perfect situation for me," Merriman said. "I'm in surroundings where I feel a lot of people have a lot to prove. I fit right in."
With 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, Merriman established himself as one the league's premier defensive forces. His trademark sack dance and funky haircuts added to his notoriety.
"We all know what he looked like at his best," Bills head coach Chan Gailey said. "He was, if not the best, one of the best in the league at his position."
The key word: was.
Merriman's valiant attempt to play despite two torn knee ligaments in 2008 ended after just one regular season game. He wasn't the same player in 2009, notching 36 tackles and four sacks in 14 starts while struggling with a foot injury. Calf and Achilles' tendon problems followed in 2010.
Merriman heard the criticism that followed. He already was a target for those who questioned whether his early success was linked to banned performance-enhancing substances after being suspended four games in 2006 following a positive test.
Merriman also was arrested for battery and false imprisonment in 2009 following a complaint by former reality TV star Tila Tequila. Even though the charges were quickly dismissed, the incident briefly sullied an off-field image Merriman truly cares about.
But throughout all these tribulations, the 27-year-old Merriman was determined to prove he wasn't washed up or wiping out. Merriman's actually gone through worse. His rough upbringing includes two separate instances where his childhood home burnt to the ground.
"It was one thing after another," Merriman said of the past three years. "It reminded me a lot of growing up when things would happen and you have to get through it and stay positive. Sometimes you have to remember what got you in this place."
Already a stickler in the gym — just check the frequent workout updates on his Twitter account — Merriman further pushed himself this offseason with another round of mixed martial arts training under the tutelage of FOXSports.com NFL insider Jay Glazer. Merriman said the sessions focused on "hand combat, getting my hips back open again, endurance and focusing when you get tired."
"Everything I was doing was based around having an amazing year," he said.
So far, so good.
Even while trying to learn his new outside linebacker responsibilities and terminology in Buffalo's hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, Merriman's instincts have become evident as he sniffs out plays in practice.
"He sees things a lot of guys don't see," said former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, who is serving as a guest coach this week at training camp. "The other day, he looked at what was going on and saw it was a screen play. He was right in the backfield. It's the little things. He's well on his way."
Nix said Merriman is "starting to get back the explosion that he had" when first entering the league in 2005.
"He's not there yet," said Nix, who was a member of San Diego's front-office staff at that time. "It might be more that he's a little afraid to turn it loose, but I'd say he's 75, 80 percent (recovered). Even at that, he's a good player."
It will take more than Merriman alone for the Bills to be good this season, especially in a division that features Super Bowl favorites like New England and the New York Jets.
The NFL's 32nd-ranked run defense must improve, which it should with free-agent inside linebacker pickup Nick Barnett (Green Bay) and heralded 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus now at defensive tackle. The unheralded Ryan Fitzpatrick did a nice job at quarterback in the second half of 2010, but Gailey admits he needs better offensive line protection as well as support in the running game.
If the Bills don't show improvement, Nix and team owner Ralph Wilson will come under heavy fire for not making more high-profile veteran personnel acquisitions like Barnett and versatile running back/special-teams ace Brad Smith (Jets). Nix, though, defends his philosophy of building through the draft for the long haul, re-signing core players like cornerback Drayton Florence to contract extensions and dipping into free agency only when it makes Xs-and-Os sense.
"One of the hardest things about this job is the outside pressure to give in and get away from what you really believe," said the 71-year-old Nix, who inherited a personnel mess from the previous Bills front office when promoted to general manager in December 2009. "There are some advantages to being my age. I will not give in. I believe in what we're doing.
"To the fans and the media sometimes, somebody in a different uniform looks great. If there's a guy who can help us, we'll go get him. But just to show we'll spend $12 million a year for somebody, especially someone we don't think can play … I can bring up instances where people have encouraged me to go get this guy. 'He can do this and that. Don't worry about the money. He'll earn it.' None of them have panned out."
Merriman is determined not to get added to that list.
"I've been through the fire," he said. "I came out the other side and I'm still going. Every single day I wake up I'm looking to get something better.
"It's not to get back to where I was. In some people's eyes, getting back to where I was is 17 sacks every season. That's not possible. It's not realistic. But if I can do something here to make the defense and team better, I'm happy. I know I will."