Plenty of empirical evidence indicates the playoff life of the San Diego Chargers will not exceed today's 60 minutes, so there's probably no reason at all to scare up some indignation over Shawne Merriman.
Like that would stop me.
Toward the end of the first week in October, Hines Ward was wrapping up preparations to lead the 1-2 Steelers into Southern California, earnestly telling me this as he left the locker room that Friday:
"Merriman's just out of control. You always think of [Junior] Seau as the face of the Chargers and it's hard to say it's anybody else even now, but Merriman is a beast. He's just playing at an unbelievable level."
Out of control ... a beast ... unbelievable.
To all of the superior qualities Ward brings to his profession, please add that he is acutely perceptive, and that he is prophetic.
Merriman's speed and strength and intensity -- he ended Priest Holmes' career with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit in October of '05 -- were not so unbelievable once everyone learned that the menacing San Diego linebacker was, oh by the way, juicing out of his mind.
Nandrolone was the big-time steroid he tested positive for, claiming it entered his system through a supplement he was taking. Uh-huh. I believe that the supplement was Nandrolone. The resulting four-game suspension brought a minimum of soul searching, either by the league or the club or, least of all, the player.
As Merriman readies to torment Tom Brady and the New England Patriots this afternoon, he's capping a season that still included 17 sacks and a second Pro Bowl selection. Coaches, players, and fans alike vote on the Pro Bowl team, so the ready and even eager restoration of Merriman to full diplomat status in the NFL kind of stuck out a little this week, did it not?
This was the week that Mark Mc- Gwire found out that even the suspicion of steroid-aided performance can ruin an entire legacy in baseball. But before we indict football's total absence of outrage in the Merriman case, let's readmit to the record the comments of Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, who, thankfully, beat out Merriman for NFL defensive player of the year.
"You really shouldn't be able to fail a test like that and play in this league to begin with," Taylor said. "To make the Pro Bowl and have all the other awards [Merriman's won], you're walking a fine line on sending the wrong message."
That's why it would do the league some good this afternoon if the Patriots would eject Merriman and a cadre of his extra-legal teammates from this postseason. The Chargers have wrung up an impressive seven arrests this year on the way to 14-2. In fact, if it weren't for the Bengals, the Chargers would be, you know, the Bengals.
Though generally regarded as the best team in the AFC, and by logical extension the best team period, the Chargers somehow lack for feel-good story lines in this view.
I suppose you could root for the exorcism of whatever bedevils Marty Schottenheimer throughout his playoff life. The McDonald native and mentor to Bill Cowher is 5-12 as a head coach in the postseason, and brings a five-game playoff losing streak to today's affair. Schottenheimer's most recent visit to January came two years ago, when he helped set up a New York Jets touchdown by running onto the field to protest a non-call, then opted for a field goal try from his rookie kicker in overtime rather than take advantage of an exhausted Jets defense. Nate Kaeding's 40-yarder was no good, and the Jets won on the next possession.
We've come to call that playoff cowering Martyball, but the Chargers won't need Marty to mess things up today.
Brady's not 11-1 in the playoffs for nothing, and matched against a quarterback making his first postseason start, Philip Rivers, Brady's capable of powering the same brand of New England offense today that's averaged 35 points per game in the four assignments.
Rivers has completed only 37 of his last 77 throws, which figures to put most of San Diego's burden on LaDainian Tomlinson, whom Schottenheimer has called the best running back ever.
That night in October, the Steelers held the best running back ever to 9 yards on seven carries by halftime, 36 on 13 for the game. LaDainian might be wonderful, but he's not unstoppable.
Despite doing a superb job on Tomlinson and on Merriman (three tackles, half a sack), the Steelers still got beat, 23-13. The Chargers are that deep and resilient and talented. Thus no one would be shocked if the Chargers somehow turned up in the AFC title game a week from today, with Merriman pounding his chest in defiance, but we'd all be the worse for it.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1283.