'Lights' at the End of the Tunnel

The Shawne Merriman era came to an inglorious end on Wednesday. San Diego will not miss Merriman on the field, as he is three years removed from his last impactful season, but the rapid decline of this recent "face of the defense" is shocking.

It's difficult to say this year's team will miss Shawne Merriman, seeing as he never provided a substantial contribution this season. Perhaps what he provided most was hope, hope that he would miraculously revert to his 2007 form, cure an ailing pass rush and resume his place as the ideal bookend to Shaun Phillips (six sacks).

It was a long shot, but fans that remembered seeing his "Lights Out" dance like it was yesterday were hopeful a healthy Merriman could make an impact down the stretch.

The Chargers, it seems, were more curious to find out if their younger linebackers could excel while taking Merriman's practice reps and playing outside of his attention-hogging persona.

To be clear, the Chargers did not place Merriman on the injured-reserve list with a minor-injury designation because there is a slew of talented players behind him (or to make room for Antwan Barnes, who was signed to fill Merriman's roster spot).

There is a reason Antwan Applewhite and Brandon Lang went undrafted, just like there's a reason Barnes and Cyril Obiozor were available during the season.

This move was a statement as much as anything. The Chargers want dependable, team players. That philosophy demands the weeding out of players like Merriman and Antonio Cromartie, who was shipped off in the offseason because his play -- although flashy -- was selfish and unreliable.

The Chargers are more of a "team" without Merriman, Cromartie, and to a lesser extent, LaDainian Tomlinson. Whether they're a better team is yet to be seen.

One Happy Ending

All offseason, the focus was on restricted free agents Merriman, Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson. Merriman's saga has resolution and now so does McNeill's. The Chargers agreed to a five-year contract with McNeill on Wednesday, locking him up through the 2015 season. The move rewards McNeill's good-faith gesture to report to the team after Week 3 despite having only a minimal one-year tender offer.

Jackson's story is the last one to be finalized, but expect the final chapter to look a lot more like Merriman's than McNeill's.

Lightning Quicks

--The Chargers released LS Ethan Albright and signed LS Mike Windt. The move was made to help improve kick coverage and protection.

--WR Kole Heckendorf was signed to the practice squad, taking the place of Richard Goodman, who was added to the active roster earlier this week.

What are Bolts fans saying about Merriman's release? See in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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