"To be as simple as possible, I just want to play football," Merriman said. "That's what it comes down to. I know what's on the table, I know what's on the line. I put a lot of work in this and I want to play."
Whether Merriman was aboard or not, the Chargers' aim is still reaching the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
"Fans stop me a lot and ask me about the Super Bowl," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "That's the ultimate goal. There's no denying that. But it's a journey. We're not going to win it today. It's a long hard road to get there."
LB Shawne Merriman
In the 2007 season, they went 11-5 and advanced to only their fourth AFC Championship Game. They lost to the Patriots, but feel the experience is something that will help push them over the hump.
"Last year we talked a lot about the big picture, but I'm not sure we understood it," Rivers said. "Now we understand, 'Let's not worry about December and January right now.' I think last year we got a taste of really what it's going to take and now I think we're out to get it but understand that it is a patient, long process. We've got to go play and take care of business."
Unfortunately for the Chargers, Merriman isn't the only one clogging the injury list.
Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick could miss the season's first month with a foot injury.
Tight end Antonio Gates will have to monitor a sore toe that kept him from all of the exhibition games.
And inside linebacker Stephen Cooper, the team's leading tackler last year, will sit out the first month serving a suspension for breaking the NFL's substance abuse policy.
So adversity came calling a bit soon for the Chargers. But unlike previous seasons, they feel like they are equipped to handle it.
"We can't get ahead of ourselves," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "We've got to make sure we take care of right now."
Tomlinson is also bouncing back from the sting of that playoff loss to New England. He aggravated a sprained knee the frigid afternoon, spending three-plus quarters on the bench.
But he's fit and eager to gun for his third consecutive rushing crown as the team tries for its fourth AFC West crown in five seasons.
"The only expectations we have are to play as good as we can," Tomlinson said. "We know that if we do that we'll be in good shape. That's the only expectation we put on ourselves. It's not to try to do what we did last year, not to try to win a championship. Obviously that's our goal, but you can't put those kinds of expectations on yourself because each year it gets harder."
This year's Chargers team, though, has few soft spots. Come February, the spot it might find itself is in Tampa, Fla., for the Super Bowl.
COACHING: Norv Turner, 24th year (69-87-1), 2nd with Chargers (11-5).
REMEMBERING: 2007 record: 11-5 (1st in AFC West); lost in AFC Championship Game to New England, 21-12.
PREDICTING: 2008 regular season record 12-4 (1st in AFC West); lose in Super Bowl to Cowboys.
--In Monday's victory over Seattle, the Seahawks scored an early touchdown in even more impressive fashion than Dallas had 16 days earlier. The Seahawks required three plays to march 80 yards for a score, capping it on a 68-yard pass play where free safety Eric Weddle missed a tackle on Seattle's Nate Burleson inside the Chargers' 40. In the Cowboys game, Dallas drove 54 yards on eight plays for a touchdown in quarterback Tony Romo's lone series of the game.
FS Eric Weddle
"It's just being a little bit more emotional and having a little bit more of an attitude when we step out on that field," defensive end Luis Castillo said, "and coming out with a little more fire and we'll be fine."
Chargers coach Norv Turner would like to see a better showing from his starting defense, but he's more disappointed by the unit's tackling. "When we were at our best and we played at the level we want to play at, we did not give up big plays," Turner said. "If you give up big plays, you're going to give up so many points. That's what concerned me. ... we played good offenses. Dallas is an outstanding offensive football team. Seattle is an outstanding offensive football team. You get a better evaluation of where you are and what you need to do."
--The injury to OLB Jyles Tucker (ankle) is considered minor enough that Turner said Tucker could have returned to the game if it had been a regular-season contest. Tucker went down in the loss to Seattle.
--The Chargers signed linebacker Jyles Tucker and safety Steve Gregory to new contracts. Tucker signed a five-year contract that runs through the 2012 season, while Gregory inked a four-year pact that runs through 2011.
Tucker is entering his second NFL season and will become a pivotal player this season should Shawne Merriman's knee issues keep him off the field. Gregory is a third-year backup strong safety who was scheduled to become a restricted free agent after this season. Both players were originally signed by the Chargers as undrafted free agents.
"Both Jyles and Steve did it the hard way," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said in a statement. "They came to us as undrafted free agents, spent some time on the practice squad and earned their way on to the 53-man roster by working extremely hard. Both have become productive players and we're extremely excited to have them in the fold for years to come."
--WR Chris Chambers might be the happiest Charger. He was rescued last year from dismal Miami, landing with a team many predict will land in the Super Bowl. "I feel blessed to be in this situation at this point in my career," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 15 -- Number of interceptions CB Antonio Cromartie has set for a goal this season -- that would be an NFL record.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Obviously it was a big relief for a lot of us. We all know what Shawne brings to this team, especially the defense. He's an impact player, a difference-maker. You just kept your fingers crossed that he was going to be able to play" - RB LaDainian Tomlinson on the news Shawne Merriman will play this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Shawne Merriman is back and makes everyone else better. But the Chargers are going to have to monitor Merriman's knee throughout the season -- or as long as it holds up. So while Merriman returned, the expectations remain that backups Jyles Tucker and Marques Harris figure to see plenty of action.
--The Chargers cut five players to reach the required 75-player limit: QB Casey Bramlet, WRs Billy Pittman and Marco Thomas, TE John Tereshinski and P/K Billy Vinnedge. The final cut to 53 players will be Saturday.
PLAYER TO WATCH: FB Michael Tolbert -- When you an undrafted product coming from Coastal Carolina College, making the Chargers would seem to be a tall order. And it is -- but Tolbert bucked the odds and will make the opening day roster. Tolbert seized his chance with the hole at fullback after the team let Lorenzo Neal leave in the offseason then his replacement, Andrew Pinnock, was slow in coming back from a serious knee operation. Tolbert quickly earned the respect of LaDainian Tomlinson and the confidence of his coaches with his hard-nosed play.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/27, CB Antoine Cason, Arizona -- Has given hints the transition from college to NFL will be a smooth one.
Rd. 3/69, FB Jacob Hester, LSU -- Can supply the short-yardage and blocking the team is looking for after the release of Lorenzo Neal and the slow comeback of Andrew Pinnock. Looks like a keeper.
Rd. 5/166, RB Marcus Thomas, Texas-El Paso -- Might sneak in with a roster spot, but if he does, he will likely be inactive on game days.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACK: Starter - Philip Rivers. Backups - Billy Volek, Charlie Whitehurst.
Rivers experienced a bit of a sophomore slump in his second year as a starter early on, then came on down the stretch. In the eight-game winning streak which led to the AFC Championship Game, Rivers threw for 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Volek declined offers to compete for a starting job elsewhere to return as the backup. The team remains high on Whitehurst and likely would have been comfortable with him backing up Rivers if Volek would have exited.
FB Andrew Pinnock
Tomlinson is healthy and entering the season with a chip on his shoulder -- bad news for opposing defenses. Tomlinson, who is aiming for this third straight NFL rushing title, was piled on pretty good when getting hurt in the AFC title tilt. Many thought he didn't attempt to re-enter the game; his strained knee told him otherwise. But he is fit and motivated, knowing the window for him and the Chargers closer to being shut than flung wide open. The team will miss Michael Turner, Tomlinson's stellar backup. But Sproles has been stellar this summer and he will get more than a look on third downs. They hope Pinnock can fill the void left by Lorenzo Neal, but he is coming off a serious knee operation. FB Michael Tolbert, an undrafted free agent, was the surprise of the camp.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Antonio Gates, Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups - Scott Chandler.
This area is usually one of strength for the Chargers, but the uncertainty over Gates' toe injury raises a red flag here. Gates is a tough guy, but it might be asking too much even for him to rebound in time for the opener. He will give it a go, but this toe injury is worth watching throughout the year. Manumaleuna could get more chances at catching the football instead of blasting open lanes for Tomlinson. Chandler is in his second year and seems capable, but he is unproven.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson. Backups - Buster Davis, Legedu Naanee, Malcom Floyd.
Chambers gave the offense a huge lift when arriving last year from the Dolphins. He can stretch defenses, which gives Tomlinson and Gates more room to run on the rushes and underneath routes. Jackson was among the benefactors as well with defenses leaning their coverages toward Chambers, which gave Jackson more opportunities. Davis is battling consistency problems, but figures to be in the mix as well. Keep an eye on the versatile Naanee as Norv Turner has him lining up at various spots to take advantage of his considerable skills. Floyd's time is now or never -- might be inactive on game days.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Jeremy Newberry, RG Mike Goff, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups - C Nick Hardwick, T L.J. Shelton, C Cory Withrow, G Scott Mruczkowski.
Hardwick is the key here the team elected to wait until the offseason was well underway to have his toe surgery; it had hoped rest would cure it. So with Hardwick likely missing the season's first month, the team will trot out Newberry on opening day. The team was upbeat with the way Clary came on when starter Shane Olivea fizzled last year, but it is protecting itself by snagging the veteran Shelton and he has looked good - subbing for McNeill while he fights a stinger. Dielman has been a monster in the weight room this offseason and could be headed for a Pro Bowl season. Goff could be in his final year with the Chargers, but his experience can't be overlooked. McNeill has made two Pro Bowls in two years -- enough said -- but he might be bothered by that stinger early in the year.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Igor Olshansky, DT Jamal Williams, RDE Luis Castillo. Backups - DT Ryon Bingham, DT Brandon McKinney, LDE Jacques Cesaire.
Williams is the main man which makes this 3-4 hum as rival lines can't dedicate just one man to block him -- he is too strong. With so much attention paid to Williams, Olshansky and Castillo are able to provide a solid push off the edges; Olshansky is more of a run-stuffer while Castillo's quickness allows him to reach the pocket. But Williams is getting long in the tooth, so expect to see plenty of Bingham and McKinney in a rotation to try and keep Williams fresh. Cesaire often comes in on passing downs and is an able fill-in when Castillo -- he has a tough time staying on the field -- gets hurt.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Matt Wilhelm, OLB Shawne Merriman. Backups - ILB Derek Smith, OLB Marques Harris, ILB Carlos Polk, ILB Brandon Siler, ILB Tim Dobbins, ILB Anthony Waters, OLB Jyles Tucker.
Merriman and Phillips give the Chargers a 1-2 pass-rush combination that is among the league's best -- if Merriman's wretched knee holds up. Merriman gets most the headlines -- rightfully so -- but don't overlook Phillips. Both of them often end up in the pocket, where they combined for 21 sacks. Cooper is out the first month with a suspension, so Smith will hold down his spot. Wilhelm is solid and is developing into a team leader. Harris and Tucker can be forces on passing downs and the Chargers aren't shy about using them.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antonio Cromartie, SS Clinton Hart, FS Eric Weddle. Backups - CB Antoine Cason, S Steve Gregory, CB Cletis Gordon, S Paul Oliver.
Cromartie had a breakthrough season last year when leading the NFL with 10 interceptions and scoring touchdowns in three different ways. He should only get better, although teams might be more reluctant to throw his way. Jammer is coming off his second consecutive solid season; he's not reluctant to give help in the run support as well. Hart is entering his second season as a starter after setting career highs in numerous categories last year. The team is high on Weddle, who they traded up to snag in the second round two years ago. Weddle is a smart player not prone to many mental mistakes. Cason could be tested as the nickel back and there are some depth concerns here. But the starters -- especially on the corners -- are spot-on.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, PR/KOR Darren Sproles, LS David Binn.
Kaeding is consistent and healthy going into the season after his plant leg was fractured late last year -- he has seen increased length on his kickoffs. Scifres is always among the NFL's leaders in net average return and he's among the reasons the Chargers are so good on third downs. If a play isn't there for a first down, Rivers knows he doesn't have to force something: just let Scifres punt it away, get the field position back and play on. Sproles is electric with his quickness and had two returns for touchdowns last year.