After two weeks of training camp, the Buffalo Bills will play their first pre-season game of the 2011 season Saturday night in Chicago.
While most NFL veterans don’t care too much for pre-season football, the same can’t be said for Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman.
After suffering through a laundry list of injuries the past three seasons, any kind of football is a welcome sight for the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, especially after what happened last year.
Merriman would really like to forget the 2010 season. He was released by the Chargers in early November. One day later, he claimed off waivers by the Bills. Then minutes into his first workout, Merriman suffered an Achilles tendon injury and was done for the year.
It had been quite a fall from grace for a man who at one time was considered one of the premiere defensive players in the league and nearly trademarked the phrase “Lights Out”.
However, Merriman is enjoying a rebirth of sorts during Bills camp and is flying around with an intensity that hasn’t been seen since his early days in San Diego. Because of what took place last year, he admits it is going to feel extra sweet when he steps onto the field Saturday night.
“It feels good. It’s been a long time for me personally and a lot of guys because of the lockout and all of those things” said Merriman.
The NFL lockout turned out to be a blessing for Merriman as he worked tirelessly to get his body back into peak shape. To that end, he enlisted the help of MMA legends Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell as Merriman searched for a way to rehab his leg injury, while building up his core strength at the same time.
More than anything, Merriman feels a real sense of pride in the way the entire Bills defence has worked throughout camp.
“I am proud of myself personally, but proud of just the way all the guys on the defensive side of the ball worked to get better. I came in last year and it was kind of a different feel from where we are right now. And it’s only going to get better.”
Bills head coach Chan Gailey has not only noticed Merriman’s improved health, but his leadership skills as well.
“I think he hesitated to have a loud voice to this point because he is learning this defence. Still, the way he plays and the edge that he brings has been a form of leadership that has been good for us. I think as time goes on, his voice will be more prominent on our football team” said Gailey.
If the Bills are going to have any chance of being competitive in 2011, they need Merriman to stay healthy and be productive. For a player that amassed a remarkable 39.5 sacks the first three years of his career, he only managed four over the next three years. Merriman hasn’t recorded a sack since November of 2009.
The Bills defence gave up more rushing yards in 2010 than any other team in the eleague. A healthy Merriman will help the cayse; but so will the enormous 343 pound rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus. Another new member of the Bills defence that is being counted on to help turn things around is former Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Nick Barnett.Gailey has been very impressed with how both Barnett and Merriman have meshed with their teammates and the speed at which they have been able to master the Bills defence.
“I think it has been very smooth. Nick wouldn’t have anyway, but Shawne could have had some off-season. He was also here last year and had the terminology. Shawne is probably a little further along with the terminology than Nick, but he picks it up quick. Nick is a veteran. He has seen it all before. It’s just a matter of getting the correct terms down,” said Gailey.
Playing in the same division as the Patriots and the Jets, nobody is giving the Bills much of a chance, let alone making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. But after years of playing on a team in San Diego that was viewed as the ultimate underachiever, Merriman is enjoying being part of the underdog.
“It’s actually kind of good in a way. Because you get a chance to fly under the radar and if teams want to take us for granted, then that’s on them. I was in a situation for some years that we were the opposite. We were supposed to win everything every single year and it didn’t work out too well for us. So, hopefully, we will get a different outcome with this.”
There is a hope that a Merriman career reviva will go a long way to vastly improve any chance the Bills have of being a playoff contender.
If Merriman isn’t able to return to his Pro Bowl form, it certainly won’t be from a lack of effort of dedication.