Chargers turn out lights on Merriman era

There have been signals for more than a year that Shawne Merriman would not end his career with the San Diego Chargers.

But we could never imagine his stay with the Chargers would end like this.

The Chargers will release Merriman after the team deems he is recovered from a nagging calf injury. It will be within the next six weeks. The Chargers placed Merriman on injured reserve Wednesday, but because the injury was minor, he must be cut when healthy. Merriman will be eligible to play for another team during the 2010 season. He cannot play for the Chargers this season.

But that’s fine with San Diego. It was ready to cut ties with him. San Diego didn’t have to take this tact. The Chargers could have waited for Merriman to get healthy by keeping him on the roster. But San Diego grew tired of waiting on Merriman. The team realized that its defense is fine without Merriman and it has moved on without him, even though he is just 26.

Three years ago, this scenario seemed like an impossibility. But that’s the problem. Merriman hasn’t been a factor in three years. The No. 12 overall draft pick in 2005, Merriman used to be a superstar. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and he had a league-high 39.5 sacks in his first three seasons.

But Merriman, who was suspended in 2006 for using a banned substance, has been breaking down physically the past three seasons. In 2008, he missed all but one game with a major knee injury. He dealt with several issues last year.

After holding out until late in training camp this year, Merriman dealt with injuries from almost the moment he started practicing. He started just one game this season and he has been bothered by a calf injury since Week 3.

The Chargers finally concluded that they couldn’t count on Merriman staying healthy and they felt like they needed to move on.

San Diego, which shopped Merriman on the trade market over the past year and likely wasn’t going to sign him when he was eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2011, realized it can play good defense without Merriman. Despite being beat up at linebacker, the Chargers are ranked No. 2 in the NFL on defense.

A healthy Merriman would make this unit better, but there’s been no evidence that he could stay healthy. So, the Chargers are moving on.

Three years ago, Merriman looked like he’d be a Charger for life. He was a runaway freight train as a pass-rusher and he was a better all-around player than the Chargers even hoped he’d be when he was drafted out of Maryland. Merriman was a charismatic force who thrilled Chargers fans with his patented “Lights Out” sack dance.

He was a star. Then, he couldn’t stay healthy.

There is likely further life in the NFL for Merriman, although it may be a long shot that he becomes an impact player again. Still, this is a passionate player whose health issues are likely bothering him more than they ever annoyed the Chargers.

Seeing a quality player like this deteriorate physically to the point where the team would make this drastic move is stunning.