Injured Merriman vulnerable, but some foes want to avoid 'bad karma'

Even with a weakened left knee, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman (left) -- tackling Dallas Cowboy Felix Jones here -- intends to play with the same ferocity he normally does. San Diego opens at home Sunday against Carolina. Paul Spinelli/Getty Images

Editor's note:This column originally was published Sept. 3.
St. Louis Rams center Richie Incognito was like a lot of people who heard the recent news that San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman would play with two torn left knee ligaments this season: Incognito couldn't believe it.

It wasn't just that Merriman had ignored recommendations by four doctors to have surgery. It was that Incognito knew how much Merriman's life on the field would change.

"When we played against him, we knew there were certain protection schemes that we just couldn't use because you needed a running back to help block him," Incognito said. "Now you'll see teams doing all kinds of different things to him."

This isn't news in pro football, a sport in which anybody is fair game if he can suit up on game day. However, what is interesting about Merriman's situation -- even more than a week after he publicly acknowledged the severity of his injury -- is that he really will be a marked man. Forget about his two Pro Bowl appearances and the 39½ sacks he's racked up during his first three NFL seasons. If he can make it through an entire season with a knee that mangled, this will be his most amazing accomplishment as a professional.

After all, the feeling around the league seems to be that it's open season on Merriman, whose team opens against Carolina on Sunday.

"If I'm on offense, I'm going to run at him on every play and put that knee to the test," said Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Bart Scott.

"I'm cutting because it's legal. I'm chop-blocking him. I'm making him think about that knee on every play. I know those linemen are going to be trash-talking and cutting at his feet."

Scott's perspective on this issue is based on one simple fact of life in the NFL -- you'll be exposed if you have any weakness that can be exploited. In Merriman's case, the worst thing he could have done was to talk openly about the damage to his knee. There are plenty of cases in which NFL coaches have been fined for trying to hide injuries on their weekly injury reports. Merriman basically gave his opponents a clear-cut road map to the main pressure point on his body.

If he hadn't done that, Merriman at least could have prevented other teams from having such an obvious advantage against him. In fact, Miami Dolphins guard Justin Smiley said he once played through most of a season with a dislocated shoulder, mainly because he understood the importance of secrecy.

"People knew that I had dislocated my shoulder, but I didn't really miss any practice time," Smiley said. "So other teams probably didn't think it was that bad when it really was pretty painful. It slipped on me a couple times that year, but nobody tried to attack me any differently. I just knew I was going to have to step up my game with my footwork and my hands to overcompensate."

Merriman's problem is that he won't have the same luxury. His primary role is to come off the edge with an unbridled fury on pass plays and to attack the run as if the ball carrier just slapped his mother. The minute he starts thinking about his knee, that's one more second for a quarterback to throw, one more foot of space for a running back to roam. That also will be one more reason for his fellow Chargers defenders to wonder whether they should make up for whatever he can't do.

Now that doesn't mean opponents will be salivating at the chance to cripple Merriman.

Seattle Seahawks guard Mike Wahle said that is not only wrong ethically but also an ineffective way of approaching the game.

"You have to acknowledge [the injury] but at the same time, if you start thinking about hurting him -- or going after somebody's knee like that -- then you're probably going to get beat."

You have to acknowledge [the injury] but at the same time, if you start thinking about hurting him -- or going after somebody's knee like that -- then you're probably going to get beat.

--Seahawks OL Mike Wahle on Chargers LB Shawne Merriman

Oakland Raiders offensive tackle Kwame Harris was even more to the point. He said intentionally trying to hurt somebody in Merriman's situation would be "bad karma."

What these players also acknowledge is that you can't underestimate an injured opponent. Just ask former Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg. He remembers facing Chicago Bears middle linebacker Dick Butkus toward the end of Butkus' Hall of Fame career, when a gimpy knee had severely limited the star defender.

Kuechenberg initially had decided to avoid blocking Butkus in the knees because the Dolphins were favored to win easily. "I told myself, 'Nope, I'm not going to do that,'" Kuechenberg said. "I'm going to go high and take him on like a man. The first time I tried that, it wasn't very enjoyable. Every play after that, I was going right for that knee."

That really is the ultimate lesson that people point to when talking about Merriman these days. Even with an injured knee, the man still has to be considered dangerous. He knows the risks he's taking with his career, and he surely will be far more motivated to prove himself this season. You simply don't gamble like this unless you're certain you can play at a high enough level.

Of course, the flip side is the reality of the game.

"This is a league where if you have a bad corner, they will throw the ball 100 times over there until you get that player out of there," Scott said. "You don't think they're going to run the ball at a wounded player?"

You can bet that Merriman already has factored that information into his thought process. But the question that will be answered in the coming months is how big a price he'll have to pay for the riskiest decision of his brief career.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com. ESPN.com NFL writers James Walker, Mike Sando and Tim Graham contributed to this column.