OWINGS MILLS — The trademark Mohawk haircut, the tattooed, bulging biceps, the rambunctious "Lights Out" sack dance and the intimidating, hard-hitting game.
How could anyone dismiss San Diego Chargers star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman?
Well, Merriman hadn’t played football in nearly a year after undergoing surgery last season to repair two torn knee ligaments.
Plus, the former University of Maryland standout was embroiled recently in a legal situation involving MTV reality television star Tila Tequila.
Merriman, who denied the allegations, was arrested after being accused of choking her and throwing her to the ground with prosecutors ultimately declining to press charges.
Then, Merriman had a relatively quiet return during the Chargers’ 24-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Monday night. The former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year had six tackles, but recorded zero sacks.
"When I first got out there, the anxiety and the emotion of getting back out there, I really had to calm down and get my feet back under me," said Merriman during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I haven’t played football in a whole year. So, I just had to get back out and get my feet under me again.
"People are always going to forget everything, but my thing is to come out and do the things I do best. And it’s better than just saying, ‘Look, I can do this or I can do that.’ We’ve got a game Sunday, and people can sit back and watch."
During his first three NFL seasons, the former Terrapin put on a show by registering 39 1/2 sacks and 187 tackles with one interception while being named to three Pro Bowls.
Two years ago, Merriman posted 12 1/2 sacks.
"Offensively, I think we’re just going to have to really keep him calm," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He’s the heartbeat over there on that team. When he can start getting at your quarterback and getting him on the ground, that gets them playing."
In 2006, Merriman led the NFL in sacks with 17 while forcing four fumbles despite being suspended for four games for violating the league’s steroid policy.
Merriman’s image took another hit when Tequila ma de her accusations over the Labor Day weekend. He was arrested on charges of battery and false imprisonment.
Merriman vehemently denied the charges, saying that he prevented Tequila from driving while intoxicated because he was worried about her safety.
Reports later surfaced that the dispute arose from Tequila being jealous of a pair of other women involved in a tryst with Merriman at a party at his house.
Once the San Diego district attorney decided to not go forward with the case, Merriman issued this statement: "I look forward to continuing to stay focused on my career goals: a great season of football and the success of the San Diego Chargers."
Merriman agreed to participate in the conference call on the condition that he not be asked questions about the incident involving Tequila.
He answered a general question on whether his concentration has been tested lately.
"Focus on the field is one of the easier things for me," he said. "It’s always a way to get out there and get out a little pent-up aggression. When you’re watching film and seeing other guys compete, that’s what I look for each and every week. Going out there and playing football is one of the easiest things for me to focus on because this is what I love to do."
The Ravens are convinced that they’re about to encounter the same old Merriman, a destructive pass rusher with an aggressive nature who earned his nickname, "Lights Out," by knocking out four players during one half of prep football while growing up in the Washington suburb of Upper Marlboro.
"He’s a hell of a talent," said Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a former Maryland player. "He’s a hungry, hard-working guy. They’re fortunate to have him on the team."
And Merriman, who signed a five-year, $11.5 million contract as a rookie, is more than eager to prove that he’s not washed up after celebrating his 25th birthday in May.
All of the criticism has provided him a lot of motivational fuel.
"I think that it’s proving that I’m getting better each and every week," Merriman said. "My thing is to go out there and keep helping us win games.
"Just like Domonique said, I love for people to say that I can’t do this or can’t do that because I love proving other people wrong."
Even without Merriman in the lineup last season, the Chargers were one game away from making it to the AFC championship game.
They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional round.
Now, they’ve got Merriman back in the fold to headline a talented front seven.
"Shawne Merriman looks better than ever," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He looks great, he’s playing great."
Despite a quiet game against the Raiders, Chargers coach Norv Turner is certain that Merriman is primed for a big season.
"I think he’s gotten himself ready to have an outstanding year," Turner said. "I thought Shawne played very physical the other night, and I think he’s getting his explosiveness back. I think he’s doing a nice job."
Merriman has totaled two sacks and nine tackles against the Ravens in two previous meetings.
Left offensive tackle Jared Gaither, a former Maryland player, will be primarily responsible for blocking Merriman.
"It will be fun, because I know him," Gaither said. "It will be a great challenge. He’s a physically strong guy and he knows how to get to the quarterback."
Added Merriman: "I’ve seen Jared for years. He’s big, he’s a specimen. He can move his feet. He plays with a lot of power. He’s athletic, especially for a tackle. I had seen Jonathan Ogden for years, probably more a little bit of his later years, but Jared has some of those same kind of qualities."
Merriman’s qualities might not always be in a Chargers powder blue uniform, though.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith drafted former Northern Illinois outside linebacker Larry English in the first round.
And Merriman is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after this season if a new collective bargaining agreement is brokered.
Could this be his final year in San Diego?
"It’s a business," Merriman said. "I’m thankful to be here for one more year. After this year, we’ll see. It was once told to me that no one knows what’s going to happen after this year. I don’t know."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.