Picking the top 5 linebackers in Chargers history is tough. And not because I had too many to choose from, but because I had too few. Needless to say, the San Diego Chargers aren’t exactly the Penn State of the NFL.
Okay, quick, name five Chargers linebackers not currently on the team.
Not easy, is it?
Let’s face it. The Chargers have not had a great run at the position. Not that they haven’t tried. They’ve used high-round, low-round and middle-round draft choices. They’ve tried trading for them and converting them from other positions. Nothing has worked.
Well, almost nothing.
I can hear it now, "Dennis who?"
Dennis Gibson only played linebacker for the Chargers for two seasons, 1994 and 1995. He has career stats of two-and-a-half sacks and three interceptions. He never went to a Pro Bowl and was never voted an All-Pro. But he did have one memorable pass defended.
It was January 15, 1995: the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. It was the fourth quarter and the Chargers were leading, 17-13, after overcoming a 13-3 third-quarter deficit in spectacular fashion.
The Steelers had driven from their own 17-yard line to the San Diego 3. Time was running out. They were in position to win it with a last-second touchdown, but on fourth down Gibson tipped a ball intended for running back Barry Foster, causing it to fall incomplete. The Chargers went on to win the game and advance to their first (and so far, only) Super Bowl appearance.
In my book, that's worthy of a mention.
Mr. Steady, Woodrow Lowe, played for the Chargers from 1976 to 1986. In that 11-year span, he missed one game. Think of him as Stephen Cooper before there was a Stephen Cooper. He was a rock-steady presence in the middle of the defense.
At an even 6'0" and not-so-even 227 pounds, Lowe was a three-time All American at Alabama and a member of their 1975 National Championship team, yet went undrafted until the fifth round of the 1976 draft. The Chargers took him with the 131st pick.
Known primarily as a run stopper, Lowe did have 15 career sacks and 21 interceptions, four of which were for touchdowns. He is a member of the 50 Greatest Chargers Players of All Time.
To those of you who are new to the Blue and Gold, Billy Ray Smith, Jr., wasn’t always just that guy married to Kimberly Hunt. Nor was he always just that guy teamed up on the radio with that other guy who won’t shut up. No, he had a whole other career before that as a Chargers linebacker.
From 1983 to 1992, Smith roamed Qualcomm Stadium in navy blue and gold.
A two-time All American at Arkansas, Smith was the Chargers’ top pick in the 1983 draft, going fifth overall, and the first defensive player selected. The Chargers MVP in 1987, Smith was also the Chargers' top defensive player in 1985 and 1986. He finished with 26.5 sacks and 15 interceptions in 126 games.
Billy Ray Smith, Jr., is another member of the 50 Greatest Chargers Players of All Time.
Shawne, Shawne, Shawne. Where did it go wrong?
Shawne Merriman had a chance to be No. 1 on this list, but came up short—mainly because he only played for the Chargers for four seasons, six if you count the one game he played in 2008 and the three in 2010. But what a four years it was.
Drafted 12th overall in the 2005 draft with a pick secured in the Philip Rivers/Eli Manning fleecing—ah, trade—“Lights Out” held out of rookie training camp for 10 days, causing him not to start until Week 7.
Ten games later, he had amassed 10 sacks and was named Rookie of the Year by Sporting News and Defensive Rookie of the Year by both the AP and the Pro Football Writers Association. Oh yeah, he was also named to the first of his three consecutive Pro Bowls.
If 2005 sounds good, 2006 and 2007 were even better. Merriman had 17 sacks in 2006 and 12.5 in 2007. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the havoc he wreaked on the field. Every offensive coordinator he faced had to game plan for him. Every quarterback had to know where he was at all times. Simply put, he was a beast.
Merriman’s time in San Diego was cut short by an ugly injury in a 2007 game at Tennessee.
Junior. What can I say? Junior Seau was the previous four rolled into one.
Steady? Junior played 20 years on three different teams; 13 with the Chargers. And in those 13 years, he only missed eight games.
Tackles? 545; 378 unassisted.
Accolades? Try 12—yes, 12!—Pro Bowls in a row to go along with 10-consecutive All-Pro seasons, all of them with San Diego. UPI Defensive Player of the Year (1992). Member of the 50 Greatest Chargers of All Time. Selected to the NFL’s All-Decade Team (1990s).
Drafted out of USC with the fifth pick of the 1990 draft, Seau was the prototypical NFL linebacker. He was a member of USC’s so-called “55 Club,” the jersey number he shared with other great USC linebackers like Willie McGinest. If you open the dictionary to the word "linebacker," it has a picture of Tiaina Baul Seau Jr. beside it.
If it doesn’t, you must be in Oakland.