Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler was on a conference call with San Diego reporters Wednesday when the subject veered from the injured Shawne Merriman to one of his backups, Jyles Tucker. "Who?" Cutler said.
Jyles Tucker, it was repeated.
"Nothing," Cutler replied.
It turns out Cutler does know a little bit about Tucker, who's played in only seven regular-season games for the San Diego Chargers in his two-year NFL career. Tucker will be asked to help fill the chasm left when Merriman told the Chargers on Tuesday that he will have surgery on two torn ligaments in his left knee.
"Didn't he just sign a new deal?" Cutler said about Tucker, who indeed was given a five-year contract extension late last month _ despite his limited experience _ as uncertainty surrounded Merriman's situation.
"He's going to come out and want to fill the role that Merriman had. I don't know if he's going be able to play at that high level right away, but he's definitely going to make some plays for them."
Tucker didn't seem to care that Cutler doesn't know who he is. Perhaps the two will meet up Sunday, when the two-time defending AFC West champion Chargers play their first division game, at Denver.
"That's cool," Tucker said. "As long as we win the game, that's all that matters. It's not about me, it's about winning the game and getting to the championship. That's all that matters."
The Chargers were upset 26-24 by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, then found out two days later that they'll be without Merriman for the rest of the season. Merriman was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday. The team said it didn't know when he'll have surgery.
Merriman had an NFL-high 39 1/2 sacks in the past three seasons and played in three straight Pro Bowls.
Nicknamed "Lights Out" because of his punishing hits, the normally media-friendly Merriman remained mum for the second straight day. He didn't return e-mails seeking comment, and a team spokesman said he wasn't at Chargers Park.
An associate of Merriman's said the linebacker probably wouldn't talk until doing a radio show on Wednesday night. It's believed that Merriman is paid for doing the show.
Late in training camp, Merriman said that the posterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee were torn.
He spent several days getting opinions from four doctors from outside the organization, all of whom recommended that he have surgery. But on Aug. 27, he announced that he was going to play.
Merriman had only two tackles on Sunday.
Coach Norv Turner said it was hard when he spoke with Merriman on Tuesday. Turner doesn't think the linebacker will have any regrets about trying to play.
"He gave it a shot, he gave it a chance, and he found out that he's not able to do what he is capable of doing," Turner said.
"He's a football player, and he's as tough a guy, as good a competitor, as you're going to be around," the coach said. "There's a reason he did what he did. He wanted to play. It's hard on anyone when you get put in a position where you can't do what you love to do. Obviously there's a process he's going to have to go through to get back on the field."
Turner said the Chargers might fill Merriman's spot by committee.
"We have a number of guys who've played there, have experience at outside backer, so we're going to come up with the best group of guys, the best package," he said. "We're going to evaluate a lot of things this week and come up with a good plan."
Said Tucker: "Everybody's practicing and everybody's going to play. That's all I know about that."
Tucker said the loss of Merriman "will have everybody more eager and willing to do what they've got to do, to try to win that championship, because everybody knows what he means to the team."
The Chargers are also without inside linebacker Stephen Cooper, who was suspended by the NFL for the first four games this season for testing positive for a banned stimulant. Cooper led the Chargers with 179 tackles last season, when San Diego reached the conference championship game before losing 21-12 at New England.
Playing opposite Merriman, Shaun Phillips has been known as "The Other Guy." He doesn't expect any more attention now that Merriman is out.
"It ain't about me. It's about this team," Phillips said. "As long as we keep the focus about this team, we'll be OK."
Phillips said Merriman was "a bit upset because his knee was hurting" after Sunday's game.
But he added that the Chargers have a number of young, eager linebackers.
"It's unfortunate, but the band must play," Phillips said.
Notes:@ The Chargers elevated linebacker Antwan Applewhite from the practice squad to the active roster. ... Two-time defending NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson didn't practice but said a jammed right big toe shouldn't keep him from playing Sunday. CB Antonio Cromartie (hip) and tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) also sat out, while TE Antonio Gates (hip) had limited participation.
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