It was a simple play. Chris Gocong dropped back into coverage because he was responsible for the short outside flat in the Cleveland Browns’ base goal-line defense.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden lofted a pass just over Gocong’s out-stretched arms as the linebacker twisted around in an attempt to get a piece of the football and knock it away from the intended receiver, second-year tight end Jordan Cameron.
He failed, but the repercussions from the play make the significance of a meaningless training camp touchdown pass extremely small.
Gocong, after the play, immediately grabbed at his right ankle. Everyone in attendance knew something was seriously wrong. Of course, since it’s the Cleveland Browns we’re talking about, the very worst possible scenario had just played out. Gocong had ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon and his season, quite possibly his career, had just ended.
The Browns, already thin at linebacker, now have a glaring hole on the defensive depth chart. Gocong had started 32 straight games for the team and, with Scott Fujita suspended for the first three games of the 2012 season due to his involvement in the New Orleans Saints' “Bountygate” fiasco, was expected to help fill the void while Fujita served his suspension.
D’Qwell Jackson, the Browns’ best linebacker and the NFL’s leading tackler last season, is a quiet player on and off the field. Fujita and Gocong have been the vocal leaders of Cleveland’s front seven, and neither will be on the field when the team opens the season against the Philadelphia Eagles September 9 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Now the team must look for answers, and quickly. There are a number of options already on the roster. Kaluka Maiava, a fourth-year player with limited playing time, and fourth round draft pick James-Michael Johnson, players expected to provide depth at the linebacker position this season, now might possibly both be starting the opener.
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur knows Gocong leaves huge shoes to fill.
“I’m disappointed he got hurt,” Shurmur said. “He was out there practicing and Achilles injuries sometimes pop up on you. They really don’t look all that bad. He stepped wrong and it happened. I talked to Chris and he’s fine. We’re moving on and he understands that. My hope now is he gets back healthy
Gocong’s injury also opens up numerous possibilities for players to step into the void and become difference-makers…especially for Maiava and Johnson.
“It’s a great opportunity for some other guys behind him to get in there and play and get more reps,” Shurmur said. “I want to make sure the guys that fill in for him get plenty of reps and I think we’ve got plenty of time to do that."
“They really can play inside as well,” Shurmur continued. “Any time there’s an injury, it’s unfortunate what happens."
It’s the unintended consequence of playing this game and as safe as you try to be, sometimes, it happens and it drives the coach nuts for sure.
Shurmur added, “I worry about that when we come out here because I don’t want to see guys get hurt. The important thing is, when that happens, you quickly get your eye back on the ball and you get guys in there that can compete and it’s also a lesson to guys that play behind people that it’s a play away from being in there and being in there full-time. That’s what you’ve got to learn from.”
Maiava, a special teams standout over the past few seasons, is ready to handle the increased workload.
“That’s how football is. Injuries do happen,” Maiava said. “Unfortunately, losing a guy like that and with Fujita and his situation, we’re definitely going to be missing our leaders and we’ve just got to be ready. That’s what you play the game for. If someone goes down, you’ve got to fill the spot in and be positive and produce.”
Sixth round draft pick, Emmanuel Acho out of Texas, could also see increased playing time during camp and the four preseason games while undrafted rookies L.J. Fort (Northern Iowa) and Craig Robinson (North Texas) will see increased reps.
Another thing is for certain, Browns' brass will also be scouring the waiver wire for experienced veterans when teams start cutting players. A trade is also a possibility, although a remote one.