BEREA: Browns starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong grabbed the back of his right leg and winced in pain.
The defense simultaneously suffered another significant blow, and a somber mood infiltrated training camp as soon-to-be owner Jimmy Haslam III watched practice with team president Mike Holmgren.
Gocong is out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, coach Pat Shurmur said. Gocong’s immediate reaction Saturday morning foreshadowed the severity of the setback before an MRI confirmed it later in the day.
Gocong will have surgery as early as Monday, a team spokesman said.
“Unfortunately, it happens,” Shurmur said. “I’m very fond of Chris and the effort he puts into being a good football player. Anytime a player like that gets hurt, unfortunately there’s a loss.
“But the challenge is for us to cover it up with the guys that are on this roster, so that’s where we’re at. I talked to Chris. He’s fine and unfortunately we’re moving on. He understands that and my hope now is he gets back and gets healthy quickly.”
Veteran Kaluka Maiava and rookie James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick, were vying to fill in for starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, who will serve a three-game suspension to start the season, provided it’s not overturned in federal court. Now it seems likely that Maiava and Johnson will both be summoned to start. Shurmur said each one can play either outside linebacker position.
“Losing a guy like [Gocong] and with Fujita and his situation, we’re definitely gonna be missing our leaders, and we’ve just got to be ready,” said Maiava, who started six games last season at weakside linebacker while Fujita was out with injuries. “If someone goes down, you’ve got to fill the spot in, be positive and produce.”
Emmanuel Acho, a sixth-round selection in this year’s draft, undrafted rookie L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson also should receive more opportunities to prove themselves. The Browns might try to pick up a free-agent linebacker, too.
“I want to make sure that the guys that are gonna fill in for him get plenty of reps, and I think we’ve got plenty of time to do that,” Shurmur said. “We’ve got four preseason games and a lot of practices here for whoever ends up filling his role.”
Gocong suffered the injury during an 11-on-11, goal-line drill. As Gocong tried to defend a touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to tight end Jordan Cameron, he planted his right leg while preparing to jump, then grabbed it before falling to the ground.
Gocong covered his face with his hands, and Fujita consoled him before trainers carted him off the field. The scene was eerily similar to the one that unfolded on Aug. 2, 2011, the day Browns punter Reggie Hodges suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon despite making no contact with another player.
“The longer you play, you have these freakish kinds of injuries,” Fujita said. “There’s no explanation for why or how.”
The 6-foot-2, 263-pound Gocong started all 16 games last season, 10 at weakside linebacker and six on the strong side when Fujita was sidelined. He ranked third on the team with 67 tackles, including 3½ sacks, and compiled three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
The Browns consider Gocong, 28, a part of their nucleus. In September, they signed him to a three-year contract extension reportedly worth $16.8 million.
“He’s come so far as a player,” Fujita said. “He was rewarded last season by the club. He came back this offseason and worked really, really hard. He came into training camp in great shape. He’s making so many plays out here in training camp. It’s tough when you see things like that happen.”
Gocong’s injury could harm the Browns even more than it normally would have because of Fujita’s suspension for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal. His lawyers filed a brief Friday in advance of an Aug. 10 hearing.
Regardless, Shurmur said the Browns aren’t counting on Fujita’s suspension being overturned or reduced.
Gocong’s injury is the latest setback for the defense. Starting defensive tackle Phil Taylor suffered a torn pectoral muscle in May, and he won’t be back until late October at the earliest.
“Every year it’s something,” starting middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “With injuries or what have you, it’s a part of the game that unfortunately you don’t get used to it. But every time it happens it’s a surprise for everyone. For the guys we do have on deck, guys are going to have to step up. Everyone’s going to have to take it to the next level.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.