LB Jeff Gooch felt as if he was primed for a big season before his preseason calf injury
At one point, this weekend's game was circled in red ink on Jeff Gooch's calendar. Now it will pass pretty much like every other Sunday this fall, with a mixture of tension and frustration.
Five weeks ago, Gooch was the Buccaneers' starting strongside linebacker, haven won an offseason battle for that job with the equally qualified Ryan Nece. A 10th-year veteran who had spent seven of his first nine seasons in Tampa and two in Detroit, Gooch was looking forward to an expanded role in the defense in general and Sunday's matchup with the Lions in particular.
Then, against Miami in the third preseason game, Gooch suffered a calf injury and was lost for the season. Thus, he will be a spectator when his former Lion teammates come to town this weekend.
Gooch is still seen quite frequently in the Bucs' locker room. As always, he's in good spirits and he's got a friendly smile for everyone he encounters. He's usually finishing up another round of rehab with Director of Rehabilitation Shannon Merrick as his teammates are concluding the morning walk-through. That was the case on Wednesday, and Gooch was getting dressed just as the team was walking in for its lunch break. He joked loudly with Brian Kelly and Anthony McFarland.
That doesn't mean he's happy about the way things have worked out this fall, though. After battling through hamstring and groin injuries, and even overcoming summer surgery to correct an unusual muscle affliction in his leg called compartmental syndrome, he was finally taking down by the calf injury on August 27. He was placed on injured reserve a few days later.
Now he's watching from the sideline – or worse, on TV when the Bucs are on the road – when he expected to be in the thick of the action. He is at once pleased by the team's fast start and frustrated that he can't be a bigger part of it. He can at least take a little solace in the fact that he has remained the lone member of the team on injured reserve to this point.
"It's extremely tough," he admitted. "I felt like I was primed for a good year. I'd been working pretty hard. Even after my surgery I was in here working really hard working with [Head Trainer] Todd Toriscelli and Shannon trying to get back on my feet. It's really difficult to watch your buddies on the tube. But I'm happy for them and I'm happy for the success they're having now."
Gooch knows that good health is the one mostly uncontrollable factor that plays so heavily into an NFL team's fortunes. With a few exceptions here and there, like the 2003 New England Patriots, the teams that make it deep into the playoffs are usually ones that have avoided serious injury problems all season. The Bucs did lose defensive tackle Anthony McFarland in 2002, for instance, but they avoided a potentially debilitating loss of quarterback Brad Johnson late in the season and stayed mostly healthy on their run to the Super Bowl title. The next two years, with season-ending injuries hitting the roster in waves, they slipped to 10-22.
The Bucs are off to an auspicious start this year in the training room, even while some big-name veterans (Takeo Spikes, Kris Jenkins, Chad Pennington, Rodney Harrison) have gone down around the league. At the moment, G Matt Stinchcomb, S Dexter Jackson and RB Cadillac Williams are he only player on the Bucs' injury report for the Detroit game, and Williams is expected to play.
"More than anything, the injury bug is kind of staying free from us," said Gooch. "I've got my fingers crossed for the guys and I hope that everybody can stay healthy right now."
Gooch also knows that roster depth is crucial for overcoming those inevitable injuries that do strike. The Bucs were fortunate to have a very good candidate to step in at strongside linebacker in Nece, who had been pushing Gooch for the spot anyway. Both players had very strong training camps, and Nece has carried that into the regular season so far.
On Sunday, Nece had one of the biggest games of his career in the Bucs' win at Lambeau Field. He had seven tackles on the day, and three of them occurred behind the line of scrimmage, including his first career sack on a perfectly-timed third-down blitz late in the third quarter. Gooch watched that game from his home, and it's safe to say he had a better feel for Nece's performance than just about any other of the viewers of that broadcast.
Gooch was impressed with Nece's play, and has been throughout the first three games. What Gooch has also noticed is Nece's continued excellence on special teams, an area in which the team also misses Gooch tremendously.
"He looks good," said Gooch of his younger teammate. "And you don't want to underestimate what Ryan's doing on special teams, either. That's one thing that a lot of people forget. Yeah he's in a starting role but he's still one of the number-one guys on special teams. He's pulling double-duty, so you've got to add that in. When you see what he's doing there and on defense, you've got to give him his due."
Had Gooch stayed healthy and held off Nece, he would have been a full-time starter on defense for the first time since 1998, when he was the strongside linebacker in his first stint with the Buccaneers, before his two-year tour (2002-03) in Detroit. He has been a special teams force since his first days in the league, though, beginning in his rookie season of 1996. While in Detroit, he was the Lions' special teams MVP in 2002, and he had been looking forward to crashing into some of his old running mates during punts and kickoffs on Sunday.
"Those guys are already calling me," said Gooch, a bit wistfully. "I've already talked to those guys and they were hyped up to come down here and take it to me, really. That's what they wanted to do more than anything. Yeah, it's going to be particularly hard this week, but it's still the same: My heart's right here in Tampa and I'm rooting for these guys to get a big win."