By GEOFF HOBSON
Mike Goff, who has used a death to put the life back into his career, is your starting left guard for at least the season opener.
The Bengals have asked the NFL if their bye week counts as part of incumbent Matt O'Dwyer's suspension. So if the league rules the Bengals' Opening Week bye on Sept. 3 does count, then Goff's one start in place of O'Dwyer comes Sept. 10 against the Browns. But the way the Bengals are talking, Goff could start at either guard even after O'Dwyer returns from his punishment, which stems from violations of the NFL violence policy.
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander says Goff has established himself enough heading into his third season to push O'Dwyer and right guard Brian DeMarco
"He's learned that the NFL isn't a wrestling match," Alexander said. "He's always had incredibly strong hands, but you have to use your feet and he's made that step to recognize that. He knows how to block them now, and he's used to the speed of the game and the angles you have to use to compensate for that speed. If you're smart, you can block in this league."
Goff was smart enough last season to stop feeling sorry for himself and to start playing himself back into the lineup. But only after an off-field incident, and the suicide of a friend during the first week of November. Those events woke him with a chill, and two months later, he started at left tackle for the first time in his life and blanked Jacksonville Pro Bowler Tony Brackens and his 12 sacks.
During the season's first two months, Goff had been moping, pushed aside by veteran Jay Leeuwenburg. Maybe he wasn't taking quite enough care of himself. He admits he wasn't always using the head of a guy who had the second highest test score of offensive linemen in the 1998 draft.
If Brackens had been playing against that pre-November Goff . . . Goff grimaces at the thought. He would have been nervous. Stressed out. Brackens would have been running around his mistakes.
"I made a conscious decision right then that I was going to get something out of every practice," Goff said of the day his buddy died. "Since I started doing that, that's helped me. It helped me going against Brackens. Ever since that happened , I made a conscious effort not to dwell on the small stuff. Just to control the things I can control and I can control the way I practice."
Goff can still see his friend like it was last summer. The friend played in his brother's band, "Brother Jed," a rock group that has the jamming sound of the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers. Goff can still see him on stage in Columbus, or their home base of Bloomington, Ill.
"It pretty much shook me to my foundation," Goff said. "It's the first person I've ever been close to anyone that did that. I was sad. I was angry. I was mad at him. I still can't listen to any of their old songs. It's bizarre when you think about it. I can still see him. I re-dedicated myself then to live a life where after I die, my family isn't sad because of something I did to myself. I agree 100 percent that I became a better player, but I also think it made me a better person." The 6-5, 315-pound Goff is the last renmant of the Dan Wilkinson era. He was taken out of Iowa with the third-round pick in '98 that was part of Wilkinson's trade to Washington. Goff started last season's preseason opener at right guard in place of the injured DeMarco, but got down on himself when the Bengals signed Leeuwenburg a few weeks later.
But that was a long time ago. And Leeuwenburg is unsigned with mini-camp this weekend.
"In college, you might be a senior going against some freshman who was good in high school," Goff said. "This is the big leagues up here. Everybody's in the big leagues up here. There are no wimps on the defensive line. It took me a year and a half to realize that. I can't sit there and try to outmuscle people because they're as strong, if not stronger, than me. I've worked mainly on my feet. On this level, it's more about feet, covering up people and keeping them in front of you."
That's what he did against Brackens. No sacks or quarterback pressures in 44 snaps. The tape of that game and his new outlook no longer has him down on himself.
"I wasn't going to use a crutch," Goff said. "My first (start) at left tackle. Going against a Pro Bowler. I just wanted to move my feet and stay in front of him."
And now he hopes the tough stuff is behind him.