The Browns received the worst-possible news in regards to the Josh Gordon suspension on Wednesday, finding out only days before the season that the most important player on their offense would indeed have to sit out an entire year.
With Gordon now forbidden from being around the team for a full year, only able to return, at the earliest, a few weeks before the start of the 2015 season, it casts doubts on his future in Cleveland, and the NFL.
Rare is the young player who has been suspended for this period of time by the league, then returned to play again for that team. Gordon's off-field issues date back to his college days, when he bounced around to several schools, and he's been "deeply troubled" while in the NFL, according to several people who have worked with him. He managed to stave off his demons to have a remarkable 2013 season for the Browns, to only then fail a drug test while having a DUI case brought against him this offseason.
We can argue whether the NFL's pot policy is too draconian, whether it is based in being punitive in nature or has treatment at its core, but the reality is these are the rules, and once players get into the substance abuse program and are subject to such frequent testing, it often becomes a slippery slope.
With Gordon now unable to be around teammates for so long, one could make the argument his career is more in peril than ever before, with so many outside influences and people without his best interest in mind having easy access to him. Will he be able to avoid any other legal issues for so long as to actually get reinstated next Aug. 27? The time away didn't help Justin Blackmon, Jacksonville's promising receiver, avoid further issues, for instance.
From 'troubled' to bleak
It should come as no surprise that arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld the league's decision. Arguments of "second-hand smoke" and the like are terribly difficult to prove and the NFL has a mandate, through this collectively bargained drug policy, to act accordingly. If anything, the lengthy delay in a final decision from Henderson spoke more to a possibility of the sides brokering some sort of settlement based on Gordon's arguments. But with Week 1 approaching time was running out for that as well. Left to his own devices, Henderson was charged with an all-or-nothing decision … and in cases like these nothing is quite rare.
The Browns, two regimes ago, knew they were gambling when they selected Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft with his issues in college well documented along with his physical prowess and gifts. As one long-time NFL executive put it to me, big college programs aren't in the business of trying to see top recruits banished from school or made ineligible or politely asked to move on, so Gordon's NCAA experience sent up considerable red flags, which were colored even brighter by his failed drug tests and some of the individuals he chose to associate with.
The Browns had several people assigned to watching over Gordon and some of their other at-risk players, particularly so during the 2013 season, but when players return home in the winter months, it's increasingly difficult to monitor their whereabouts and keep them away from nefarious influences. And it's no secret either that the former front office, prior to Ray Farmer's promotion to general manager, came very close to dealing Gordon on more than one occasion, with their concerns about his long-term viability in the league at the root of those discussions.
"Kids with this much talent, they tend to find a way to keep eligible," one executive said. "It's not easy to be this great, and not be able to stay at a school. So you're looking at a five- or six-year history with him by this point. You have the issues in college, then he gets in the [drug] program, then he's suspended again, and then he stays out of trouble for a while and then another suspension from this offseason. In the history of the league, how many guys in this situation -- suspended for a year -- come back and ever play again for their team, let alone in the league?"
Not many, that's for sure. We can think of Cris Carter, going from Philadelphia to Minnesota to resurrect what became a Hall of Fame career. But how many others?
Owner Jimmy Haslam has talked publicly about being "pleased" with Gordon's progress, as recently as May, and of how he's "counting on Josh being a good football player for the Browns for a long time to come." The odds, especially outside of the 10-month season-long cocoon the team could have otherwise tried to build around Gordon, however, seem bleak. I wonder if that tone changes over time to one of more tough love, or disappointment. One could suggest perhaps it should have long ago.
No one I have ever talked to who's been on a coaching staff or part of a front office with Gordon has called him a bad kid. "Troubled" is the word that is used most often. He's someone the Browns were rooting for, who they hoped would succeed, and his loss is nothing sort of crushing for an offense already clinging to things to feel good about. But, at this point, it is hardly a surprise, either.
This day has been coming and as much as the Browns' brass occasionally held out hope somehow he might get to dress for four games or eight games or something this season, the overriding feeling about Gordon's situation has been dread.
What's next for the Browns?
There are no real options for Cleveland in the meantime. Sure, it's "next-man up" and all, and everyone will put on a brave face. Maybe Miles Austin actually stays healthy for some portion of time, and, sure, the run game will be better to take some pressure off, and they still have emerging stud tight end Jordan Cameron (though opposing defensive coordinators have long told me they will sell out to stifle him, and force someone else to emerge as a reliable pass catcher). The odds of striking an impact trade are bleak; the Browns didn't go out of their way to nab pass catchers in the draft -- though this was a deep pool -- and making a significant trade is unlikely now.
Plenty of receivers who will be cut before rosters are set could likely unseat someone in this Browns group, but even then you're mining for depth and praying for impact. The Browns will devote plenty of time and resources to this position moving forward, I can promise you that, but kids this big and this fast with these hands and natural instincts to fight for the ball aren't so easy to land. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, coming back from ACL surgery, is going to have a limited group of skill players around him, and, eventually, Johnny Manziel will face the same predicament, at least in 2014.
Twelve months in the NFL's substance abuse program is a long time. Temptation abounds. True friends, for young men this talented -- who were on the cusp of life-altering riches -- are in much shorter supply. Support is imperative.
I hope we haven't seen the last of Josh Gordon as a Cleveland Brown or an NFL receiver. He has the potential to be among the very best. But if that 2013 masterpiece -- 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in only 14 games -- ends up standing alone, at this point in time, sadly, it would not be so surprising.
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