In March, when Josh Gordon, serving an indefinite suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, reportedly failed another drug test just a few months after a last-ditch appeal for reinstatement, it looked like his banishment would become permanent. But on Monday, the league gave us a rare, pleasant surprise: The talented Browns receiver was granted a conditional reinstatement.
Gordon has been suspended for more than a year, and the seemingly endless promise of his career has been derailed by a series of substance-abuse-related suspensions. After sitting out the first four games of the 2016 season, he’ll get what you’d imagine will be his final shot at professional revival.
If Gordon can stay on the field and once again be the player we saw in 2013, the NFL will get back one of its most exhilarating young stars.
Gordon’s 2013 campaign for Cleveland was absurd: 87 catches for an NFL-best 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games. Basically, his record-setting season was comparable to what DeAndre Hopkins did across 16 games in 2015 — elite production with a rotating turnstile of subpar quarterbacks. Gordon overcame the three-headed replacement-level monster of Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer to take the NFL and fantasy football leagues by storm. Unfortunately, that glimpse of his superstar potential was short-lived. He didn’t look the same during the five games of a suspension-shortened 2014, and missed all of last year to suspension.
Since we haven’t seen the ideal version of Josh Gordon in a couple of years, you may have forgotten what the 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver can do. He’s got Julio Jones’s breakaway speed at somewhere between Dez Bryant’s and Brandon Marshall’s size. And even though it feels like we’ve been talking about his suspension for a decade, he’s still only 25 years old. That’s a few months younger than Kelvin Benjamin, who was still at Florida State when Gordon was lighting up the league in 2013.
At full force, Gordon is one of the deadliest downfield pass catchers in the game. He averaged 18.9 yards per reception in 2013, and even as a rookie in 2012, he was producing highlights that didn’t look dissimilar from Randy Moss in his prime.
That touchdown was probably the last time a defensive coordinator thought about putting a linebacker on Gordon. Except sometimes it doesn’t even matter who’s tracking him. Aqib Talib? Here’s a stiff-arm:
Even from a dead stop, Gordon was able to accelerate away from every Jacksonville defender on this touchdown from 2013:
He also caught fades into the corner of the end zone:
And he could line up in the slot and run a wheel route to the sideline:
Gordon was also deadly on short passes and intermediate routes behind the linebackers. In other words, he produced wherever he lined up. Gordon’s 2,451 receiving yards through his first two seasons are fourth-most all time since the AFL-NFL merger, trailing only Odell Beckham Jr., Randy Moss, and Jerry Rice.
Of course, he’s been completely unreliable for the Browns after those first two seasons. When he returns in Week 5 against New England, he’ll have missed 43 of a possible 68 games because of his multiple suspensions.
An electrifying player with the capability to score on any given play, Gordon alone makes the Browns worth watching on Sundays. Reuniting him with his college quarterback, Browns presumptive starter Robert Griffin III, could — could — be a lot of fun, too: They linked up for seven touchdowns in 2010 at Baylor, where Gordon’s downfield speed and Griffin’s strong arm on deep shots was a potent combination. Gordon averaged 17 yards per catch that year in Waco, and the previous experience together should help the pair’s timing and chemistry. Griffin, who has said that he considers Gordon to be family, lobbied for the Redskins to take the receiver in the supplemental draft back in 2012.
Even though the suspensions have dragged on for so long, Gordon is still just entering what are typically a receiver’s prime years, and his skill set remains transcendent. He has a legitimate chance to resuscitate a career that, only a day ago, seemed like it might never resume.