Josh Gordon’s story has been told many times. To former coaches, NFL coaches, NFL general managers, various media members, and, quite frankly, anyone else who asks. The young wide receiver’s collegiate career arc — the one that didn’t quite arc at all as much as it did ascend rapidly before being up-ended in a Taco Bell parking lot, plummeting into hydroponic abyss of unknown — understandably troubles the emotionally invested and morally conservative. But after Gordon’s first day in a Cleveland Browns helmet1, it’s clear that not only is the second-round supplemental draft selection willing to discuss his troubled past while showing zero signs of mental fatigue or irritation in doing so, he’s ready and willing to prove any doubters wrong by staying clean and helping the Browns’ otherwise woeful offense improve as best he can.
Already months behind his peers due to missing rookie minicamps and symposiums, the 6-foot-3-inch Gordon knows what has to be done in order to catch up. Several days prior to his decision to make the unexpected leap to the NFL, Gordon thought he would be clicking punch cards at a run-of-the-mill “9-to-5” in order to work his way back into school. Several hours after finding out that the Cleveland Browns had made him one of the highest-drafted supplemental players in the history of the league, the 21-year old found himself in Berea, Ohio where he would work on his conditioning, weight lifting and countless hours of absorbing his first National Football League playbook.
That playbook is now littered with notes and West Coast nuance. If Gordon can’t help right away on the field, he endeavors to do so behind the scenes, absorbing what he can in the meantime. There’s no telling if Gordon’s outwardly humble mannerisms are a facade or merely the product of a honeymoon phase; despite all of his missteps, someone was willing to take a chance on his skill set, so he must have been doing something right. But if the body language of a player who just completed his first day of training camp–hamstring injury and all–as a professional football player is any indication, this calculated risk is one that could be paying dividends sooner than later.
As Browns head coach Pat Shurmur stood by, arms crossed, positioned approximately where a middle linebacker would be in the event that this day featured 11-on-11 drills, he watched Gordon’s every step; his graceful release off of the line, the chopping of his hands, the planting of his right foot into the practice field turf, the quick spin to his outside shoulder, and the hauling in of a Colt McCoy pass, landing right into his recently sprawled hands, and his turn up field with the ball securely tucked. Not long thereafter, Gordon would be waist deep in receiving drills with assistant coach Mike Wilson — footwork, handwork, ball-handing and awareness. Each time, after nearly every snap that resulted in the ball being thrown in the way of No. 86, the coaches, as well as team president Mike Holmgren, would be seen pulling their newest weapon aside to help him learn on the fly.
“From what I can tell already, he is a quick learner,” said Shurmur. “We’ve kind of amped it up for him so we could get him going quickly. It’s obvious to me that he understands how to play the position. He gets lined up well, understands coverage adjustments. It’s just a matter of him getting familiar with our terminology so we’ll see.”
As closely as Shurmur and Wilson were scrutinizing Gordon’s motions on the field, the team is prepared to monitor his actions off of it. There is a firm understanding, by both parties, that the issues which reared their ugly head during college were left in Waco, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah, respectively. While there may be a stereotype attached to young athletes who recently experience a windfall of wealth2, it is all compounded following multiple admissions of failed drug tests3 Shurmur, however, is quick to tell anyone who says otherwise that we, as human beings, have all had items in our past that we would prefer not had happened. While Gordon will discuss these past transgressions with anyone who inquiries, he appears to be sincere and focused on the future and helping this “prestigious” organization get back on track.
The physical tools are undoubtedly there; the height, the open-field speed, the leaping ability, the gazellian strides. Anyone who has seen the receiver in person will tell you that he’s every bit of his measured height and weight — a giant among otherwise average-sized offensive skill players4, everything one would want in a play-making weapon on the that side of the ball. Gordon, rather than typecasting himself on Day One, prefers to be called just that. A play-maker. Not a deep threat, or a physical receiver, not even a wild card. A play-maker. Something this Cleveland Browns team has sorely lacked and something that they will welcome with open arms, regardless of late-adolescent history.
Standing as tall as anyone on the practice field, Gordon will not be able to hide from would-be defenders. The same can be said for his well-said media sessions which follow. Thankfully, for all involved, Josh Gordon doesn’t plan hiding. If anything, he plans on becoming even bigger than he is now, one practice snap at a time. It may not happen during Week 1, and he may not start until other experiments have been stamped with a failure. But when his time comes, Gordon appears ready to show any doubters that people can change just as much as he’s determined to show the Cleveland Browns front office that they made one very good decision during the day of the supplemental draft.
“For me,” said Gordon, “just having an opportunity to be out here is definitely all the motivation I need.”
(Joshua Gunter/ The Plain Dealer)