As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” rolls on as we start to count down the top 10 stories of the year.
The tortuous travails of the past two seasons have been difficult for even the most faithful of the Cleveland Browns fans to endure. Records being broken in large swaths usually are the mark of a fun team to follow. For the Browns, it has been a demonstration of the worst stretch in the history of the NFL, and it has belittled what small slivers of hope many fans have held. Any light, no matter how small, has been needed in this era of abject darkness. Thus, the resurrection of the career, and life, of Josh Gordon came when he was needed most.
The long road
Gordon was a supplemental draft pick before the 2012 season out of Baylor, coming with the “troubled” label having been suspended from Baylor prior to the 2011 season, and transferring to Utah. The Brown’s general manager at the time, Tom Heckert, loved the potential Gordon possessed, having witnessed Gordon practice with the Utes. Upon his selection, Gordon had this to say about his emotions, “I was more than shocked for sure,” ProFootballTalk.com reported. “I definitely didn’t think that high, but I’m thankful for the opportunity. … I’m definitely in shock. It still probably hasn’t hit me yet.”
Gordon came in for his 2012 rookie season and caught the league by surprise, catching 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns,1 but it was his sophomore season that took the NFL by storm. Despite missing the first two games under a suspension, Gordon led the NFL with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. He was at the top of his game; young and dominant with dynamic top-end speed and the ability to high point the football as well as any receiver in the league. The Browns finally thought they had their elite play maker they had been searching for since their 1999 return. Spoiler alert: his career would begin to unravel.
The cycle between being dominant on the field, yet an inability to be eligible to play on it due to off the field behavior would continue. The suspension to begin his historic 2013 season was his first suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Gordon’s 2014 DUI would then push him towards a second suspension from the league; 10 games. Gordon again returned and dominated on the field, going for 120 yards receiving against the Falcons in a Browns win in Atlanta. Gordon would play five games before being suspended by the Browns for the final game of 2014.2 Many hoped Gordon had learned his lesson and would make things right for the 2015 season; that was not the case.
Gordon was again suspended for the year, this time for testing positive for alcohol consumption. Gordon was denied a reduction to the suspension and missed the entire year; a year which the Browns went 3-13 and head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer were both fired. Gordon’s career was hanging of life support, and he was losing believers within the organization. Jimmy Haslam decided to hire Hue Jackson as his head coach before the 2016 season, and turn over roster decisions to newly hired team president Sashi Brown. Perhaps the one positive of the constant turnover in front offices and coaches during the Haslam tenure is that Josh Gordon was allocated fresh start with new regimes on a constant basis.
Before the 2016 season. Gordon is reinstated by the NFL under the condition he can participate in training camp but remain suspended for the first four games of the regular season. He was able to play in two preseason games, where he had over 100 yards and caught a touchdown in limited action. However, Gordon decided rather than try to return from his latest suspension, he would be entering rehab. He spoke on things after the decision became public, “This is the right decision for me and one that I hope will enable me to gain full control of my life and continue on a path to reach my full potential as a person,” Gordon said as part of his follow-up statement. “I appreciate the support of the NFL, NFLPA, the Browns, my teammates, my agent and the community through this extremely challenging process.”
It was clear Gordon was worse off than anyone thought. Many doubted he would be heard from again. Another story of a young player with massive potential unable to overcome his own poor decision-making.
Late in March 2017, Sashi Brown was asked about Josh Gordon. His response brought some hope for the fan base: “We’re not in position at wide receiver to turn down a guy like Josh if we feel he’s settled himself,” Brown said. “Josh is going to have an opportunity to reapply to the NFL and at that time we’ll make a decision when we know what’s going on.”
That opportunity came again in early May, but Gordon was again denied. He would have to wait for late October, several weeks into the season before he could once again try to get back into the NFL. Gordon, out of rehab and reportedly in the best shape of his life, and with the support of those closest to him, was on the right path to recovery. The NFL took noticed, and this time gave him the green light.
Roger Goodell made the decision public. “As emphasized at today’s meeting, everyone — including Josh’s teammates and coaches, the Browns’ ownership and organization, the Program professionals and all of us at the league office — want him to have every opportunity to resume his career and to be successful in the NFL,” Goodell said. “Whether that happens, however, at the end of the day will depend on Josh. His commitment to sobriety and to reaching his goals in football and beyond will determine his success. It ultimately is up to Josh.” Gordon was granted permission to practice with the team and return for Week 13 in Los Angeles against the newly relocated Chargers.
In the time between reinstatement and his first game, Gordon went into several “tell-all” interviews, including one in Sports Illustrated where he went into deep detail about his troubling past, and effect it had on his adult life. Gordon kept his head down otherwise, focusing on his return to the team and what he could do to help the struggling Browns find a win. “I do love this environment, these guys here, these coaches here from top to bottom,” the former All-Pro wide receiver said to reporters in November. “It’s been an all-around conducive environment in what I’m trying to do. There hasn’t been any type of negativity or any kind of energy being sucked out of the room or anything like that. “I’m in a good mental space for me. As long as I feel that myself, the rest doesn’t affect me as much. It’s all good right now.”
Gordon thankfully made the long awaited return on December 3 in Los Angeles. He had four catches for 85 yards on the day, and above all else, looked like himself out there again. The once elite player Browns fans remember. He noted afterward when speaking to the press: “I feel free when I’m out there,” he said. “My business is out there, people know what I’m about and that’s a great feeling.” The following week against the Packers Gordon caught his first touchdown since 2013. It was a welcome sight for a young man who has overcome some serious personal issues.
Josh Gordon is still the same flawed man he was before, but this much seems to be certain: he is more self-aware than ever. He seems to understand the narrow path he has to walk to make his life the way he knows it can be. Josh Gordon the elite football player is still there, we have all seen it in his three weeks of return. The best we can all hope for is that Josh Gordon, the healthy young man, is there for many years to come. Hopefully those healthy years continue to happen in Cleveland.