Sad pattern aside, Gordon’s too intriguing to trade

Josh Gordon
Josh Gordon caught 10 passes for 261 yards against Jacksonville in 2013.

It’s taken me a day to metabolize the surprising news that banished WR Josh Gordon is now returning to the Browns.

The 2013 All Pro missed all of last season and — even if all goes well in his reintegration to pro football — he’ll miss the first four games of 2016 as part of commissioner Roger Goodell’s conditional reinstatement.

It will be fascinating to see whether and how the elite wideout fits in with a remade Browns organization, one that understandably went forward with its rebuild without any expectation that he’d ever make it back. They drafted no fewer than four wide receivers and now have a dozen on the roster.

(Undrafted rookie safety A.J. Stamps was waived today to make room for Gordon on the 90-man roster.)

Assuming all goes well at the outset, Gordon will have his first chance to develop working relationships with new EVP Sashi Brown, head coach Hue Jackson, accomplished WR coach Al Saunders, and newly-hired assistant WR coach Chad Johnson. His new teammates will include his former college QB, Robert Griffin III, and another Baylor WR, first-rounder Corey Coleman.

But until those introductions happen and words turn into actions, the Browns are extremely guarded in their approach. While Gordon’s substance abuse offenses have all been fairly venial (with the exception of a 2014 drunk driving conviction), the sheer number of them amounts to a portrait of a young man with a serious problem toeing the line in the conformist business culture of the NFL.

To Goodell’s credit, he has apparently recognized (with pointed urging from the NFLPA) that the draconian nature of the league’s substance abuse policy has poorly served both the league and one of its most outstanding talents. Rather than sticking to his original pronouncement that Gordon could reapply for reinstatement on August 1, Goodell met with him last week and gave him a chance at what this young man needs most: a team, a community of constructive contributors, a stable support structure, and an outlet for his outsized energies.

I don’t want to risk psychoanalyzing the mercurial young man from Houston, but when Gordon was last part of a football staff that truly believed in him and coached him up, he performed superbly. Former head coach Rob Chudzinski resisted the front office’s inclination to trade Gordon away. The result was the best receiving season in Browns history, in fact the only season in which a Brown led the NFL in receiving yards.

I’ll say it straight. The impetuous firing of Chud after just one season had multiple casualties. Gordon’s career was certainly one of them.

Within weeks, Gordon tested positive for marijuana (though the amount detected was less than would ground a commercial pilot). By the time his full 2014 suspension (later reduced to 10 games) was reported, the Browns had also fired Aaron Shea, director of player engagement, who had taken a special interest in Gordon and deserved some credit for his growth in 2013. The DWI occurred during this exile. When he returned in November to a foreign coaching staff and a football organization at cross purposes, he was out of sorts. A fateful post-season plane trip to Vegas followed, as Gordon’s own social media post apparently triggered an alcohol test upon landing, and the indefinite banishment followed.

I can’t help but believe that if the Browns had shown a modicum of patience with Chud and his team, including veteran coordinators Norv Turner and the since-rehired Ray Horton, Gordon (whose substance abuse history was well known) would have gotten more off-season contact, support, and monitoring. Instead, his professional mentors all got the ax, and he was adrift without structure.

There’s really no telling what Gordon’s future will be, and that part of what makes his story so intriguing. According to Jim Brown, Gordon has been in rehab recently. Goodell’s statement referred to Brown and to Gordon’s need for “clinical resources” to be in place in Cleveland.

On the other hand, Gordon has been associating with known substance abuser and Browns pariah Johnny Manziel as recently as last weekend. Even if that friendship hasn’t poisoned Gordon’s biochemistry, the bad blood between Manziel and the Browns will make for some interesting discussions between Gordon and the new regime with which he must earn trust.

I’ll be looking closely at reports from training camp about Gordon’s body language. It’s not the words that matter any more. He’s far from stupid, despite what some frustrated fans might think. He’s skilled at saying the right things and walking the fine line along the benefit of doubt, but this is the fourth straight season he’ll miss games due to suspension.

The potential rewards of a success story behoove the Browns to give him the best possible opportunity to exercise his supreme talent in a Cleveland uniform. He’s still on a cheap rookie contract and would be only a restricted free agent next year. There’s no way he’d bring enough in trade value to justify parting with a true Number One wideout who’s still only 25.

I’ve never met Gordon, but I like him. He’s thoughtful and complicated, and his background is not what I’d wish for anyone. I can see how pot became a sanctuary for him as an adolescent. I can understand how he hasn’t yet figured everything out about himself or his path from a challenging upbringing to superstardom. I also get that he’s a grown man ultimately responsible for his choices. Society remains largely stuck on seeing substance abuse as a moral failing rather than what it is, a gnarly mental health issue. In his case and in so many others, the socially-applied consequences have wrought more harm than the natural ones. We can dislike that reality, but it remains a reality until we act to change it.

If these new Browns give Gordon a fair and welcoming fresh start, figure out how to best meet his needs, and help him emerge as a man fully comfortable in his own skin, they’ll deserve great respect and credit for doing the right thing. And they’ll be rewarded with an elite playmaker in his prime. This is a potential comeback story well worth rooting for.

Because clearly, separating Gordon from constructive company, support structures, and productive possibilities, presumably for his own good, proved to be nothing but a lamentable loss and foolish waste all around.

Special advisor Jim Brown and head coach Hue Jackson will have key roles to play in Josh Gordon's future with the Browns.

Special advisor Jim Brown and head coach Hue Jackson will have key roles to play in Josh Gordon’s future with the Browns.