Maybe the tide really has turned for Robert Griffin III. It is possible, after three seasons of misery as his Washington career turned to dust, that the football gods are easing up on him.
He landed in Cleveland this off-season, where the starting job is there for the taking and his head coach, Hue Jackson, is a noted QB guru. The Browns then spent a handful of draft picks on wide receivers, landing among others first-rounder Corey Coleman and the vastly underrated Rashard Higgins. Now Monday, with training camp just about to begin, the Browns learned that they would be welcoming back the long-suspended Josh Gordon, who posted 700 yards receiving with RG3 as his quarterback at Baylor.
Could it be that things finally are looking up for Griffin and, in tandem, the Browns?
Yes. Possibly. Well ...
At least as the Gordon situation matters, there remains a lot to be seen. Gordon has not played a down since Dec. 21, 2014, about a month after he was reinstated from another suspension (10 games). After an eight-catch, 120-yard debut that year, Gordon wheezed his way to the finish line—he ceded snaps to the likes of Taylor Gabriel and then the team suspended him in Week 17 for violating team rules; his then-indefinite suspension from the league landed about a month later.
Gordon not only has to stay clean—another substance-abuse miscue would be all but certain to end his NFL career—he must play well in the preseason, then stay sharp while sitting out four games.
That is, of course, assuming the current Browns regime wants him around at all.
It should, given Gordon’s incredible talent, but no one on this staff or within the front office had a hand in Cleveland selecting Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft. Coleman, Higgins, Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton all arrived via this year’s draft, with promising QB-turned-WR Terrelle Pryor, Andrew Hawkins and Gabriel still on the roster. Even with Travis Benjamin departing as a free agent, the Browns still have a lot of bodies for limited roster spots at receiver.
Trading Gordon would net them something, even if it was far below what his eventual value could be—think a mid-round pick in 2016. But Gordon also is working on the final year of his suspension-extended rookie contract, so he would be a restricted free agent after 2016.
There are a lot of factors at play here, all of them to be sorted out before Gordon and Griffin have a chance to reconnect on the field.
Should that time ever come, though, there is no avoiding how impactful Gordon’s return could be for a rebuilding Cleveland team. Unlike when his last suspension ended mid-season, this time around Gordon will have all of training camp and the preseason to find his stride—he will not be allowed to practice with the team during the regular season until his suspension ends, but is eligible until September.
If Gordon, still just 25 years old, can find his 2013 form, the Browns would not have anyone capable of keeping him from the starting lineup. He led the league in receiving that year, with 1,646 yards on 87 receptions. Those numbers came despite playing on a 4-12 Browns team quarterbacked by a Jason Campbell/Brandon Weeden/Brian Hoyer combo.
Griffin carries a much higher ceiling at the position, in theory. His last string of extended success came a year before Gordon’s breakthrough, in 2012. No need to rehash Griffin’s rookie year much anymore—he was brilliant in leading Washington to the playoffs, then suffered a knee injury that set off a sudden slide.
For his sake, he still needs to beat out Josh McCown and hold off rookie Cody Kessler for the No. 1 job this season, although early indications are that he will. Again, upside.
This is the time on the NFL calendar when optimism reaches an annual high. The Browns appear to be committed, finally, to a patient and long-term plan that allows them to compete beyond an occasional blip year. They just received another infusion of enthusiasm, however, with Gordon’s return slated for early October. (A Week 5 matchup with New England as it gets Tom Brady back from suspension, by the way.)
A little pie-in-the-sky dreaming for the Browns would have Griffin finding his footing over games one through four, then taking off when Gordon pairs with Coleman to form a dangerous pass-catching tandem.
Maybe Griffin is catching a few overdue breaks. Maybe the Browns will be a challenging out earlier than expected.
Maybe it all goes to hell again for Gordon and his team.
Time will tell. But the possibilities are tantalizing.