The Cleveland Browns' chances of a rapid turnaround in 2014 have been dealt a huge blow. The NFL announced it has decided to uphold the one-year suspension handed down to wide receiver Josh Gordon, meaning that the league's leading receiver from a year ago will miss at least all of the upcoming season and possibly extended time next preseason, too. According to the NFL's statement, Gordon's "eligibility for reinstatement will be determined following the 2014 season."
There is no way around it: This is a crushing resolution for Cleveland, which had hoped to get Gordon back in the lineup for at least half of this season. Gordon's initial punishment occurred because he failed at least his third league-issued drug test, triggering the automatic penalty. Gordon, though, was hoping for a reduction in that timeframe on appeal, and the extended delay in a decision by arbitrator Harold Henderson also left open the possibility that Gordon could strike a settlement in the case -- that path likely would have put Gordon back in action sometime around the season's halfway point.
Instead, the already receiver-starved Browns now must figure out some way to overcome Gordon's absence.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported earlier Wednesday that the Browns organization was "baffled" over the lengthy wait. "Browns sources said there would be an extreme amount of frustration in the organization over [an upheld one-year] ruling and why it [had] taken so long to hand down," Schefter wrote.
Considering how much trouble Gordon has had staying on the straight and narrow while under Cleveland's watch, his banishment from team activities for the next several months may put his career in a dangerous spot. Any further slip-ups could put Gordon in line for an indefinite suspension and would eliminate any hope he has of returning to the Browns before the next 365 days pass.
Gordon had run with the first-team offense for the majority of training camp and started in Cleveland's first two preseason games (he sat out the third with an abdominal injury). A collection of Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Nate Burleson, tight end Jordan Cameron and others will be asked to pick up the slack moving forward. But the Browns offense has struggled mightily thus far, with or without Gordon -- Brian Hoyer, in winning the starting quarterback job, has completed a mere 50 percent of his passes and thrown for a touchdown and an interception; Johnny Manziel is 24-of-42 for 213 yards and a touchdown behind Hoyer.
"Knowing that the decision is looming, that we're fairly certain that we're not going to have [Gordon] for at minimum some part of the year, we wanted to make sure that we were getting repetitions with the guys that were going to be out there early," said head coach Mike Pettine following his team's third preseason game.
Cleveland can and no doubt will keep a close eye on cuts around the league, as rosters must be trimmed from the 75-man limit they're currently at to 53 before the regular season begins. A trade or free-agent acquisition may be in the works.
Barring something unexpected, however, there's no replacing Gordon. And thus, perhaps no hope of the offense taking strides forward this season. Gordon missed two games to open last season on a substance-abuse suspension, only to post 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. In doing so, the 23-year-old former supplemental draft pick allowed the Browns to check another box of their rebuilding plan: a No. 1 receiver to pair with an emerging tight end in Cameron. The arrival of free-agent running back Ben Tate and first-round pick Manziel this offseason had Browns fans more energized than they had been in awhile.
Will this news bury any positive momentum? Perhaps not entirely, but Cleveland will feel the weight of the the league's decision for some time.