With a first-year head coach in Mike Pettine, a defense that is still figuring things out (especially in the secondary), a quarterback in Brian Hoyer who generally alternates between efficient and below average, an offensive line missing its best player in center Alex Mack and a receiver corps that is a mix of underrated talent and specious long-term options, the Cleveland Browns are still 6-4. An impressive feat, given where they play: the AFC North, the league's most competitive division. No team in that division has a losing record, but the Cincinnati Bengals currently lead the division with a 6-3-1 mark. No team appears ready to break out and pace the division, which would make having an ace in the hole from a personnel perspective a huge advantage -- a player who could come in and make a galvanic and immediate difference.
Cue the Browns, because receiver Josh Gordon was officially reinstated on Nov. 17 after a year-long suspension that was truncated to 10 games under an adjustment to the league's substance abuse policy. Gordon has had multiple issues with substances both legal and illegal, but that aside, he's made it clear that when he's on the field, he's a truly special player.
In 2013, his second season with the Browns after they selected him in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, Gordon put up some crazy stats -- 87 catches for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. It was the third-best yardage season for any second-year receiver in pro football history, behind only Issac Bruce of the St. Louis Rams in 1995 and Charley Hennigan of the AFL's Houston Oilers in 1961. He did all this after another suspension cost him the first two games of that season (extrapolated over a 16-game season, Gordon's numbers would have been even more nuts -- 99 catches for 1,881 yards and 10 touchdowns), and he did it with a rather uninspiring troika of quarterbacks -- Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden.
Now, with Hoyer returned from the torn ACL that cost him 13 games, Gordon could take Cleveland's offense to an entirely new level; one that hasn't been seen since the NFL re-gifted the Browns franchise to the city in 1999.
What makes Gordon so special? He's got every possible attribute you'd want in a No. 1 receiver -- the kind who wins isolation matchups against the league's top cornerbacks. He's big (6-foot-4, 220), fast (legitimate 4.4/4.5 speed) and he has the strength to make contested catches in tight quarters. Gordon is especially good at deep catches -- only DeSean Jackson (16) had more receptions over 20 yards in the air than Gordon, who tied with A.J. Green and Eric Decker with 15. On those catches alone, Gordon amassed 511 yards and six of his touchdowns.
In anticipation of Gordon returning to the field, let's look at a few of the ways he made an impact last season.
Let's start with this 80-yard touchdown from Campbell in Cleveland's Week 14 loss to the Patriots -- it shows what Gordon can do with a simple 10-yard slant.
With 1:37 left in the third quarter, Gordon took the quick pass and bounded right by cornerback Aqib Talib from the left side. If you don't keep a man over the top on Gordon (the Pats didn't here), you're just asking for trouble. Safety Devin McCourty's scrambling recovery effort after the fact was admirable given that the coverage wasn't his, but hardly effective.
And here's Gordon blowing through Detroit's entire defense on a deep crosser with 43 seconds left in the first half of Cleveland's 31-17 Week 6 loss. The Lions are playing man outside, and when cornerback Chris Houston turns to run with Gordon on more of a vertical route, Gordon has him dead to rights. After Gordon skewers the middle of the Lions defense, it takes an amazing play from linebacker Stephen Tulloch to stop this from becoming more than a 36-yard gain.
Gordon can do more than simply hit vertical routes and do simple crossers -- his pure field speed made him a pretty decent threat when the Browns wanted to run end-arounds. Gordon had five rushing attempts for 88 yards last season; here he is befuddling the Jets for a 22-yard gain in Week 15 ...
... and below, he flummoxes the Patriots for 34 yards. Gordon's performance against the Patriots was singularly impressive; seven catches in 10 targets for 151 yards and that one 34-yard run.
With cornerbacks across the league who can dominate sideline routes with press coverage, elite recovery speed and excellent inside technique, receivers who can find ways to beat one-on-one coverage on these routes are more valuable than ever. Here, in Week 12, Gordon beats Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor to the right sideline on Brandon Weeden's deep throw -- not only eluding Taylor, but also making a great effort to keep both feet inbounds.
And here, against the Chiefs in Week 8, he slow-rolls cornerback Sean Smith as Jason Campbell and running back Willis McGahee get a little flea-flicker going. Then, Gordon blasts off from the seam back to the outside, and Smith simply can't catch up. Result: a 39-yard touchdown.
Not that Gordon is perfect -- he's had stretches of drops, he's not a precise route-runner by any means and there are times when you'd like to see him extend plays with a bit more certainty. When the Browns played the Packers last season, Green Bay's cornerbacks gave Gordon fits on deep routes -- Weeden was 0-for-5 on those plays, and Gordon finished that game with two catches for 21 yards. Games against the Bears and Ravens were similar -- there were times when you wanted to see Gordon increase and improve his catch consistency and radius, and other times when you realized that nobody short of a superhero was going to grab the ducks that were thrown to him.
Teams will deal with certain things on and off the field if a player is talented enough, and the Browns have entered into such a pact with Gordon, and it's now a pact that transcends several different front offices and coaching staffs. That's how good he is, and the scary thing is, he may be scratching the surface of his potential. Whether he ever gets too far beyond that is up to him.
In the meantime, how (and how often) will the Browns use Gordon in their six remaining regular-season games, and whatever postseason games he may help them attain?
Surprisingly, the Browns have fared pretty nicely on the deep ball this season without Gordon -- Hoyer has 25 completions in 50 attempts for 806 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on throws traveling 20 or more yards in the air (only Andrew Luck has more deep completions, 27, and yards, 842, on such throws). Currently, Taylor Gabriel, an underrated and undrafted rookie from Abilene Christian, leads the team with seven deep catches in 15 targets for 256 yards and a touchdown. So, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan sets things up in a way that should be favorable for Gordon upon his return.
“I see him in passing in the hallway and I always ask him how many days,” Shanahan said last week per ESPN's Pat McManamon, “and he always knows the exact number of days. So he’s been itching at this for a while.”
Gordon had been working with a JUGS machine to get his hands back in shape after the long layoff -- he could be in the facility, but couldn't work with coaches until his suspension was over. Pettine has said that the approach to Gordon's return to the field will be conservative and based on his readiness.
"I think that we've accomplished a lot with the group that we have,'' Pettine told the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Monday, the same day that Gordon was finally able to do more than just engage in conditioning drills and attend meetings. "I don't think it's time for those guys to just step back and turn and say, 'OK, here's a guy that's going to come in and be a savior,' so to speak. We've played a lot of good football. I think that group has done an outstanding job. They've all done exceptionally well throughout the year.
"They've all had their moments making big plays. They've blocked well in the run game. It's been a complete group. As far as a group exceeding expectations, of any one position group, I think you'd have to say it was the wide receivers. We're looking for more of the same from them, and again, it'll be a process with Josh. We're going to be smart."
But Mike Smith, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons team that will have to deal with Gordon and the Browns on Sunday, isn't buying any of that.
"They've stated that they want to get him out on the field as quickly as possible. And he's a game-changer. He's a guy that with the ball in his hands, he can make plays. So we're anticipating that we're going to get a full dose of him this week."
And the NFL had best get ready for a full dose of Josh Gordon -- if he's been sticking to the plan and can get up to game shape in a hurry, he might just help the Browns get separation to a higher plane.