It’s harsh to say it this way, but it’s the truth: the Patriots are getting what they signed up for when they traded for Gordon back in September.
And I say that with all sensitivity to Gordon’s situation, respect for his mental-health issues and acknowledgement of his pending sanctions from the NFL. Clearly, for Gordon, this is bigger than football, and everyone hopes he can finally find the help he needs.
On Thursday Patriots WR Josh Gordon announced on Twitter that he’s stepping away from football for the time being to focus on his mental health. Shortly after New England released a statement in support of their wide receiver.
The reason Gordon is still playing in the NFL is because of his out-of-this-world natural ability. It’s the reason why the Browns took a chance on him in the second round of 2012 supplemental draft, even though he’d failed drug tests and blown chances at two schools. It’s why the team hung on to him for more than six years, despite his having appeared in just 41 games. It’s why he’s a Patriot now.
Had Gordon been an average player, or even just a good talent, he’d have been gone from the public eye a long time ago. And therein was why he was available at such a discounted rate back in September.
The real risk in taking on Gordon wasn’t the draft pick compensation—New England gave up a fifth-rounder and got a seventh-rounder back with Gordon, in essence simply knocking a late-round pick down about 60 or 70 slots to acquire the receiver. The real risk here, and the reason he could be had for that price, is illustrated perfectly in what the Patriots have gotten out of him so far.
Based on his unreliable track record, a team should treat having Gordon as a bonus. That’s how ex-Browns coach Hue Jackson tried to handle it over the spring and summer, as Gordon worked his way back. The trouble with that is that because he’s so outrageously gifted, it becomes nearly impossible to pigeon-hole him in a limited role. So a team becomes naturally reliant on him.
And New England absolutely did, and age and injury getting to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski only amplified that. Gordon debuted for the team in Week 4, playing 18 snaps against Miami. Edelman returned from a PED suspension the next week. In the 10 games since, here is the number of snaps on offense played by Patriots receivers …
Julian Edelman: 631
Josh Gordon: 546
Chris Hogan: 436
Philip Dorsett: 119
Cordarrelle Patterson: 109
Over that time, Gordon caught 38 balls for 688 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Edelman has 63 catches for 711 yards and four touchdowns, Gronkowski has 28 catches for 425 yards and two touchdowns, and Hogan has 21 catches for 359 yards and a touchdown through those 10 games.
Tom Brady became comfortable throwing to Gordon in key spots, and the coaches were deploying him quite not like the Browns did during his starry 2013 season, but as a cornerstone in the offense. It all happened largely because much of the game has always come so naturally to Gordon.
Of course, it also happened because the Patriots needed him. They traded Brandin Cooks in the offseason, in large part due to the escalating cost of top-end receivers in the wake of free agent megadeals scored by Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson. They’d tried to fill the hole with another troubled-but-talented receiver, Kenny Britt, before turning to Gordon in-season.
So New England wound up doing what teams have to do when they want to bring in a talented player without exhausting prime capital to do it—they incurred risk.
The risk the Patriots signed up for in this case was never assigned to the marginal exchange of draft picks. The risk here was making Gordon a big part of the offense, because his ability dictated that. Now the team is left looking for another answer at a critical point of the season. And to be clear, if anyone can fight through this, it’s a Patriot team that’s been to seven straight AFC title games.
But there’s no question now that the quest to get back there just got thornier. And the Patriots can’t say they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.