Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Adam Thielen are the NFL’s top three in receiving yards this season. Josh Gordon is younger than all of them.
It seems like Gordon’s glory days with the Cleveland Browns are long ago, and they were. He hasn’t played an NFL game in almost three seasons, and his All-Pro season was four years ago. Yet, he’s just 26 years old as he makes his return to the NFL this week. There’s still time for him to fulfill all of the potential he showed years ago.
The memories of Gordon’s 2013 season are hard to shake. His age provides optimism he can do it again. But it’s hard to know what Gordon will do the rest of this season, and beyond for that matter. It’s hard to find any great comparison for his case, though a few through recent NFL history are similar.
Gordon, due to various suspensions, has played five of a possible 59 games over the last four seasons. There aren’t many players who were among the best in the game, were off for multiple seasons due to suspensions or other reasons, then came back to play at a high level. Plaxico Burress was suspended two seasons while he was in prison for his infamous gun incident, but came back and had 612 yards and eight touchdowns for the New York Jets in 2011, his first season back. Mike Vick was out of football for two seasons after he spent time in jail due to his involvement in a dog-fighting ring, and played at a near MVP level in his second season back with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ricky Williams missed most of the 2004, 2006 and 2007 seasons due to retirement and suspension and had another 1,000-yard season in 2009, his second season back. Richie Incognito missed a year-and-a-half after the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, but came back to the Buffalo Bills and made the Pro Bowl each of his first two seasons back.
Those are a few notable success stories that are at least comparable to Gordon. And he’s young enough to add himself to that list, but it’s tough to count on that, especially right away.
The last time Gordon came back late in the season from a suspension was 2014. He played in five games and was just OK (303 yards, no touchdowns), though he did have an eight-catch, 120-yard game his first game back. Though, to hear Gordon tell it, he was doing drugs or drinking before each game back then, and he’s clean now. Presumably that makes a difference.
It’s also fair to wonder what the substance abuse has done to Gordon’s body. He has been very open about extensive drug and alcohol use dating back before he was even in high school.He is reportedly in great shape and looked good in practice, so that’s positive. It’s impossible to know the effect the many years of drug and alcohol use, and the long layoff, has had on Gordon.
Browns coach Hue Jackson has said he plans to play Gordon as much as he can handle, and we’ll see what that really means. Gordon will need some time to get back in football shape, though it’s not like there shouldn’t be opportunity from him to play a lot on the 0-11 Browns. When Gordon came back in late November of 2014 after 10 weeks off, he played more than 50 snaps in each of his first three games back. It was about 69 percent of the snaps in his first game back and 77 percent in the next two. So there’s a precedent for him coming in cold and playing a lot.
The Browns could use some good news like the rebirth of a player who led the NFL in receiving yards a few years ago. He’ll play, presumably play a lot down the stretch, though it’s probably best to keep expectations low. Gordon isn’t coming back to a great situation — with rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, the Browns have the lowest passer rating in the NFL this season — and ther aren’t many games left for him to get back into the flow. He might start to peak just as the season is ending.
But what Gordon does the rest of the season is practically a bonus. Just being back on the field is a pretty big step for him.
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