Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon rewrote the NFL record books in 2013. His 1,646 receiving yards (despite playing in just 14 games) led the NFL and shattered his franchise’s previous single-season record by nearly 400 yards. In doing so, Gordon became the youngest player in modern history to lead the league in receiving yards.
During the 2016 season — and perhaps far beyond — Gordon has the unique opportunity to repair a reputation tainted by alcohol, drugs, selfishness and immaturity. And if he succeeds, Gordon’s accomplishment will become as impressive and celebrated as any of his powerful broken tackles or acrobatic touchdown grabs.
In a somewhat surprising move, Gordon was reinstated by the NFL on July 26, less than one year after receiving a season-long ban — his third league-mandated suspension — and three months removed from another reported failed drug test. But after a rocky return, in which he arrived at camp overweight and out of shape, Gordon has offered a glimpse of the same type of brilliance that earned him a first-team All-Pro selection in 2013.
In last week’s preseason loss at Tampa Bay, his first NFL action in roughly 20 months, Gordon caught two passes for 87 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown that he only hauled in because of a magnificent adjustment on the ball.
The performance — which also featured a catch that showcased fancy footwork along the sideline — was brief, came against a suspect Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, and, most importantly, occurred in the always-murky environment of a preseason game. Gordon still has a long way to go before he returns to top form. But if he manages to become close to the player he was three seasons ago, he will be a significant contributor to the Browns playmaker-starved offense.
Gordon joins a long list of high-profile players who have seen their careers derailed by off-the-field issues. And the list continues to grow. In the last six months alone, players such as Le’Veon Bell, Marcell Dareus and Randy Gregory have each been dealt significant bans due to repeated failed drug tests. Gordon can set an example for these players by staying out of trouble, focusing on football, and — in the process — steadily returning to the good graces of his teammates and coaches.
But there’s more at stake than just Gordon’s career, the Browns playoff hopes, or even the model he can be for other troubled, or simply misguided, young players. If Gordon can stay off drugs and alcohol, on the field and frequently in the end zone, he’ll give the NFL a poster child for redemption.
The NFL’s long history of players breaking the law or frequently testing positive for illegal drugs or banned substances has been a nightmare for the league and its image. But since the Ray Rice domestic abuse case became a nation-wide embarrassment for the NFL — punctuated by how poorly the league handled his punishment — the scrutiny of every player who breaks the law has intensified. Each subsequent case of a player getting a DUI or failing a second or third drug test has become another referendum on “everything that’s wrong” with the NFL: spoiled millionaire athletes wasting their God-given talent and rare opportunity because they refuse to grow up.
But it’s those players who seemingly show no remorse and repeatedly fail drug tests and receive multiple suspensions, usually during a very short career, that draw the ire of fans and the media. One or two relatively harmless mistakes by a young player can be forgiven and ultimately forgotten. Just look at reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, who was suspended at the start of the 2013 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy but has stayed out of trouble since then. Now he’s a pitchman for Madden 17 and a “Dancing with the Stars” celebrity.
In short, it’s the repeat offenders — Aldon Smith, Justin Blackmon and Gordon’s former teammate, Johnny Manziel — that reinforce the public’s growing distrust and disdain for the NFL and its players.
If just one of those seemingly lost causes prove to have been worthy of receiving that fourth or even fifth chance, it can greatly benefit the league’s image. Instead of being viewed as enablers of self-destructive behavior, exploiting their talent for dollars, the NFL and its much-maligned drug-punishment policy would have a much-needed successful test case.
Even if Gordon stays out of trouble for the rest of his career, earns a few spots in the Pro Bowl, or guides the Browns out of the doldrums toward NFL relevancy, it will not undo the mistakes of his contemporaries. People will still look at the likes of Johnny Football as incorrigible. But the example that Gordon can set should open the eyes of players such as Martavis Bryant, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver who, at times in 2015, flashed the same type of explosiveness as Gordon.
The 24-year-old Bryant, who in his most recent NFL game caught nine passes for 154 yards against the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, was suspended for the entire 2016 season in March for failing multiple drug tests, the second suspension of his short career.
Should Bryant’s ban be lifted next spring, and he returns to the Steelers to begin resurrecting his career by earning back the trust of his teammates and coaches, maybe he’ll have to look no further than Gordon, his AFC North counterpart, as a beacon of hope that he, too, can reclaim a once-bright future.