If you have ever wondered what it would be like to watch a Clydesdale pull away from a Pomeranian, fast forward to roughly the 1:36 mark in the third quarter of Sunday’s contest between the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots. In a lumbering fashion that could seemingly be a result of adrenaline married with freakish, God-given measurables, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon stumbled a bit out of the starting blocks, his body moving slightly faster than the legs which serve to propel. After roughly two or three steps, regaining composure, Gordon turned in to his right, corralling an absolute strike thrown from the hand of veteran quarterback Jason Campbell, taking in the oblong piece of inflated leather in stride. The man attempting to hinder Gordon on this day, New England’s Aqib Talib, also came equipped with top-end measurables which include a 40-yard dash time clocked south of 4.5 seconds, but also a mouth that moves faster. Unfortunately for Talib, despite a several-yard head start, the foot race between the two would be roughly twice the space encompassed by the NFL combine test, as Gordon would take the pass 80 yards in a approximately nine seconds—this all including the point in the foot race where Gordon would slow his gliding gallop down at the 10-yard line, Talib and teammate Devin McCourty (who is also a member of the 4.4 Second Club) well having become an afterthought, and begin to execute the early stages of what could best be described as a man turning on an oven, stirring a pot and then taking his shirt off and leaving it on a burning stove.
The defensive scheme that was put in place by Hall of Fame-bound head coach Bill Belichick on Sunday was tasked with the sole goal of limiting his opponent’s sole play-maker. The 6-foot-3-inch Gordon was coming off of a pair of games that had put him in the record books, the receiver having become the first player in NFL history to amass consecutive games with at least 200 yards receiving. The rub, as some would say, would come in the fact that the first game was largely procured while the game was completely out of reach; the more recent game was against the Jacksonville Jaguars who some may say embody the arch enemy of anything representing a staunch defense. The plan was to have Talib, also north of 6-feet tall, provide his typical array of physical coverage at the line, a strong safety or an outside linebacker would flank the middle of the field, and a free safety would play over the top in attempt to provide a safety net in the event Gordon attempted to bust off one of his trademark fly patterns. “I’m pretty sure [Talib] will make some plays, but I’m definitely going to make more plays,” said the second year receiver. The result: Talib would give up 141 of the 151 yards that Gordon would amass on that very Sunday, including the 80 that resulted in the touchdown; Gordon would also finish the game as the Browns’ leading rusher.
His overall stat line during the eventual 27-26 loss would pale in comparison to the two weeks which preceded it, but the result was simply another line item in the incredibly talented receiver’s run that has NFL fans throughout the country wondering What’s Next. In just 11 games this season, the first two marred by a substance abuse-related suspension, the second-year stud out of Baylor is officially the Cleveland Browns’ record holder for most receiving yards in a game (the 267 he amassed a week earlier at home against Jacksonville) as well as in a season, finishing this Sunday’s game with exactly 1,400 yards, passing Braylon Edwards’ 1,289 yards which he needed 16 games to tally back in 2007. Gordon’s recent four-game run, including a vanilla 125-yard outing during Week 11’s contest in Cincinnati, has placed him at the top of the mountain when it comes to most receiving yards over a four-game period.
“He’s a hell of player, man,” said Talib, likely having brushed Gordon’s dust off of the front of his Patriot’s uniform. “He’s young. He’s going to make some noise in this league. He’s pretty good.”
While Gordon has made a hobby out of dismantling records and the wills of would-be defenders, the man known as “Flash” has remained uncharacteristically quiet. The owner of a camouflage Great Gatsby-inspired Porsche, Gordon has seemingly transformed not just his on-field weaponry, but also the one that he portrays off of it. The wide receiver’s struggles with banned substances is well-documented: Multiple schools, multiple suspensions, multiple levels of concern over his ability to stay “clean” at the NFL level. Enrolled in an elevated tier of the NFL’s policy for substance abuse, it is believed that one more failed test would result in the 22-year old being ostracized from the NFL for a year, a cautionary tale in an orange helmet.
For weeks, the wide receiver was faced with inquiries about potentially being traded, the subject of plenty of rumors and even more speculation. Phone calls were had, fingers were pointed, and all remained status quo. It’s easy to see what other teams saw in Gordon, but whatever prices were discussed, the wide receiver stayed in Cleveland. As happy as fans were to hear the news, no one person would be happier than the man who would no longer have to address items well beyond his control.
Those who are analyzing Gordon’s work, some paid to do so, many others of the Pro Bono Internet variety, are increasingly drawn to opposite ends of the spectrum. The statistics and the age and the measurables and the ceiling indicate that Josh Gordon should be in the discussion when it comes to the top wide receivers in the league. Select members of the local media, as recent as this past Sunday evening, went as far as to call Gordon the best receiver in the league right now, placing him above Detroit’s Calvin Johnson—the consensus best receiver in all of football—and other high-end options like Dallas’ Dez Bryant, Cincinnati’s AJ Green and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, the last of whom, mind you, was held to just 41 yards receiving by New England’s Talib.
“He’s playing at a high level, no question about it—I think you have to put him in the conversation with those guys,” said Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski. “Consistency is the thing that I’ll be looking for. His best days, like our best days, are ahead of us and him.”
But also growing in population are those who wish to sell high on Gordon, claiming that it isn’t the player that should provide reason for concern, but the person. At 22 years of age, it is easy cast him as being immature. Some even want to go as far as to say that Gordon is still using marijuana, but simply hasn’t been caught. His moving violations and parking tickets are nothing but a symbol of careless and reckless behavior. As the numbers pile up, the bottom will eventually fall out, they say.
Meanwhile, as the debates rage on and a fan base continues to count the losses, Gordon, the player and the person, continues to say and do all of the right things. His Social Media profile has been reduced drastically. A party that was allegedly being held with him as the “host” was met with laughter, the player having no association with the promotional tool. His 22nd birthday was to be celebrated following an early-season game, but it’s believed that Gordon opted out of a night at the clubs, choosing to spend time in his plush, high-rise condominium near Lake Erie, claiming that he was simply tired. As he has amassed record-breaking weeks on the field, the only things he has to say post game revolve around disappointment in the fact that his team did not come out the victor.
“Honestly, it really doesn’t mean that much to me,” the second-year receiver said following a 14-catch, 237-yard afternoon against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “After taking a loss like that, it means nothing. It is great for me as a wide receiver to get that experience, but if we can’t go out there and win, I don’t really care about it.”
Following this Sunday’s loss to the Patriots, the very game that would place him in yet another spot within the history books, Gordon wouldn’t speak to anyone. Instead, he simply offered a statement which would be relayed through a team official. “It means nothing to me if we can’t win as a team while doing it.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that Gordon was a man of many talents, but would be limited to a few tricks. His speed is undeniable, leaving him as a deep threat along the sidelines. This forces defenders to provide a cushion, also allowing for Gordon to be a weapon on comeback routes. But it wasn’t until recently, potentially even mid-way through this very season, where the player who has been chastised for taking plays off or “loafing” has started to do things on the field that had previously only lived in a fantasy land of what this very player could do if he was willing to put in the work. Now, Gordon can be found high-pointing receptions, coming back to balls that would otherwise be tipped by defenders, pulling double moves and creating space with relative ease. His long, limber strides make it appear as if he’s hardly breaking a sweat at any point. The tangible results, however, as seen by defenders fading in his wake prove otherwise. A one- or two-trick pony has become a player who other teams have to scheme against, none of which having been able to do so as his meteoric rise continues to ascend.
Josh Gordon is a household name. He was already on the radar for fantasy football aficionados, but his play of recent weeks has lobbed him into weekly national discussions. Fans of his work are forced to tune in to the Browns games as they unfold as his penchant for huge plays, many of which encompass half the field of play, renders the Red Zone Channel useless. But with every mention of his name comes the caveat surrounding his story. Certainly, there’s an element of Cleveland involved; anything bad that could happen usually does, and a player of Gordon’s skill set and production is simply another rug that will soon be pulled out from our collective feet, another one-word noun preceded by a “The.”
Gordon knows that he will see more double-teams and defensive sets geared with the lone goal of making his job as difficult as possible. In the long term, fans in Cleveland salivate at the opporutnity to see what this kid can do when teamed up with the eventual quarterback of the future. If he can do this while having Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer by his side, just imagine what can happen when (if?) he’s given anything that resembles an elite arm under center. The garbage time and suspect defensive units are all well and good, but Sunday’s play—the quick slant against man coverage, the mean stiffarm, ultimately taken for 80 yards and six points—is the type that makes fans and analysts yearn for more. There is no doubt that his best days as a professional athlete are ahead of him. It’s tough to deny that the Browns have anywhere to go but up. The question mark will be whether or not Gordon, one false move away from becoming another What Could Have Been, truly has grown into the person and player he’s become over the last several months. The numbers and ranks and record book-demolishing? Those, at least when it comes to the 2013 season, are are all just an added bonus.
Josh Gordon gifs via NewsNet5 and NESN, image edited by WFNY