The old adage goes that a leopard can’t change its spots. We live, however, in a society where many people are given a second chance – sometimes even more. Punishment and forgiveness go hand in hand and we see it every day in politics, law, within the family and even in the sporting world. Indeed, the dramatic world of sports gives us everything from single game suspensions to career ending bans, all implemented for a variety of reasons in response to a assortment of violations. In rare cases, athletes vanish, forever banned from a sport or league. In most instances, the athlete returns, apologizes and moves forward in an effort to distance themselves from their past mistakes. Of course, within all sports, there are repeat offenders who just can’t seem to ‘change their spots.’
One such player who fits this mold is Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. Anyone who has ever seen Gordon play knows he is an absolute terror out on the field. He can run, he can catch and he can leave defenses in his dust while he carries the ball into the end-zone. Signed for a total of $5.3 million over four years in 2012, Gordon repaid the Cleveland faithful by topping all rookie receivers with 50 catches and over 800 yards. In his 2013 sophomore year, he really came out with something to prove and racked up over 1,600 yards with 87 receptions and 9 touchdowns. Those first two seasons, Gordon grabbed the headlines, four receiving records and a Pro Bowl selection. If it wasn't for his history of marijuana use, there really would be no catch to this story.
Since the spring of 2014, the NFL has suspended nearly three dozen players for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Suspensions vary greatly depending upon severity of the incident and a player’s previous disciplinary record and can result in everything from a single game suspension to a year-long ban. In Josh Gordon’s case, previous failed tests and a suspension at Baylor, followed up with a two-game suspension in 2013 for another failed test, meant this promising wide receiver has some demons dogging his young career. It only got worse as the 2014 season approached.
Yet another failed test this past summer led the NFL to enforce their strictest punishment available. Football fans who turned on ESPN on August 27th saw that Gordon was slapped with a massive one-year ban. Patience had run out and Cleveland looked set to miss its best offensive weapon for the entire 2014 season. A recent re-evaluation of the league’s substance abuse policies resulted in a reduction in bans for various players – Josh Gordon included. The wide receiver had his ban slashed to 10 games meaning he is now available for Week 12 of the NFL season. This is good news for Gordon and the Browns, but what does it mean for the fans of the NFL and the Cleveland Browns, as well as the army of fantasy managers looking at signing him up?
If Josh Gordon can stay away from off-field issues, there is every reason to believe that, in the long term, he can re-discover the form that was so devastating last season. Looking at some other high profile players who faced lengthy bans, like Miami’s Ricky Williams and Dallas’ Michael Irvin, suggests Gordon should be alright. Williams was handed a full year suspension in 2006 for marijuana use. When he came back, his overall rushing stats had dropped off but he still maintained over four yards per carry for the rest of his career. In all fairness, his stats the season before his suspension had also dropped off, further suggesting the suspension wasn't a career killer. Irvin’s 5 game 1996 suspension definitely impacted his season stats and dropped him below 1000 yards receiving for the first time since 1990. However, he led the league in yards per game that year, with a whopping 87.5 yards per game. On top of that, he returned the following season and went right back to over 1000 yards.
In the short term, anything is possible but it may be a bit much to expect Gordon to return and immediately start racking up the 200 yard games. The young receiver hasn't played a single competitive game since the pre-season (which is barely competitive) and has even been banned from actively practicing with the squad. Over the past month,s he has kept his fitness levels up and participated in team meetings to stay connected with the team and its plans. Extra practice in this week’s lead up to the game against Atlanta will help get some of the rust off, but nothing can replace actual game time when trying to get a professional athlete back to the top of their form.
It’s also not just a question of practice and game time, either. Gordon has yet to play under the new system devised by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan, new to the Browns organization this year, replaced the outgoing Norv Turner, someone Gordon enjoyed great success under. Turner’s game involved a lot of passing and, thus, focused on getting a lot of service to Gordon as he sped down the field. Shanahan, on the other hand, has been developing a run-oriented game-plan this season, which is probably a good thing considering QB Brian Hoyer has a pass completion rate of 55.7%. It’s probably a bit much, therefore, to expect Josh Gordon to come right back in and pick up where he left off. That said, Hoyer did tell NFL.com that if he gets in a pinch, he’ll have no trouble looking to Gordon to help him out. Either he’ll have to adapt to Cleveland’s new system or Kyle Shanahan will have to tinker with the run-game to include more options to Gordon. Either way it’s a good problem to have.
There will be a lot of people waiting to see how Gordon is used this weekend and how he performs overall. Given the Atlanta Falcons have the league’s worst pass defense, which includes conceding 8.2 yards per pass attempt, the Cleveland star is coming back at a very favorable time. In fact, for the final 6 games of the season, only one of the teams scheduled to play Cleveland has a pass defense ranked in the top half of the league. Despite the coaching staff saying Gordon will be eased back into the team, opponents aren't buying it and expect him to see considerable playing time over the coming weeks. In the long run, if he can stay focused, there is every chance he can regain his 2013 form and help improve the 6-4 Browns. If he can’t, then this leopard will most likely find himself being stripped of his spots and forced to look for employment elsewhere.