There are a lot of people who know the tortuous path Josh Gordon has taken to the Patriots. But there are far fewer people who know Josh Gordon, not just his cautionary tale of untapped talent and inability to shed substance abuse as he does defensive backs. Andrew Hawkins knows Josh Gordon, the player and the person.
Hawkins is qualified to sit on either side of the aisle in the Gordon-Patriots marriage of convenience. He spent six seasons as an NFL wide receiver, three with the Cleveland Browns as Gordon’s teammate. He retired from the NFL in July 2017, just days before the Patriots, who signed him in May of that year, opened training camp. Hawkins, now an ESPN analyst and cohost of “The ThomaHawk Show” podcast for Uninterrupted, thinks Gordon and the Patriots are a match.
“From what I know about New England, it’s a good place for him,” said Hawkins, who is also the brother of former Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins. “The culture is all about winning football games. It’s a culture where you come in early and leave late. It’s a culture where you get in the playbook, and it’s, ‘We all have a job to do.’ That’s dependent on your talent level.
“Josh Gordon is capable of literally almost anything from the wide receiver position. When you put a guy like that with the best quarterback in NFL history, there is the potential for fireworks.
“I think Josh a lot of times is a person who is a product of his environment, and putting him in an environment like New England, where it’s ball all the time, I think that could be a really good situation for him.”
Structure, focus, purpose, routine are the allies of anyone in Gordon’s position, trying to shake addiction. Root for Gordon to reclaim his career for reasons that have nothing to do with the Patriots’ dire need at wide receiver or their pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl title. There is more on the line. There is a life. Gordon is on the precipice of wasting tremendous talent, and this is likely his last chance.
According to Hawkins, Gordon and his support system are aware of this.
“I know he has people in place, people who have helped him who have done a really good job,” said Hawkins, a friend of Gordon’s. “He is not the same person he was four or five years ago. He is at a point where he wants to maximize the football opportunity.”
Hawkins called Gordon “probably one of the best to ever get on the field if he is able to reach his potential.” Talent trumps trouble in the NFL, which is why Patriots coach Bill Belichick is willing to roll the dice on Gordon, who missed the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons with NFL substance-abuse suspensions and was reinstated only last November. With a paucity of options at wide receiver until Julian Edelman’s return, the Patriots traded for Gordon this week after the fed-up Browns gave up on him.
The challenge of joining the Patriots midstream to play wide receiver is a daunting one for anyone. Established talents with full offseasons such as Joey Galloway and Chad Johnson have failed to earn entree into Tom Brady’s Circle of Trust. Those guys didn’t have the burden of addiction and playing in only 11 games since 2014.
“Here is why Josh Gordon’s situation is different than anybody who has come through New England: With the exception of one person, talent-wise he is better than everybody else,” said Hawkins. “I don’t say that lightly.
“He does things that most people even by NFL standards cannot do. You can go through the list of guys in New England. It’s not a knock. These are people who put hard work and effort on the line and got incredible results.
“But if I’m talking raw talent and ability and run as fast as you can and sustain that and be at a speed faster than the guy in front of you and seven out of 10 times catch a 50-yard bomb if the throw is there, then there was Randy Moss in New England and Josh Gordon.
“Regardless of his football IQ — and he has a good football IQ — with the baseline of being able to simply run by you and catch a football, the ability to catch a deep ball 70 percent of the time if he has a quarterback who has the arm power to do, which he does, that automatically makes the Patriots offense better,” said Hawkins. “Automatically, he is a benefit.”
That’s what Patriots fans want to hear. They want the guy who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2013 with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and 9 touchdowns, despite playing only 14 games. What they don’t want to hear is that the reason Gordon missed two games that season was his first NFL drug suspension — for codeine, not marijuana.
It’s easy to downplay Gordon’s problems as being related to the fact that the fusty NFL refuses to allow recreational marijuana use, but Gordon has admitted to abusing a litany of substances from Xanax to codeine to cocaine to alcohol to Adderall. This is someone who has battled addiction since his early teens.
It’s the only thing capable of eclipsing his otherworldly talent. Hawkins recalled that when Gordon was briefly reinstated in 2016 and participated in Browns training camp, he dominated and demoralized defensive backs with ease.
That’s what it’s like to be a teammate of Gordon’s. It’s like trying to tell someone you had an encounter with a UFO that vanished into the sky right before they arrived.
“If he would have played that season, he was going to lead the league in receiving because he was that dangerous,” Hawkins said. “Most of the guys who have played with him won’t dog him. We know he is a good guy, and we want him to reach his potential, on and off the field.
“He has a lot of cheerleaders as former teammates, not ones who will hold resentment for him not being there.”
There might not be resentment, but there must be pragmatism.
This has been labeled a low-risk move by the Patriots. Given Gordon’s history of drug abuse, which by his own admission dates back to self-medicating in middle school, it’s anything but.
Don’t conflate low-cost with low-risk. The cost for Gordon is low, only a fifth-round pick swapped for a seventh, but relying on him is a significant risk. It’s said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. Gordon has missed 83.3 percent (55 of 66 games) of his team’s games since 2014. One failed test and he disappears.
Gordon represents both answer and question mark. There is every reason to believe this time is going to be different, but no one knows for sure.
“I don’t know if this time is going to be different. I don’t think anybody knows,” said Hawkins. “The people that were helping him now weren’t the ones helping him two years ago in Cleveland.
“I’ve spoken to him. I know him. I know the people around him genuinely have his best interest in mind and at heart. They just want to see him do well, be well, and reach his potential.”