There are certain shiny objects that if you polish too often or too vigorously you’ll take the luster and the finish right off them.
The Patriots have spent years carefully polishing the Patriot Way, the idea that their victories come with virtue. Buying into all that public polishing and posturing means the shine gets taken off the franchise when, in trying to put the finishing touches on a Super Bowl team, coach Bill Belichick makes a move, such as importing wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Belichick is a noted admirer of late, great Raiders owner Al Davis, a man who put the icon in iconoclast. Davis was notorious for collecting castoffs and problem players in his pursuit of excellence. The Patriots are the new Raiders. They’re the preferred landing spot for wayward talents, the NFL’s redemption center. Instead of “Do Your Job,” the team’s credo should be “Just Win, Baby!” They’ll take anybody who can help them win, all manner of malcontents, problem children, bad boys, lawbreakers, and recidivists. The Patriots want to project probity while they prioritize victory.
As straight-laced and button-downed as Belichick appears to be, he and Davis are kindred souls. Davis was always reviving the careers of players with talent and warts in pursuit of wins. A picaresque pioneer, Davis was a football genius and an inveterate competitor who had no use for the bureaucracy of the NFL and donned a trademark article of clothing. Sound familiar?
Belichick shares the same by-any-means-necessary philosophy that fueled Davis. When Belichick says he does what’s in the best interests of the team, that’s merely a euphemistic way of echoing Davis’s signature saying, “Just Win, Baby!”
With an obvious need at wide receiver, Belichick decided to gamble on Gordon’s immense talent and history of substance abuse after the Cleveland Browns finally decided they needed to sever ties after Gordon breached their trust yet again; this time it was showing up the day before a game with a hamstring injury suffered in a promotional shoot the team was unaware of.
The cost for New England was low, a fifth-round pick for Gordon and a seventh-round pick. If Gordon, who has multiple NFL suspensions for substance-abuse policy violations since 2013 and sat out the 2015 and 2016 seasons on indefinite NFL suspension, stays clean and reaches his potential, it’s a steal.
Belichick is all about football Faustian bargains. He drafted Aaron Hernandez, who slipped to the fourth round in 2010 because of concerns about his character and drug use, red flags that scared away other teams. He also drafted cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who punched a police officer five days before the 2012 NFL Draft, causing him to slip to the seventh round, where the Patriots pounced.
In 2016, the Patriots claimed wide receiver Michael Floyd off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals two days after he got arrested for driving under the influence and was so intoxicated that he passed out behind the wheel of his car. Last season, they signed wideout Kenny Britt, who has multiple arrests during his career.
Corey Dillon, Albert Haynesworth, and Aqib Talib were all talented players with checkered pasts embraced to improve the roster. Dealt for a second-round pick in 2004, Dillon was arrested in 2000 for domestic violence. Haynesworth was acquired in 2011 while he faced a sexual abuse charge for groping a waitress. Traded to New England during the 2012 season, Talib was arrested for simple battery on a cab driver in 2009 and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2011 after a confrontation with his sister’s boyfriend.
(Dillon had his domestic violence charge dropped after he donated $750 to a domestic violence center and underwent treatment. Haynesworth pled no contest to a lesser charge of simple assault. The assault charge against Talib was dropped.)
The Patriots also haven’t shied away from players with a history of recusancy such as Randy Moss and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco.
The Patriots are far from the only NFL team that takes chances on talented players who have transgressed. It’s part of doing business in the NFL, but like Davis’s Raiders they seem to be more willing than most. The difference is that the Raiders under Davis owned their reputation for harboring bad boys and being the bad guys. The Patriots want to be the good guys while taking on bad boys. They want to be regarded as the latter-day San Francisco 49ers while remorselessly rolling the dice Raiders-style.
That’s the disconnect between owner Robert Kraft and the honorable image he has crafted for his franchise and the singular mission of football operations, led by a coach with virtual carte blanche.
Belichick would like us to believe a player with a troubled past comes to his Patriot Place reform school and their slate gets wiped clean. Or at least that he can wipe the memories of fans and media regarding their transgressions by refusing to discuss them.
Like a child caught doing something they know isn’t allowed, Belichick avoided talking about the acquisition of Gordon. He finally acknowledged it on Friday but declined to detail the team’s plan to provide support for Gordon. Gordon is in Stage 3 of the NFL’s substance-abuse program. One failed test and his career goes poof.
This is someone who has battled addiction since his early teens, admitted to cocaine use in college, and confessed to smoking marijuana and doing shots before NFL games.
“He has been on this quest and redemption track for a while now. It’s going to be a process,” said Andrew Hawkins, who was briefly a Patriot and was a teammate of Gordon’s in Cleveland. “It’s an everyday thing. It isn’t like it’s all good now.
“I know he has people in place and people who have helped him who have done a really good job . . . That’s why everybody wants to help him. It’s because you realize how much potential this guy has, and if you can help him get it together it’s a big benefit. It all goes hand and hand. That’s the goal.”
According to those who know him, Gordon is not a disruptive player. He is just a troubled soul who has not been able to escape the clutches of substance abuse. Still, he is far from a model employee or model Patriot.
Five years ago, Belichick responded to a question asking if reliability and dependability are as important as potential by saying, “We like to say that dependability is more important than ability, so put it that way. Maybe I use your phrase, but that’s one we use.”
There has not been a less dependable NFL player since 2014 than Gordon. He has played just 11 games since that time. Gordon’s freakish ability and the Patriots’ need at his position rendered a tenet of the Patriot Way more bendable than Tom Brady.
Belichick has channeled his inner-Al again. Gordon is here because the Patriots’ real motto is Just Win, Hoodie.