Josh Gordon has left the Patriots to focus on his mental health and is suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement under the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The most important takeaway from this story is that Gordon can hopefully get the help he needs to try to deal with and overcome his demons.
But the football angle of Gordon’s departure is important, too. It leaves the Patriots with a sizable void in the offense, right as the season reaches the home stretch. The 9-5 Patriots have lost two games in a row, and now lose one of their most dangerous offensive weapons as they get ready for the playoffs.
Gordon was a significant part of the Patriots’ offense. Since he entered the lineup in Week 4, Gordon played in 71.2 percent of the offensive snaps over his 11 games. He is second on the team behind Julian Edelman in receiving yards per game (65.5) and tied for third with three touchdowns.
Tom Brady seemed to enjoy having Gordon in the lineup. The Patriots scored 28.8 points per game with Gordon, and only 19.0 points per game without him, though Edelman was out of the lineup, as well.
“Just really enjoy our time together,” Brady said on Dec. 14. “We spend so much time here. We’re here until late at night, early in the morning, on the field, watching film and so forth and it’s just been great. I can’t say enough good things.”
The Patriots have options to replace Gordon in the lineup. Chris Hogan should see an uptick in targets. Phillip Dorsett, who has been relegated to 5-10 snaps per game over the last nine weeks, should return to a more prominent role.
Running backs James White and Rex Burkhead should see more involvement in the passing game, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely utilize more two-running back sets. Tight end Jacob Hollister and utility man Cordarrelle Patterson could see a few more opportunities.
But no one in the lineup can actually replace what Gordon brought to the Patriots. They don’t have any other 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound receivers on the roster. The Patriots’ offense is famously difficult to learn, yet Gordon had two 100-yard performances and two others over 80 yards.
“He’s a smart kid, so he learns well,” coach Bill Belichick said of Gordon in November. “For better or worse, he’s been in a lot of different systems. I know it was only one team, but it was a lot of different systems up there. Most everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s done somewhere along the line for somebody.”
Gordon wasn’t the most consistent Patriots receiver. His catch percentage of 58.8 was the lowest on the team. Brady missed more than he hit Gordon on third down, connecting 7 of 16 times for six first downs. And Gordon was second on the Patriots with four drops.
But he gave the Patriots a big-play ability that no one else on the roster could. Few receivers in the league possess his size and skill set — the ability to catch a slant and drag cornerbacks for 10 extra yards, or gallop through the secondary, or catch a jump ball.
Gordon led the Patriots with an 18.0 yards per catch average. Gordon’s three touchdowns this year went for 24, 34, and 55 yards. Gordon was second among all NFL wide receivers, averaging 7.0 yards after catch on each reception. He was sixth among all wide receivers with 143 yards after contact.
“I think just size and height, weight, speed — I think there’s a mismatch,” Brady said in November.
Hogan and Dorsett have great speed and can create big plays, but aren’t nearly as physical and powerful as is Gordon.
“He’s very strong at the catch-point,” Brady said last week. “He’s got a big body. It’s hard to go through him, [and] he’s got a great catch radius. So when the ball’s in the air, he just attacks it. I think most of the time [defenders are] not really going for the ball. They’re just trying to get him on the ground, and his catch-and-run is dynamic, and he’s made a lot of great plays for us this year.”
Though Gordon had the lowest catch rate on the team, he was money in the fourth quarter, catching 12 of 14 targets for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Three weeks ago against the Vikings, Gordon’s first catch didn’t come until 2:20 remained in the third quarter, but he then ended the game with a 24-yard catch, a 24-yard touchdown, a 20-yard pass interference penalty, and a 10-yard catch to set up the final touchdown in the Patriots’ 24-10 win.
That said, Gordon wasn’t perfect this year. His conditioning was an issue for much of the season, like when he was caught from behind on a 55-yard catch-and-run against Chicago, or when McDaniels took him out of last week’s Steelers game on the final play.
Gordon was surprisingly ineffective in the red zone this season despite his height and jumping ability. He caught just 2 of 7 passes in the red zone for no touchdowns, and Brady went 0-for-4 throwing to Gordon on goal-to-go passes.
As the season progressed, Brady went less to Gordon on third and fourth downs. Instead, Brady is now leaning heavily on Edelman and White. They lead the Patriots in targets per game, third-down receiving, and red zone receiving by a wide margin. Gordon and Rob Gronkowski are the Nos. 3 and 4 options in that regard.
So in losing Gordon, the Patriots have to replace a complementary player, not the centerpiece of the offense.
But an offense that is struggling with consistency and scored 10 points last week just lost its most dynamic and physically gifted receiver, two weeks before the playoffs begin.
Hogan and Dorsett will play more, but that doesn’t mean they can replace Gordon’s production.