FOXBOROUGH — In October, the issues that haunted Josh Gordon from the time he stepped into the NFL ultimately proved too much for the Cleveland Browns to endure. But as the Patriots searched for ways to ignite an offense that was running low on explosive players, they were willing to take a risk on the 27-year-old wide receiver, banking on Gordon’s ability to make big plays and the organization’s ability to shelter him from the hurdles that had tripped him up so many times before.
The announcement Thursday that Gordon would be suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement under the league’s substance abuse policy Gordon’s future in jeopardy and left the Patriots with the same issue they had before they signed him.
They haven’t been able to generate explosive plays at a high rate this season, and one of the primary weapons they were counting on to produce them is now gone.
Gordon’s next steps away from the field took precedence Thursday in the Patriots locker room.
“We’re used to adversity when it comes to just playing football whether it’s an injury, a guy can’t play in a game, whatever that is,” said defensive back Devin McCourty. “But life comes before all that. So I think we wish him the best. We care about that more than wins and losses.”
But on the field, the Patriots offense will have to do some late-season problem-solving.
The Patriots are tied with the Bengals for ninth in the league with 51 passing plays of 20 yards or more. They have eight plays of at least 40 yards, tied with the Cowboys for 13th in the league.
It’s a far cry from a year ago when they aired out 63 pass plays of at least 20 yards (second in the NFL) and 10 of at least 40 yards (ninth).
They’re even less explosive in the running game. Their nine rushing plays of 20-plus yards put them at 18th in the league. And they have no runs of 40 yards or more.
“We always try to create explosive plays,” said center David Andrews. “There’s a lot that goes into that. So we always try to do that. I think we’ve done good jobs of that here and there. Big plays over 20 yards, those are explosive plays. My job is to block the guys, and I’ll let those guys make those plays. If we usually do our job, they usually make pretty plays.”
The origins of the Patriots’ big-play void can be traced back to April when they traded receiver Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams. Cooks was a deep threat for the Patriots a year ago, making 65 catches for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. He was even more potent in the postseason, making 10 catches for 155 yards. The Patriots got the 23rd pick in this past draft in return and believed they were still stocked with enough talent at receiver without Cooks.
But the lack of explosiveness was evident early when the Patriots got off to a 2-2 start with Julian Edelman serving a suspension and Rob Gronkowski inconsistent. Through those first four games, the Patriots were in the bottom third of the league with 881 passing yards (21st).
When they swung the deal for Gordon, the necessity seemed to make the risk worth it. In 11 games after joining the Patriots, Gordon led the team with 720 receiving yards. At his best, Gordon became a go-to for quarterback Tom Brady, being targeted 68 times and making 40 grabs. A team-high 12 of those catches went for 20 yards or more. After Gordon, the majority of the Patriots’ chunk plays have come from Edelman (11 catches for 20-plus yards) and Chris Hogan (10).
Hogan’s 63-yard sandlot catch last week against the Steelers stands as the Patriots’ longest play of the season. Hogan was all by himself to make the grab and breeze to the end zone, but as he described the play earlier this week, he said Gordon’s presence was part of the reason he was so open.
“The offensive line blocked well,” he said. “Josh on the other side, ran a good route. That kind of took away the safety defender and pretty much everyone else back there. Tommy stepped up and made a good throw.”
Drops have also sabotaged big-play opportunities. The Patriots are seventh in the league with 20 dropped passes, an issue offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels addressed earlier this week.
“There’s never really one reason for anything like that,” McDaniels said. “I mean, there’s a lot of types of pass plays. Again, I think as a group, we catch the ball well. They obviously work on it every day in practice, and we have a tremendous amount of confidence in our skill group. So, if there was one thing that kept showing up over and over in terms of a specific style of catch or the way our hands were placed or coming from left to right or right to left or over the shoulder or what have you, then that would be one thing. I do not see that.
“I mean, this is the National Football League. Guys are going to have opportunities that are tough catches, and sometimes they’re going to make them and sometimes they’re not. That doesn’t mean that they don’t catch the football well, because our group does. We’ve got a lot of confidence in them and we just keep working and fundamentally focusing on the things that you need to do well to catch the football consistently, and you go back out there and practice.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.