NFL, Browns, and Patriots tried to work with Josh Gordon
Josh Gordon has been suspended indefinitely again, banished by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on substances of abuse. This marks the fifth time since 2012 that he has been suspended for running afoul of the drug policy, and third time indefinitely.
Little is known about what Gordon did to earn another suspension, as the NFL’s drug policy has a strict confidentiality agreement and harsh fines for those who break it. It is not known if Gordon even failed a drug test, as he could have tested positive for a diluted sample or simply skipped a test altogether.
But whatever Gordon did, it must have been serious because the NFL has been working hard with Gordon for the last three years, trying to provide him with a support system.
In the past, players who ran afoul of the drug rules were simply banished, such as Ricky Williams or Justin Blackmon. But Gordon has been a different kind of test case for the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Browns, and the Patriots have tried to work with Gordon and provide structure and support for him, to help him deal with his substance and mental health issues.
Whatever Gordon did this time, it became clear to the NFL that he needed to be away from football and working on those issues.
“He became close with Roger, who has really tried to help Josh,” said Mary Kay Cabot, the longtime Browns beat reporter for Cleveland.com. “Roger has given him chance after chance after chance. Josh is in the NFL because Roger has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and let him try to come back and make a career of this and get himself together. I do give Roger Goodell a lot of credit for trying something new here, trying rehabilitation instead of punishment.”
Cabot has covered Gordon since he entered the NFL in 2012. She was there when Gordon had 1,646 receiving yards and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2013, and she has been there through Gordon’s myriad suspensions and reinstatements over the last six years.
What stuck out to Cabot was how the NFL always seemed to change its rules for Gordon. It allowed him to return to the Browns on a conditional basis in 2017 before being fully reinstated. It allowed him to check himself into a rehab outpatient clinic this summer right before training camp, and to return to the Browns in late August without any suspension.
On Thursday, in announcing the latest suspension, the NFL noted that Gordon violated the terms of his conditional reinstatement. But the details of those terms are not publicly known — we don’t know how often Gordon was drug tested, whether he had any appeal rights, whether he was also tested for alcohol, or what measures, if any, Gordon had to take off the field.
“When it came to Josh Gordon’s situation, things were always just a little bit different than the letter of the law,” Cabot said. “None of the rules seem to be super clearly spelled out. I think they were trying to see if they could save him and keep him in the league.”
The Browns organization liked Gordon, Cabot said. Owner Jimmy Haslam grew fond of Gordon, and Browns legend Jim Brown tried to take Gordon under his wing.
“Jimmy Haslam got very close to Josh Gordon because he is a very likable guy,” Cabot said. “He’s very personable, he’s smart, he’s thoughtful. This is not some guy who is a complete distraction off the field. I think the attitude was, ‘Let’s see if we can’t save him instead of punish him,’ and they tried really hard.”
But the Browns finally had enough in September. After standing by Gordon for years, Gordon showed up to work late on the Saturday before the Week 2 game at New Orleans. Gordon blamed his hamstring, but Cabot reported that Gordon was “not himself” and the Browns had “concern that perhaps he was struggling again with his sobriety or on the verge of relapsing.”
The Browns traded Gordon to the Patriots the following Monday, acquiring a fifth-round pick in exchange for Gordon and a seventh-rounder. Cabot was surprised that Gordon was allowed to play for the Patriots right away following the final incident with the Browns.
The Patriots tried to provide as much support as they could for Gordon. Jack Easterby, the team’s character development coach and pastor, made Gordon his No. 1 project, “basically living next door to him,” according to one league source.
“He’s been hands-on, very hands-on, [which] kind of just made this whole process that much easier for me. [I’m] really appreciative of him,” Gordon said this season of Easterby.
In Gordon’s three months in Foxborough, the Patriots kept access and information to him tightly controlled. His only media availabilities were quick, three-question sessions once a week and after games. There was no need to hype up Gordon’s redemption, because the Patriots knew it could all come crashing down in an instant.
But the Patriots embraced Gordon. They threw him a cookout shortly after he arrived in September. Several teammates developed strong relationships with Gordon, including Matthew Slater, former Browns teammates Brian Hoyer and Jason McCourty, and Tom Brady.
“Tom’s genuine interaction with Josh was just phenomenal,” a league source said.
Several coaches also took Gordon under their wing — most notably receivers coach Chad O’Shea and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Gordon’s days with the Patriots included long days at Gillette Stadium, to keep him occupied and within the football structure.
“We spend so much time here,” Brady said of he and Gordon. “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.”
But Cabot was not surprised to hear of Gordon’s latest suspension on Thursday — not just because of his past, but because of the final incident he had with the Browns in September.
“The circumstances under which he left here led me to believe that he probably wasn’t going to make it through the season,” Cabot said. “It just seems to me that there must have been some clear violation that told the NFL he needs to be somewhere else right now working on his sobriety, instead of here trying to help this team win a football game.”
Little-known Patriots facts
A few stats about the Patriots, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman that may surprise you:
■ We know that the Patriots have been much worse on the road this year than at home, losing five or more games away from Gillette Stadium for the first time since 2009. But the Patriots’ Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies have never been more dramatic.
The Patriots are averaging only 21.6 points on the road, the lowest of Brady’s career. And they are scoring 11.9 fewer points per game on the road than at home, by far the largest disparity in the Brady era (9.2-point difference in 2009).
■ The eyeball test says the Patriots have been struggling in the red zone of late, and the numbers confirm it. They are ranked 16th in the NFL in touchdown percentage inside the red zone (58 percent of opportunities). Brady has just 14 red-zone passing touchdowns this year, the third fewest of his career. He had 26 last year.
Brady also has thrown just nine touchdown passes from inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, the third fewest of his career. Last year he had 17, and in 2007 he had 24.
■ But for all the talk about how Brady is struggling against the blitz, his numbers aren’t that far off his career averages. Brady has a career 100.4 passer rating against the blitz, and this year it’s 94.7. In his career, he has thrown a touchdown pass on 6.3 percent of blitz pass attempts, and this year it’s 6.4 percent. He is averaging 7.72 yards per attempt in his career, and this year it’s 8.12. He averages two interceptions per season against the blitz, and he has two this year.
■ Brady is actually having one of his better closing months. Brady has a 102.2 passer rating this December (five touchdowns, two interceptions), which ranks as the fifth-best December/January passer rating of his career. Last year, when Brady was named league MVP, his December/January passer rating was 81.6, the third worst of his career.
■ Brady’s receivers have dropped 21 passes, the fourth most in the NFL.
■ But Brady has thrown five interceptions in the fourth quarter, tied with the 2004 and 2013 seasons for the most in his career.
■ As slow as Gronkowski has looked this year, his hands certainly haven’t been affected, as Gronk has just one drop in 67 targets. Drops were a problem early in his career — he had five in 2011, six in 2012, and seven in 2014 — but he has only had five drops on 330 targets over the last four years.
■ Strange but true: Gronkowski has not scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in the regular season since 2015.
■ And if not for an NFL-high eight drops, and the four-game suspension to start the year affecting his numbers, we might be talking about Edelman having one of his best seasons ever at age 32.
Edelman is averaging 11.3 yards per catch, the same as in 2015 and 2016. His 71.1 receiving yards per game are the second most of his career since he became a starter in 2013. Edelman’s current stats would put him on a pace for 100 catches, 1,137 yards (a career high), and six touchdowns had he played 16 games. And Edelman already has seven catches of 25-plus yards, tied for the most in his career (2016).
Larger rosters would be costly
One question I have gotten a lot over the years is, “Why can teams only have 46 active players on game day, and not dress all 53?”
The answer lies in competitive balance. By requiring seven players to be named inactive each game, the NFL ensures that a healthier team doesn’t have an unfair advantage over a team with more injuries.
But the 46 number is arbitrary, and Saints coach Sean Payton said this past week that he hopes the NFL will increase its game-day rosters, just to give coaches more options with players.
“If we’re interested in health and safety — and it sounds like we are, at least that’s something we talk about a lot — that number should be higher,” Payton said. “And that’ll affect the overall roster size. And that might cost a little bit more money, but that’s the price.”
Payton laughed at the notion that a team can rest its starters before the playoffs, like NBA teams do.
“Have you ever looked at the sideline during a game?” Payton said. “You’re talking about three different changes, maybe. It’s just different than, obviously, college, where you have a large number of players on the sideline.”
Increasing game-day rosters would also require the NFL to increase the 53-man roster, and as Payton astutely pointed out, “That’s where the expense lies.” Expanding rosters means there are more players that the owners have to pay, which is why it hasn’t happened yet.
“That’s an ownership-only decision,” said Payton, who is on the league’s competition committee. “It has nothing to do with the competition committee. It has everything to do with management council and the players’ union and ownership.”
Sherman’s snub affects salary
San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl this past week, which carries contractual consequences. Since he didn’t make the Pro Bowl, (only on the initial ballot) his 2019 salary guarantees would have kicked in, as well as his $1 million salary escalator.
Sherman deserves a lot of credit for coming back strong this year. Though he doesn’t have an interception, he has played (and started) 12 of 14 games, and has played in more than 91 percent of the snaps in those 12 games.
But he’s still not going to earn most of the money laid out in the contract he signed this spring.
Missing two games means he has only played in 79 percent of the team’s total snaps, meaning he will miss out on a $1 million bonus. He won’t earn another $3 million in Pro Bowl or All-Pro bonuses, and he has no guarantees and only $2 million of dead cap money for next year. That three-year, $39 million deal that was reported in March might really only be for one year and $8.8 million.
The Raiders may have found a home for 2019, with reports emerging Friday that they have engaged baseball’s San Francisco Giants in discussions about playing their home games next year at AT&T Park. This seems like the best solution to the Raiders’ problem, as it would keep them in the Bay Area while not sharing a stadium with the 49ers. And it would create a funny dynamic, with the San Francisco 49ers playing an hour away in Santa Clara, and the Oakland Raiders playing in San Francisco . . . One name to keep an eye on during the head coaching cycle: Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. The 35-year-old son-in-law of former Packers coach Mike Sherman is considered a rising prospect, and though he may not quite be ready for a head coaching job, many people said the same thing about Sean McVay before the Rams hired him in 2017 . . . Good for all the college players skipping their meaningless bowl games in order to avoid injury for the NFL Draft. It’s one thing if your team is playing in the college football playoff or a major game such as the Rose Bowl, but games such as the Camping World Bowl are little more than fund-raisers for athletic departments . . . Last week Christian McCaffrey became the first player since Walter Payton in 1985 to have 50 yards each rushing, receiving, and passing in the same game . . . Patriots receiver Chris Hogan has only two more catches this year than teammate Phillip Dorsett (29 to 27) but has played 345 more snaps . . . Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake pleaded passionately with fans to please return the football from his winning touchdown against the Patriots that he chucked into the stands in celebration. Not only did no one return the ball, but on Friday evening the ball went up for auction via Steiner Sports, with a starting bid of $500. It’s probably wishful thinking, but hopefully whoever wins the auction can return the ball to Drake or the Dolphins.