Patriots took a risk by relying on Josh Gordon — and lost
The Patriots have often been praised during this dynastic period of success for their bloodless pragmatism dealing with player decisions. That pragmatism was suspended in Josh Gordon’s case, and now so is he.
The end of the convenient marriage of Gordon and Patriots was predictable, some would say inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing and disheartening for Gordon or for the football team that came to rely upon him. Now, both are back at square one, confronting the same issues they set out to resolve.
Only the most zealous of Hoodie homers could still declare trading for Gordon, who was indefinitely suspended by the NFL on Thursday for once again violating the league’s substance abuse policy, a success. Patriots coach Bill Belichick rolled the dice on a wide receiver with equal parts innate ability and unreliability, a player who can separate from defensive backs with regularity but can’t break free from addiction and self-medication. He lost.
This is the worst-case scenario for the Patriots. It would have been better if Gordon couldn’t acclimate to the offense and floundered such as Joey Galloway. Then the Patriots would’ve been forced to find help elsewhere for Tom Brady. Instead, Gordon thrived, and they grew more dependent upon his contribution. Now, not only is Gordon unavailable for the most important games of the year, but his performance provided a false sense of security that Belichick had solved the Patriots’ pass-catcher problem. Thus, they didn’t make a move for another receiver at the October trade deadline. So, you end up with nothing but an empty space in your offense for the playoffs.
This was always the risk of relying on the gifted Gordon, who had played in just 11 games since 2014 before joining the Patriots in September via trade, to reinforce the wide receiver corps. That he would dazzle you with his talent and football IQ, carving out a key role on offense, then relapse in his struggle with substance abuse and be lost when you needed him most.
It doesn’t matter that Gordon put up strong numbers while in a Patriots uniform — he averaged 18 yards per catch and was the team leader in receiving yards with 720 on 40 receptions with three touchdowns. Or that he was the most electrifying receiver at Patriot Place since Randy Moss. He lasted 11 games in a Patriots uniform and none of them were in the postseason, the only season that counts in New England.
In dire need of reinforcements at receiver after retreads Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, Eric Decker, and Corey Coleman failed to launch, the Patriots eschewed their own credo: that dependability is more important than ability.
There hasn’t been a less reliable player in the NFL than Gordon. This is now the fifth time he has been suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy or the terms of his reinstatement. He has missed time because of suspension for substance or alcohol abuse every season since 2013, including being banned for the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Shipping a fifth-rounder to Cleveland to acquire a player of Gordon’s pedigree (and a seventh-rounder) was a low-cost move, but it was never a low-risk move. People made the mistake of conflating the two. Gordon and the Patriots were walking a tightrope together with no safety net for either side. The risk was great. Belichick took it, and now his team has to find a big-play receiver for the final two games of the season and a playoff run that might not last as long as a Kanye West Twitter rant.
Belichick deflected questions about Gordon and any responsibility His Hoodiness might have for the predicament his team faces now when he addressed Gordon’s suspension for the first time on Friday.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate situation, and personally, I wish him the very best, as we all do on this team,” said Belichick. “He’s made a statement, the organization has made a statement, the league has made a statement. I’ve spoken on him at length over the last three months, and so I don’t really have anything at this point to add to that. It’s a private matter, and I hope that he’s able to deal with it successfully.
“So, otherwise, we’re moved on to Buffalo and a big challenge ahead of us on Sunday. Today will be a big day for us, and we need to make the most of it and be ready to go.”
There you go. Gordon can’t help the Patriots win football games anymore, so he will be forgotten in Foxborough, at least publicly. The recidivist receiver is expunged from the roster and relegated to the dustbin of distractions the Patriots won’t touch. There won’t be a trace of his existence at Patriot Place moving forward. Convenient.
Both the Patriots and Gordon did everything in their power to create a milieu that would avoid this outcome. Sadly, it didn’t work. It was naive to think that winning football games and having a locker next to Brady would erase all of Gordon’s demons and desires.
You always hope the next time is different, but you can’t be surprised when it’s not. That’s the vice-like grip of addiction, something Gordon has dealt with since middle school when he started taking drugs to combat anxiety and insecurity.
It’s easy to downplay Gordon’s problems as just being related to the fact that marijuana use is prohibited in the fusty NFL as a chemical coping mechanism. But Gordon has copped to abusing a litany of substances, from codeine to cocaine to Xanax to Adderall to alcohol, during his life.
Gordon’s first NFL suspension, which came during his electric, Pro Bowl 2013 season, was two games for testing positive for codeine. His drug issues in college are why he was taken in the second round of the 2012 NFL supplemental draft. He admitted to cocaine use while at the University of Utah, where he transferred but never played after being indefinitely suspended at Baylor. He has admitted to smoking marijuana and taking shots before NFL games “to get the motor running.”
There is a greater loss here than the Patriots’ chances of winning a sixth Lombardi Trophy. Gordon’s well-being is more important than any sports trophy. The recovering receiver preempted his suspension, announcing via social media he was “stepping away from the football field” to focus on his mental health. You root for Gordon the human being. We all should.
The outpouring of concern and compassion for Gordon is appropriate. But let’s make sure it’s not wielded as a self-serving and disingenuous defense to absolve Belichick and the Patriots for putting themselves in the position of relying on Gordon in the first place.
If this were Josh Gordon of the Pittsburgh Steelers the level of caring, empathy, and sensitivity should be the same. Where is the same empathy for non-Patriots who are dealing with addiction, such as Oakland Raiders wide receiver Martavis Bryant? It shouldn’t be dictated by laundry.
Gordon’s troubles shouldn’t be used as a hall pass to excuse Belichick’s team-building blunders at wide receiver. You can question the wisdom of relying on Gordon in the first place and still have compassion for Gordon as he moves forward to continue his fight and fix his life.
Both Gordon and Belichick let their team down. Both have to own the consequences of damaging decisions.