Josh Gordon’s reinstatement from suspension on Friday evening generated plenty of excitement in New England and across the country. Julian Edelman Instagrammed a photo of Gordon with lightning bolts as a nod to Gordon’s nickname, “Flash.” Fantasy football websites quickly added Gordon into their rankings and debated his value. Even Roger Goodell voiced his support in a statement on Friday.
“We are all rooting for Josh to succeed, both personally and professionally,” Goodell said.
Gordon was allowed to report to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, and immediately start participating in workouts and practices. He won’t be able to play in Thursday’s game because he won’t have had enough practice time with the Patriots, but Gordon does not have to serve an additional suspension. He is eligible to play in the final preseason game and in Week 1.
Gordon’s return to the Patriots is an acknowledgment that both he and Goodell believe Gordon is in a good place with his mental health and substance abuse issues. That is what matters most.
There’s no doubt that Gordon’s return is exciting, and could be the start of a nice, feel-good story this year. It’s hard not to root for him to finally turn his life around.
But it’s important to pump the brakes a bit. Let’s applaud Gordon, but not put too much pressure on him to be a major weapon for the Patriots — pressure that could potentially contribute to his mental health issues. Gordon faces long odds, and anyone familiar with his story knows that his football career still hangs by a thread.
Gordon’s NFL career, which began in 2012, has been marred by suspensions for substance abuse. He sat out the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons, and missed most of 2014 and 2017.
Gordon is back, but he’s one misstep from his football career crumbling again. We saw it last year, when everything seemed to be going great with the Patriots. Gordon made it through 11 games, his most since 2013, and he was a productive outside threat, catching 40 passes for 720 yards, three touchdowns, and a team-high 18.0 average.
By all accounts, he was staying clean, and dealing with his demons. Until he wasn’t. On the Thursday of Week 16, Gordon surprisingly announced that he was stepping away from the Patriots to deal with his mental health. A few hours later, the NFL announced that Gordon was once again being suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Because of a confidentiality agreement in the policy, neither the league nor the Patriots are allowed to say what Gordon did to earn the suspension.
Gordon went to Gainesville, Fla., for his training and mental health counseling. And after eight months, he felt good enough to give his football career another shot, applying for reinstatement earlier this month.
Gordon’s reinstatement is part of a new philosophy by Goodell and the NFL. Instead of banishing substance abusers and casting them out on their own, as happened with former receiver Justin Blackmon, Goodell wants to try to help them instead.
If Goodell were playing by the rules, Gordon’s football career would have been finished years ago. Instead, not only is Gordon back, he doesn’t have to serve any additional suspension. Goodell gave him credit for “time served” last year, when Gordon missed the last two regular-season games and all three playoff games. Goodell figures that if Gordon is going to turn his life around, having the support system of the Patriots is helpful.
But as Goodell acknowledged, the success of Gordon’s return to football hinges on Gordon’s ability to stay sober, which has been a major challenge for him. Part of Gordon’s reinstatement is “subject to appropriate progress on clinical care and other arrangements,” per the NFL.
“Everyone shares in that hope and will continue to support him to every extent possible,” Goodell said. “But as Josh acknowledged, ultimately his success is up to him.”
The Patriots are taking a cautious approach with Gordon as well. Bill Belichick’s statement on Friday did little to add to the hype.
“When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team,” Belichick said.
On paper, this feels like a major addition for an offense that has a lot of uncertainty. Add Gordon to a receiving corps that includes Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Phillip Dorsett, and the Patriots could have one of the best wide receiver depth charts in the NFL. They now have a little bit of everything — size, speed, quickness, physicality. Gordon will have two weeks to get ready for the season, though Belichick could always keep him inactive early in the season.
Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers still looks like a good bet to make the roster, but Gordon’s addition is probably bad news for Braxton Berrios, Maurice Harris, Gunner Olszewski, and others fighting for a roster spot.
But the Patriots know to write Gordon’s name in pencil, not ink, and that whatever they get out of him this year is a bonus. They prepared as if they weren’t getting Gordon back, adding a multitude of tall, physical receivers similar to Gordon in the offseason — most notably Harry, who was drafted in the first round. If Gordon gets suspended again, the Patriots won’t have to completely retool the offense on the fly, as they did last year.
Gordon is due a $2.025 million salary this year — more than he made from 2013-18 combined (about $1.7 million in total). But none of it is guaranteed. Gordon will make approximately $119,000 for every week he is on the Patriots’ roster. They can cut him at any time. And he can be suspended at any time.
The Patriots may be better suited to help Gordon this time around. We don’t know what they did for Gordon last year, other than giving most of those responsibilities to Jack Easterby, the team’s character coach and chaplain. Easterby watched over Gordon carefully and tried to be a positive influence.
Easterby left for Houston this offseason. But in May the NFL announced a new mental health initiative that requires each team to have a behavioral health team clinician at the facility for at least 8-12 hours per week, conducting mandatory mental health educational sessions for players and coaches. Gordon may be able to receive all the help he needs without leaving Gillette Stadium.
So Gordon’s reinstatement is a great sign that he is in a positive place with his mental health and substance abuse. But there is no need to celebrate yet. Gordon is still at the starting line, not the finish.