It’s amazing how 7 pounds of sterling silver can create amnesia and amnesty. All has been forgiven and forgotten when it comes to in-recovery wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was conditionally reinstated from his fifth substance abuse-related suspension by the NFL on Friday and glimpsed on Monday at Gillette Stadium. Gordon left the Patriots in the lurch last season, getting suspended with two games left in the regular season, but that’s pardoned because the Patriots went on to lift the Lombardi Trophy for the sixth time.
Let’s get this out of the way. On a human level, you root for Gordon. We all do. That includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who keeps dispensing chances to Gordon like free samples at the supermarket. You don’t write him off. He needs and deserves help combating his well-documented drug and alcohol addiction issues. He benefits from an NFL support system.
However, while you must be there for him as an employer, it’s foolhardy to rely on him to be there for you when you need him most from a football standpoint. That’s a fact. He hasn’t played a full season without some drug suspension/addiction-related absence since his rookie year of 2012. The idea that the Patriots suddenly are stacked at wide receiver because Gordon has been reinstated is about as sound as the Celtics’ team chemistry last season. Gordon’s availability is tenuous at best.
The view of Gordon’s 11-game stint here last season after he was acquired from Cleveland in a desperation attempt to rectify a roster hole has become rosy and romanticized because he played well and the Patriots’ cause ultimately — and somewhat luckily — wasn’t hurt by his absence. Gordon was electric when he was on the field. He was the most mesmerizing talent at receiver for the Patriots since Randy Moss. However, if the team had not embraced the noise, its running attack, and a reinvigorated Rob Gronkowski to win the Super Bowl it’s doubtful that Gordon’s return would be so welcome and celebrated in these parts.
The difference this time if Gordon relapses is that Gronk isn’t around to bail out the Patriots. The Patriots don’t defeat either the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game or the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII without Gronkowski conjuring up his old magic. The loss of Gordon would have been felt in those games and contributed to losing out on a sixth Super Bowl title.
If we’re being honest, the current Patriots reclamation project receiver who contributed most to the team obtaining the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye last season wasn’t Gordon, who was 2-3 in the last five games he played for the Patriots, including back-to-back December defeats. It’s Demaryius Thomas. He tore his Achilles’ tendon playing for the Houston Texans in their Week 16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, which paved the way for the Patriots to slip past Houston for the second AFC bye.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a credo: “dependability is more important than ability.” Everything about Gordon’s career flies in the face of that Belichick bon mot.
Perhaps that’s why Belichick has been stiff-arming questions about Gordon by maintaining it’s a league matter. He gave WBZ’s Steve Burton a death stare when Burton dared to ask about Gordon during the broadcast of the Patriots’ preseason win over the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night. Burton wanted Belichick to expound on his boilerplate statement released that day on Gordon’s reinstatement.
On Monday, even with Gordon placed on the non-football-injury list by the Patriots — not the league, the New England Patriots — he still dodged questions about Gordon, whose recovery, well-being, and adherence to the conditions of his reinstatement are now the responsibility of the Patriots.
If Gordon succeeds, Belichick will embrace the credit. If he relapses, he wants to distance himself from the fallout because Gordon’s mere presence in Fort Foxborough flies in the face of a core Patriots precept. Belichick isn’t the only one contradicting himself when it comes to Gordon. The player’s tremendous talent, intelligence, and engaging personality have a way of fostering justifications.
There is inherent hypocrisy in the advocacy for Gordon in Patriots Nation, with some fans going as far as to compare the uncertainty around his availability to a player that could be lost to a pulled hamstring or a separated shoulder in the choreographed car crashes of NFL football. Please.
Patriots fans are all too happy to paint Gordon as a marijuana martyr, to minimize his addiction problems down to the fusty NFL not getting the memo about our culture’s newfound enlightenment with regards to cannabis as a coping tool for anxiety, stress, and mental health afflictions. Gordon has been labeled as a guy unfairly persecuted by the NFL’s staunch resistance to recreational marijuana use. True to a point, but that’s not the whole story. It never has been.
Gordon’s case is a lot more complicated. For example, his first suspension from the NFL in 2013 was for codeine use, and he has copped to abusing prescription drugs, alcohol, and cocaine in his life, starting in seventh grade, as a means of self-medication.
But even if it boiled down to the NFL vilifying marijuana users then why aren’t those same people vocally advocating for Randy Gregory of the Dallas Cowboys or former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant to be reinstated from their violations of the league’s substance abuse policy? Both of those players are actual marijuana martyrs. Bryant applied for reinstatement on July 15, before Gordon applied.
The fact is that a lot of the campaigning for Gordon is based on preferred laundry, not deep conviction about how society can better serve those battling addiction or deep compassion for Gordon’s struggles. It’s more about the Patriots prevailing in games than Gordon prevailing in his personal battle. Folks are more invested in the Patriots being proven right for taking the risk of employing Gordon than they are in his recovery.
The Patriots are walking a tight-rope without a safety net by counting on Gordon to buttress a receiving corps that has a lot of questions outside of Julian Edelman. Gordon’s presence for the full 16 games or at least most of the season and the playoffs would be a game-changer. His talent is undeniable and intoxicating. But his history of chemical dependency can’t be discounted.
It’s the entire reason a player of his ability was available to the Patriots at such a low cost (a fifth-round pick for Gordon and a seventh-rounder from the Browns) in the first place last season. He’s a great talent replete with even greater unreliability.
His disappearance last year during the most crucial part of the season can’t be ignored, and neither can the fact that the pattern he’s run most often in his career as a wide receiver is one that has led to unavailability.