Josh Gordon’s upheld suspension, Johnny Manziel’s erratic preseason leave Browns with an uncertain future


Josh Gordon has to have the Cleveland front office scratching their heads. (Tony Dejak/AP File Photo)

So much for any optimism about the Cleveland Browns.

Wednesday’s announcement that wide receiver Josh Gordon’s appeal of his season-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy had been rejected is a serious, perhaps fatal blow to any aspirations that the Browns had for creeping closer to respectability this season. Furthermore, it could have lasting implications for the future of the woebegone franchise.

Johnny Manziel to Josh Gordon? At this point, the Browns can’t pin too many hopes for long-term success to that quarterback-to-receiver combination, can they?

Not if they’re being realistic.

The would-be franchise quarterback couldn’t unseat a journeyman for the starting job entering the season, and his most memorable moment of the preseason was flashing a raised middle finger at an opponent’s sideline. The wide receiver with the otherworldly talent and record-threatening numbers hasn’t done much to inspire confidence in his ability to do what’s necessary off the field to keep his career on course and remain eligible and in the lineup.

There are plenty of issues raised by the Gordon case, in which he reportedly tested positive for marijuana but one of the samples from his urine test was only slightly above the allowable threshold and the other was below it. Gordon’s attorneys reportedly argued that second-hand marijuana smoke had triggered the positive test.

Many questions follow naturally from the situation: Is it fair to suspend a player, especially for an entire season, when only one of the two samples taken from him reportedly was positive, and barely so at that? Are the NFL’s marijuana policies out of step with the direction that parts of the country are moving on the issue? Is it right for Gordon to be missing the season while Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice will be eligible to play beginning in his team’s third game following his suspension for a domestic violence incident?

But NFL officials always have spoken about the strict liability on which the sport’s drug policies are based, about a player being responsible for what is in his body. So Gordon’s suspension will stand, unless his representatives take further legal action and manage to overturn the ruling. The NFL announced Wednesday that appeals officer Harold Henderson, a former league executive, had upheld the suspension and it was “effective immediately.”

A written statement by the league said that “Gordon’s eligibility for reinstatement will be determined following the 2014 season,” leaving open the possibility that he could be back for offseason activities, training camp and the preseason next year.

Gordon said in a written statement issued by the NFL Players Association: “I’d like to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Cleveland Browns organization and our fans. I am very disappointed that the NFL and its hearing office didn’t exercise better discretion and judgment in my case. I would like to sincerely thank the people who have been incredibly supportive of me during this challenging time, including my family, my agent, my union, my legal team, and the Cleveland Browns staff.”

Gordon had 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in only 14 games last year in his second NFL season. His receiving yardage was the 10th-highest single-season total in league history, even while missing two games for a previous violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. If he’d played all 16 games and continued producing at the same rate, he would have finished with 1,881 receiving yards, second-best ever and more than Jerry Rice ever had in a season.

With Gordon serving his suspension and Manziel sitting and watching, the Browns will open the season Sept. 7 at Pittsburgh with quarterback Brian Hoyer throwing passes to a group of wide receivers that includes Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins. That’s if Burleson, who’s been plagued by hamstring problems, can get healthy. It’s not a group to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.

Hoyer is on his fourth NFL team. When Coach Mike Pettine picked him as the Browns’ season-opening starter, he hadn’t yet led a touchdown drive in two games this preseason. He’s not the sort of player who usually gets the benefit of such a doubt. But he got it in this case because Manziel, the closely scrutinized first-round draft choice in May, played so poorly during his time with the starting offense in the Monday night preseason showcase against Washington.

Will Manziel keep his composure on the field, keep his off-field propensity for living large in check, and ultimately develop into a dependable NFL quarterback? Will Gordon, who also faces pending charges of speeding and driving while impaired in North Carolina, come back next season, pick up where he left off as a player and be a reliable, core member of the team from that point onward?

There’s no way of knowing right now.

But it’s clear that the Browns cannot be certain in either case.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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