There’s probably no middle-ground outcome on this one.
Either Gordon will pull his life together and revive his NFL career with the Patriots by being the tremendous player he was for one season in Cleveland. That would give the Patriots the help at wide receiver they have been seeking so desperately, and it would do it so emphatically that Brady would have his most dynamic wideout since his record-setting pairing with Randy Moss. Or Gordon’s career will remain as troubled as it has been in recent years, and he will depart the Patriots relatively soon without making much of an on-field contribution at all.
So it goes with Gordon, the 27-year-old who has authored one of the NFL’s most compelling what-could-have-been stories. He was a great player in 2013 as a second-year pro, with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games. That projects to 1,881 receiving yards over a 16-game season, which would be the second-best single-season total in NFL history. Even without projecting, Gordon’s receiving-yardage total that season ranks 13th all-time.
He should be on his way to being one of the all-time greats. He should be side by side with Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown as the top wide receivers in today’s NFL. He is that talented. He should be that good.
But with Gordon, it always has been about projecting and wondering. He has been suspended repeatedly under the NFL’s substance abuse policy and has played in only 11 regular season NFL games since his breakout season in 2013. His return to the Browns this season lasted all of one game until team officials were left with their patience exhausted and feeling that Gordon had run out of chances with the organization.
Belichick may bring out Gordon’s best. He is a coach for the ages, but his history with taking chances on players with sullied reputations is mixed. Gordon could be another Moss for Belichick and Brady. Moss had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Patriots, including the wondrous 2007 season in which Brady-to-Moss was as unstoppable as it gets and New England was unbeaten until its stunning Super Bowl defeat to the New York Giants. Or Gordon could be another Albert Haynesworth, whose Patriots tenure lasted six games in 2011 and included three tackles and no sacks. Belichick’s coaching magic is not absolute in these cases.
All the Patriots have put at risk is the conditional fifth-round draft pick they sent to the Browns in the deal. The trade signals just how badly the Patriots need help at wide receiver. They have made one move after another at the position since March, and the situation remains unsettled. Wide receivers Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson totaled 11 catches for 104 yards in Sunday’s loss at Jacksonville. More is needed, although Hogan did have two touchdowns against the Jaguars.
Julian Edelman is serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola exited in the offseason, with Cooks being traded to the Los Angeles Rams and Amendola signing with the Miami Dolphins in free agency. Since then, wide receivers have been brought in and wide receivers have been ushered out, often in rapid succession. In August alone, the Patriots released Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt and Eric Decker. None, apparently, was the answer, at least not in Belichick’s view.
Now, Gordon gets his chance to earn his way into Brady’s circle of trust. Good luck with that. He’ll need it. The talent undeniably is there. But it takes much more than talent, as Gordon’s NFL career has underscored.
From the Browns’ viewpoint, what they get from the trade is readily apparent. They receive a draft choice for a player they said Saturday they would release Monday. The interest in Gordon from other NFL teams overtook the Browns’ announcement about releasing him, and it quickly became clear they’d be able to trade him.
The Browns gave Gordon a series of chances. They waited for him to return from each of his suspensions. Always, there was the dream of things working out and him returning to being the player that he was in 2013, and then progressing from there. This season, the Browns are taking the first steps toward respectability following the offseason roster overhaul performance by their new general manager, John Dorsey. Gordon had the tying touchdown catch late in regulation in the season-opening tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland. That, as it turned out, would be his final catch for the Browns.
When he reportedly showed up late to the team’s facility Saturday with a hamstring injury that, according to reports, was suffered at a promotional event, the Browns finally had enough. They first announced Gordon had been ruled out of Sunday’s game at New Orleans. Later Saturday, the Browns made their announcement about releasing Gordon. They lost Sunday to the Saints, again in near-miss fashion, dropping their record to 1-32-1 since the start of the 2016 season.
Gordon will never be the player in Cleveland that he could have been. Whether he becomes that in New England could be a determining factor in how the final days of the Patriots’ run of NFL dominance play out. Or Gordon could become a mere afterthought in New England, just as he now is in Cleveland.