His season began on suspension and could end in the Pro Bowl. Receiver Josh Gordon has come a long way in a short period of time.
The record-setting journey wasn’t without obstacles.
“This was a tough year for me,” Gordon, in his second season, said Friday as the Browns prepared for today’s matchup with Jacksonville. “I see it as a real persevering-type deal, the whole season, honestly.
“Just pushing through the adversity, it just goes to show that if you just stay level-headed, get your head out of the rumors and negativity, you can rise above or overcome just about everything. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Gordon brought much of the scrutiny upon himself. After multiple failed tests for marijuana in college, he violated the league’s substance-abuse policy in the offseason – he blamed codeine in prescribed cough medicine – and opened the season on a two-game suspension.
Trade rumors greeted his return in Week 3 and didn’t depart until the deadline passed more than a month later. His physical gifts and talent are undeniable – and unparalleled on the Browns – but CEO Joe Banner considered offers because another failed drug test would bring an indefinite suspension.
The Jaguars are without No. 1 receiver Justin Blackmon for the rest of the year as he serves an indefinite suspension. Gordon strongly believes he’ll avoid the same fate.
“I’m confident because I just know me, I know myself,” he said. “Things like that coming in between me and my goals and my career, I can’t really see that happening. It’s unfortunate for him. But I’m my own man, and I can do things a totally different way.
“As to me being motivated to do the right thing, I should always be in that mindset, and that’s how I am.”
Gordon’s growth as a receiver was on display last week in the loss to the Steelers. He had the best receiving day in franchise history with 14 catches for 237 yards, tying and eclipsing Ozzie Newsome’s 14 for 191 in 1984.
Gordon’s development off the field isn’t as obvious, but just as important.
“He’s come a long ways in a lot of different areas, and a lot of those things I see on a day-to-day basis,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “In how he’s approaching the game, how he’s approaching being a profession, the steps he’s taken in those regards, you see it and you see the progress.”
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas doesn’t impress easily.
“You’ve seen a lot of growth and maturity in Josh,” he said. “He’s starting to get it. He’s starting to see that when you do the right things in practice and you carry them over to a game, you start getting those big numbers.”
The record day was criticized in some corners because seven catches and 158 yards came in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. But for a player whose effort level has been constantly questioned, he played hard for 60 minutes, caught Cleveland’s only touchdown, then dismissed his performance because it came in a loss.
“It definitely gives me more confidence going forward with this season,” he said after a week to reflect. “But I mean, I always knew I could accomplish something like this, some great thing like that individually, but you really just want to get the win honestly. That’s the biggest thing, but I think it’s great that I got it done and got it out of the way this early in my career, so hopefully I can build on top of that and do better.”
In nine games, Gordon has 54 catches for 988 yards and five touchdowns. His 18.3 yards per catch and 109.8 yards per game rank second in the NFL. He’s off to the best start in franchise history with 1,793 yards through 25 games.
He’s eligible for the Pro Bowl because his suspension wasn’t for a performance-enhancing drug, and deserves serious consideration from the voters.
“He’s playing like one of the best receivers in the league and his numbers prove it for sure,” cornerback Joe Haden said.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley believes Gordon has reached elite status.
“I know we as a coaching staff when we watched the tape very much saw really good ball skills, a really, really strong competitor, all the qualities that you’re looking for in an elite receiver,” he said. “I know just for us as we’re watching him, we would put him in that category.”
Gordon doesn’t lack for confidence but said discussion of the Pro Bowl and being elite is premature.
“I feel as though I’ve still got a lot more to prove and if it’s going to be, I hope it’s an undeniable-type thing and I know I deserved it,” he said of the Pro Bowl. “I definitely want to go out there and prove it.
“I’m not there (elite) yet, I feel as though I’m getting there, though. I’ve got a few more years to go, I feel as though to get into the postseason, a lot more yards, a lot more wins for this program, for this team, but I definitely feel I can get there.”
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds with sprinter’s speed that looks like he’s not breaking a sweat, Gordon has the necessary tools to be mentioned with the game’s best. But talent doesn’t guarantee success.
“He’s way ahead of the young receivers I’ve been around in terms of the way he has developed through this year,” coordinator Norv Turner said. “You get an opportunity to have a game like that, you don’t want to do it when it’s a losing cause, but the fact that he physically did it means that he’s going to continue to do it and he’s going to help this team win a lot of games.”
Turner has been coaching in the NFL since 1991 and has mentored a variety of Pro Bowlers. What puts Gordon ahead of other young wideouts?
“The combination of his ability to make big plays and then he’s developing as a route runner,” Turner said. “The things we asked him to do when we got here are totally different from the way he had been taught to run routes. It’s a process of physically learning how to do it and then doing it the same over and over and over again, and he’s improved in that area.”
The next record in Gordon’s line of sight is Braylon Edwards’ franchise mark for receiving yards in a season — 1,289 in 16 games in 2007. Gordon has five games to amass 302 to pass him. First up is a Jacksonville secondary that starts three rookies.
“That would be a great deal,” Gordon said. “Anytime you get into the history books, it’s a great feat for anybody. But something like that at wide receiver, it’s definitely a goal of mine. The fact it’s happened on the NFL level is a big deal to me, so hopefully I can chase that rabbit and I can get it.
“But ultimately we want some more wins. We want to win out.”