Josh Gordon is the latest example of a calculated Bill Belichick gamble. He may turn out to be the greatest of them all. The New England Patriots head coach has a habit of grabbing 24-karat players for the price of 24 carrots. The Patriots officially acquired Gordon from the Browns this week, in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. The Pats will also receive a seventh-rounder from Cleveland.
How do other teams routinely allow New England to get away with this kind of trading witchcraft? Belichick just acquired one of the most gifted playmakers of this, or indeed any, generation for almost nothing. The trade recalls the Randy Moss deal Belichick struck a decade ago. Back then, Moss was seen as a troubled star: he didn’t fit in Oakland and he was often injured. Belichick flipped a fourth-round pick in exchange for the Hall of Famer and New England ripped off a 16-0 regular season while Moss broke the regular-season touchdown record, grabbing 23 TDs from Brady.
Belichick’s gambles don’t always play out that way. Like everyone, he’s had hits and misses. Moss, Corey Dillon, Aqib Talib, and Darrelle Revis worked out in their own way. Aaron Hernandez, Albert Haynsworth and Chad Johnson didn’t.
Each of those players came with varying degrees of baggage. Some carried the diva label. Others were branded distractions. A few were considered over-the-hill. One or two, it was claimed, did not love football. Hernandez’s legal troubles in college were well-documented. Yet Gordon is unlike anyone Belichick has had roll through his door. Gordon is a Hall of Fame talent in an addict’s body. This isn’t your normal character guy problem, to use football parlance.
The success or failure of this deal has little to do with whether Gordon can fit into New England’s cult of no personality or not. It’s a medical issue. Adjustment flows in both directions. Belichick and the Patriots are going to have to help, support and nurture Gordon if they want to see him succeed.
Gordon hasn’t played a full season in the NFL since 2012. Prior to the start of the 2013 season, the receiver was suspended two games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. In 2014, he was suspended for the entire season for a repeat offence. He appealed, with the league reducing his suspension by a game. He missed the final game of that season due to a violation of team rules. Gordon says he blacked out the night before and missed the team flight, not uncommon during his Cleveland days.
The league suspended him again for the entire 2015 season for violating the substance abuse policy. This time, it was alcohol, not marijuana. 2016 was wiped out after the NFL refused to reinstate him. Gordon had failed another drug test. He was fully reinstated in 2017. He played five games.
Concerns brewed throughout this past offseason. It culminated in an announcement that Gordon would miss the start of training camp to focus on his health and recovery. His absence was “part of [his] overall health and treatment plan,” he said.
These are deep seated issues. Gordon’s problems stem back to middle school. In a profile with GQ, Gordon said he began to self-medicate with a cocktail of Xanax, marijuana, and codeine to help deal with “adolescent trauma-based fear.”
He never finished a full year in college. He transferred from Baylor to Utah after violating team rules (Gordon subsequently admitted that he cheated drug tests while in college). He never suited up for Utah, where he failed a drug test.
Gordon estimates he has had something in his system for “probably every game of [his] career,” including those in college.
He remains in Stage 3 of the NFL’s substance-abuse program, which means he is subject to random drug testing. If he fails a test, he faces another indefinite suspension.
The Patriots represent the last chance for Gordon’s football career.