Paul Sancya/Associated Press
The New England Patriots are missing something. But their problems can be solved in a flash if wide receiver Josh Gordon returns to form to cover up the many ills found within the team’s poorly constructed roster.
That’s a big if, though.
Gordon hasn’t been a dominant player since the 2013 campaign. Instead, a series of failed drug tests and suspensions prevented him from participating in all but 11 games over the previous four-plus seasons.
Even so, the Patriots organization still decided his otherworldly natural gifts were well worth sending a fifth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for his services. Yet, New England’s coaching staff decided to make him inactive for Sunday’s 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. It’s the first time the Patriots lost back-to-back games by double digits since the 2002 campaign, according to Sports Illustrated‘s Albert Breer.
Gordon’s presence never loomed as large in Cleveland because the Browns never experienced the same level of expectations. Even so, relying on the 27-year-old cost the Cleveland multiple seasons hoping he’d finally realize his full potential. The Browns stuck with him through thick and thin during multiple regime changes.
A zero-tolerance policy eventually led to the aforementioned trade. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns finally decided to make the move after Gordon showed up late to the building the previous Saturday and seemed “not himself.”
How could the Patriots reach the point where their season relies on a troubled and untrustworthy, albeit supremely talented, receiver? Simple. New England is desperate.
Before going any further, everyone wishes the very best for Gordon in his battle against addiction. It’s something he’s attempted to overcome for years. Eventually, he needs to show he can dominate on the field again or he’ll finally run out of opportunities, especially if he can’t be successful in Bill Belichick‘s program.
The Patriots have already reached a critical point with a 1-2 start and the 3-0 Miami Dolphins next on the docket. New England’s previous success means absolutely nothing when it lacks key components to remain competitive.
Wide receiver, in particular, is a disaster.
Chris Hogan led the way Sunday with three receptions for 31 yards. Phillip Dorsett’s 12 receptions for 110 yards leads the team’s wide receivers through three weeks even though he didn’t catch a single pass against Detroit.
The Patriots simply can’t compete when relying so heavily on tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White in the passing game. Of course, Gronkowski should be the focal point of the scheme, but he needs help so defenses don’t constrict the space in which he works.
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
Quarterback Tom Brady connected with his All-Pro tight end four times for 51 yards. Obviously, Gronkowski can still be effective even his overall usage isn’t being maximized.
Brady, meanwhile, didn’t complete a single pass for more than 19 yards. In a pass-first league where chunk plays are crucial to creating consistent offense, New England doesn’t have a legitimate field-stretcher on the outside. Eventually, Gordon will fill the role and make the middle of the field less constrictive.
However, he must overcome a tweaked hamstring while trying to absorb the Patriots’ elaborate offensive scheme.
“Josh worked hard,” Belichick said during his pregame interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub (via ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss and Michael Rothstein). “He has a long way to go. We’ll take it day by day here.”
The Patriots staff must rush the process. A limited Gordon operating in a simplified package can still be effective. The 6’3″, 225-pound target scored an impressive touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Week 1 despite coming to training camp late with limited practice time and not being in football shape, as seen below:
Once Gordon enters the lineup, defenses will have multiple decisions to make on a down-by-down basis.
A safety will likely be pulled out of the box to account for Gordon’s deep speed. The running game should become more efficient as a result. The Patriots may be a pass-first team, but Brady can count the numbers in the box and take advantage if/when opponents become frightened of a legitimate vertical option.
The decision to play a safety over the top becomes a choice unto itself. Defenses won’t be able to automatically roll coverage toward Gronkowski’s side with Gordon also on the field.
As a result, basic zone coverages to account for both will almost certainly become more prevalent, allowing Brady to pick apart opponents like he’s done for years.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Furthermore, the defense should benefit once the Patriots string together successful offensive series and build leads. Right now, New England looks slow and unathletic, and the Lions pushed them all over the field. Coincidentally, Detroit’s Kerryon Johnson became the Lions’ first 100-yard rusher since the 2013 campaign with 101 yards.
Physically, Gordon is on par with any wide receiver in the NFL. He’s big, fast and dynamic with the ball in his hands.
A fully committed and healthy Gordon can develop into something never quite seen before. Take a moment and realize he hasn’t even scratched the surface to what he can become. The 2013 first-team All-Pro provided the NFL’s 13th-best season ever with 1,646 receiving yards playing alongside quarterbacks Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer.
“He was a monster then, and he’s still a monster now,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said, per Reiss. “He’s a tremendous athlete, a great receiver. Glad to have him.”
Now, imagine Brady building a rapport with that receiver. The allure is simply too much, even if it’s not entirely rooted in reality. No one knows if Gordon can even play at an elite level anymore after missing so much time.
“Look, he’s been here for a few days, so we’re working at it every day, and every day you try to make improvements,” Brady said Friday.
The Patriots made the right move by investing in an exceptional talent. The decision may or may not work out in the team’s favor, but it’s certainly worth a chance since Brady and Co. can’t compete in today’s AFC without a difference-maker at wide receiver.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.