When receiver Josh Gordon steps in the huddle with the starters Sunday in Los Angeles, 1,077 days will have passed since he last played in a regular-season game.
That’s enough time for 44 Browns games and 40 losses, multiple trips to rehab, an overhaul of the front office and coaching staff, nearly a complete turnover of the roster and anticipation to build to perhaps unrealistic levels.
“This is going to be my first time seeing him play live. It’s very exciting,” running back Duke Johnson said. “Anytime I’m not on the field, I’m watching one person and one person only — Josh Gordon.
“I’ve watched highlights and seen things and I’ve always heard stories from guys that were here with him and coaches that were here with him and just what kind of player he would’ve been and still can be.”
As hard as it is to believe after all the hype of the last month, the expectations were even greater the last time Gordon returned from a drug suspension. The Browns were 6-4, looking to make a run at the playoffs and hoping Gordon would provide the needed boost.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer deviated from the game plan and forced the ball to Gordon, who ran the wrong routes, didn’t make it to the right spots and played with a poor attitude. He was one of the factors — coach Mike Pettine’s desperate move to Johnny Manziel was the largest — in the disintegration of the season, and Gordon was suspended by the team for the finale after missing the walkthrough.
The buildup this time included excitement over the return of an All-Pro talent mixed with apprehension from startling revelations about his drug and criminal history in a series of interviews. With Gordon’s return to the huddle imminent, the focus can shift to football and what to expect in his first game since Dec. 21, 2014.
“When you’re that type of player who’s as athletic as him, who’s as talented as he is, I have no doubt in my mind he’ll go out there and it will be just like he never left,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “I think that Josh is very dedicated to the game and dedicated to coming back and making sure he’s the biggest spark that he can be and the best player that he can be. I have full faith in him that he’ll go out there and be the Josh Gordon that we all know.”
Gordon, 26, was at his best in his second year in 2013. He was suspended for the first two games but returned to lead the league with a franchise-record 1,646 yards on 87 catches with nine touchdowns. The memories of the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder bouncing off defensive backs and running away for touchdowns haven’t faded.
Receiver Corey Coleman stayed with Gordon when he was recruited by Baylor. He says former Baylor coach Art Briles gathered the team to watch Gordon with the Browns.
“We were in the cafeteria and we were watching this man play and I was like ‘holy sh–!’” Coleman said. “I’m like, ‘Man, this dude is good.’
“He’s a freak. He’s 6-4, 220 pounds and he moves like he’s a shiftier receiver. When you’ve got a guy like that, he’s special.”
“He is a different player. He is talented,” coach Hue Jackson said. “When he is rolling and playing like we all know he can play, he is a force.”
Gordon says he’s the same player from years ago but with an improved frame of mind.
“A different version of me, for sure,” he said.
Jackson said he did his research on Gordon’s return in 2014 and knows all about the sloppy routes and crappy attitude.
“Oh, I have talked to him about all of that. Yes, sir,” Jackson said. “I see a guy that is in it, working hard. I see a guy that has blended into this football team the right way and is stepping up, leading and trying to be the best version of himself.”
The biggest beneficiary of Gordon’s return could be rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. He has played better lately and finally has a go-to target, which comes in handy on third down and in the red zone, where the Browns rank 32nd and 31st. If Gordon faces single coverage, Kizer can throw it up and expect him to make a play.
“He has proven to us that he is absolutely dedicated to getting back out to the field,” Kizer said. “Physically, he is right with us as far as being in shape for this season. He has been in his playbook. He understands everything in the walkthrough and he is locked in.”
Kizer must be careful not to fall into the trap that Hoyer did and abandon the play call in search of Gordon.
“We are not going to force balls. Our quarterback still has to throw the ball where it is supposed to go,” Jackson said. “That interception number he has, he gets it. The quarterback understands that he has to put the ball where it is supposed to be and throw it to the right person.”
Kizer has a league-high 14 interceptions and said all the right things about following the progressions of the play called by Jackson.
“It is on me to make sure I am going throughout my reads and getting the ball to the guy who is open at the time,” he said.
If Gordon is as ready as his coach and teammates say, the Chargers will quickly devote a safety to help the cornerback. That should leave Coleman with single coverage on the other side. He had a costly drop in the end zone last week but showed he can get open.
“Bringing another playmaker who has had a lot of success in the NFL is just going to bring help to the team,” Coleman said. “I’m just excited for him to get back and be on the other side of me.”
Johnson, the team’s leading receiver and top playmaker through the 0-11 start, expects Gordon to take the defense’s attention away from him. And he’s grateful.
“Give it to him. I am no longer the primary target,” Johnson said. “Regardless of if he hasn’t played in X amount of years, it’s irrelevant because I’m pretty sure a lot of coaches and all the players in this league know what kind of guy it is that they’re playing against, so he’s going to get some special attention. They may at first try not to, but then realize they have to.”
Veteran cornerback Jason McCourty covered Gordon in practice last week as he mimicked Cincinnati’s A.J. Green on the scout team and said Atlanta’s Julio Jones is a close comparison.
“Just God-given ability,’ he said. “Guys that are that big, that fast and that strong, there’s not many that are like that. You really don’t need to compare him to anybody. You turn his film on from when he was out there, he was his own guy.
“I hope he goes out there and has a record-setting day and leads us to a victory.”
The Browns have been desperate for anyone or anything to help them get a win. Gordon is the latest, perhaps greatest, hope.
“I don’t care if we have to throw it to him every play,” Johnson said. “Let somebody help us get over this hump.”