By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Josh Gordon is back. Sorta kinda.
The All-Pro-caliber receiver was conditionally reinstated by the NFL over the weekend, seemingly welcome news for the Patriots. Bill Belichick’s statement after news broke, though, did not exactly emit the warm and fuzzies.
“For the past eight months, Josh’s situation has been entirely a league matter,” Belichick said. “When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team.”
Likewise, the coach’s stonewalling of any Gordon-related questions at halftime and postgame on Saturday night, and the immediate placement of Gordon on the non-football injury list would seem to indicate that there may still be some uncertainty with regard to Gordon’s place on the team.
With the regular season now less than three weeks ago, it’s a situation that might need some resolution quickly.
Now, it’s certainly possible that Belichick’s apparent disdain for answering questions on Gordon relates to feeling a bit peeved that the league made this decision in mid-August instead of, say, mid-July, or mid-June, or mid-any-month-that-has-passed-since February. Dropping this roster conundrum on a team in the middle of the preseason does seem a bit inconsiderate.
Outside of that, though, the debates and discussions and analyses have already begun, with every aspect of Gordon’s life and playing career getting praised, critiqued, doubted and picked at via every possible channel. There are those who doubt Gordon can stick this time, and there are those who think the Patriots would be better off without him. Conversely, there are those who think the lone addition of Gordon to the Patriots offense lifts the team to a top-five type of potency on offense.
It’s too soon to try to make any grand proclamations about Gordon’s future. Instead, it might be an ideal time to take a brief refresher course on Gordon’s recent past, specifically on how he worked in Tom Brady’s and Josh McDaniels’ offense a year ago.
Last year, Josh Gordon played in one single game for the Cleveland Browns. He caught one pass, but he made it count; his 17-yard touchdown catch thrown by Tyrod Taylor tied the game at 21-all with under 2 minutes to play. The Browns would end up tying the Steelers that day. Nine days later, he was traded to New England.
His first two games in New England were somewhat quiet, though he still caught a touchdown and managed to average over 20 yards on his four receptions. That would end up being a theme during his Patriots tenure.
From Week 4 against Miami through Week 14 at Miami, Gordon caught 39 passes for 701 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged just a tick under 18 yards per reception.
After being targeted 7.5 times per game for eight weeks, Gordon was targeted just twice in a loss in Pittsburgh. He caught one of those passes for 19 yards, and shortly thereafter, he was gone for the year.
All told, when prorated out to 16 games, Gordon produced at a pace that would have had him catch 58 passes for 1,047 yards. Only nine wide receivers in Patriots history have ever put up 1,000-yard seasons, and only five of them did so with Tom Brady as their quarterback. (Those players were Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Troy Brown — all of whom are legendary in New England — and Brandin Cooks, whose 2017 season remains criminally underrated.)
While the percentage of completions on passes targeting Gordon was less than ideal at 58.8 percent, the production on those receptions made up for much of that issue.
Among all NFL receivers last year, Gordon ranked second in yards per reception at 18.0. Only Desean Jackson at 18.9 was better.
AVERAGE YARDS PER RECEPTION, WIDE RECEIVERS, 2019
1. Desean Jackson, 18.9
2. Josh Gordon, 18.0
3. Mike Evans, 17.7
4. John Brown, 17.0
5. Tyreek Hill, 17.0
6. Tyler Lockett, 16.9
7. Courtland Sutton, 16.8
8. T.Y. Hilton, 16.7
9. Tyrell Williams, 15.9
10. Will Fuller, 15.7
As for those incompletions, they didn’t stop Gordon from being the most productive receiver to ever work with Brady, based on yards per target.
Tom Brady averages more yards per attempt targeting Josh Gordon than any player during his career (min. 30 attempts).
Josh Gordon (10.4)
Donte' Stallworth (10.2)
Chris Hogan (10.0)
Rob Gronkowski (10.0)
Brandin Cooks (9.7)
Randy Moss (9.2)
— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) August 19, 2019
Considering Brady and Gordon had zero time to work together prior to his arrival last year, and considering Gordon had to learn an entirely new offensive system on the fly in the middle of his first season back in pro football in five years, that’s a mighty feat.
And it does portend for some more production to come in 2019. That is, obviously, assuming the Patriots end up working Gordon into the mix, either with the intention of preparing him for Week 1 or perhaps pushing that date back a week or two (or three or four) in order to try to ensure that he hits the ground running.
With N’Keal Harry part of the team now, and with Rob Gronkowski gone, the offense figures to be in for some changes. Gordon’s size and strength, and his ability to win contested passes should be a skill-set that Brady and McDaniels can work with. It was a small sample size, but the fact that it worked at all should provide a basis for something to build upon this year. (Add in the potential midseason addition of Demaryius Thomas off the PUP list, and the entire scope of the Patriots’ receiving corps could be drastically different in October than it was in early August.)
Obviously, everything outside of football remains a bit of a mystery. The circumstances that led to Gordon’s suspension last year remain cloaked in secrecy, and every bit of his potential availability has been held closely to the vest by the NFL ever since December. Whether Gordon can satisfy all the terms of his reinstatement and stick with the team through January and perhaps February remains the great unknown.
But from a football standpoint, there’s every reason for the Patriots to have some budding optimism when it comes to the injection of talent their offense was given over the weekend.