Josh Gordon is latest reminder that football ultimately doesn't matter

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

Desperate for talented targets for Tom Brady, the New England Patriots gambled on Josh Gordon in September.

Gordon had appeared in just 10 games over four seasons for the Cleveland Browns from 2014-17, suspended repeatedly for substance-abuse issues. If he could get right, then here was the golden opportunity with the league’s golden franchise.

Addiction and mental-health issues, however, are beasts unto themselves, not the kind of demons that locker-room discipline or franchise culture can easily solve. In the end, not even the vaunted “Patriots Way” stood a chance against that.

Gordon announced Thursday morning that he was stepping away from football to deal with mental-health concerns that have plagued his career and personal life. Hours later, the NFL suspended Gordon indefinitely for “violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement.”

And with that, one of the league’s positive stories, the return of Gordon, was dashed, along with, perhaps, New England’s Super Bowl hopes.

“I take my mental health very seriously at this point to ensure I remain able to perform at the highest level,” Gordon said in a statement via Twitter. “I have recently felt I could have a better grasp on things mentally. With that said, I will be stepping away from the football field for a bit to focus on my mental health.

Josh Gordon has been plagued by mental-health and substance-abuse issues. (Getty Images)
Josh Gordon has been plagued by mental-health and substance-abuse issues. (Getty Images)

“I would like to thank Coach [Bill] Belichick, Mr. [Robert] Kraft, as well as countless others within the Patriots organization for their continued support,” Gordon continued. “I want to thank my fans for their support as well as I continue down the path getting back to 100 %.”

Josh Gordon has struggled throughout his career with these issues. It’s led to multiple NFL suspensions, personal challenges and questions about his future.

It appeared from afar that his rebirth in New England this season allowed him to find a measure of peace and purpose. This was a potentially great story of overcoming true adversity.

Yet all is not right with Gordon. He should be complimented for trying to address this issue before it got worse. Getting suspended from the NFL is problematic, but in the scope of Gordon’s issues, it’s better than what it could have been. All walks of life, not merely the NFL, are littered with far worse legal or personal problems. This is not rock-bottom.

“We support Josh Gordon in his continued efforts to focus on his health,” the Patriots said in a statement. “His attempt to do so is a private and personal matter, which we intend to respect.”

Admitting to the world that you are struggling with your mental health is not easy and, unfortunately, still comes with an unfair stigma in some quarters. That’s especially true in the world of rub-some-dirt-on-it professional football. Gordon is well aware that this misstep will be met with great disappointment in Foxborough and beyond.

Still, getting Josh Gordon right has to be the only priority for Josh Gordon. Football may be done for him, his last chance unfulfilled.

At just 27 years old, his life is still beginning though.

As for the Patriots, this was a risk that didn’t work out. They have enjoyed success in bringing players who clashed elsewhere and getting them to fit the Patriots Way. This was different though.

Addiction is not someone acting like a malcontent. It’s not clashing with coaches or missing meetings or losing competitive motivation. It’s far more powerful than a locker-room culture. Anyone who has spoken extensively with Gordon through the years knows he didn’t want to continue to blow up his career due to substance abuse. No addict does.

Gordon did what he was supposed to do football-wise. He showed up on time. He worked. He gave New England what it desperately needed — a 6-foot-3, 225-pound outside threat for Brady that could invigorate the offense

In 11 games for the Pats, he grabbed 40 passes for 720 yards and three touchdowns.

To take him out of a New England offense that has struggled in the red zone of late and has lost two consecutive games is a major blow. The stakes in Foxborough are simple, if extraordinarily high: win the Super Bowl or bust. As a physical presence, Gordon is nearly impossible to replace.

Hoisting a sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy under a shower of confetti in Atlanta in February is a more distant dream for New England without Gordon. It brings additional pressure on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is aging and dealing with constant double teams, to play better than ever. It’s the same for Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and the others. They’ll need to be near perfect from here on out.

Publicly, and perhaps even privately, the Patriots will shrug this off. No team powers through adversity like New England. Next man up.

New England closes with Buffalo and the New York Jets, setting them up for an 11-5 record and, at worst, the No. 3 seed in the AFC. If Houston stumbles down the stretch, New England could still secure a two seed and a first-round bye.

While the AFC chase is wide open heading into January, the loss of Gordon changes the potential fortunes of the Patriots. A thin receiving core is even thinner.

New England often finds a way, and getting production out of Josh Gordon appeared to be the latest bit of magic.

In the end though, addiction and mental-health concerns are beyond what structure and discipline can deal with. Josh Gordon tried. The Patriots tried. It didn’t work.

Here’s hoping the next effort, Josh Gordon’s next attempt at finding the healthiest version of himself, does succeed. Football, at this point, is no longer relevant to his story.

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