I gave the Football Outsiders’ writer the opportunity to write about the troubled Browns star. Kacsmar delivers.
How I Would Have Developed Josh Gordon
By Scott Kacsmar, Football Outsiders Assistant Editor (@FO_ScottKacsmar)
The ideal situation for developing a troubled talent like Josh Gordon and the reality of his circumstances in Cleveland could not be any different. You do not put a kid like that in an unstable environment that’s had multiple owners, general managers, coaches, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. Jimmy Haslam, the Browns’ current owner, has been investigated by the FBI and had to pay a $92 million penalty for his other company’s wrongdoings. What example does that set for the players?
When you’re a team like Cleveland, you might look at the supplemental draft as a way to get a talented player. When a player’s only eligible for the supplemental draft, he probably comes with major red flags. Gordon was no exception to that with failed drug tests in college. The talent was obvious, but so were the flaws.
I’m not going to pretend to be a Cleveland GM, because those guys get fired too soon. Instead I’m going to lay out what I would have done from day one with Gordon as a NFL team’s front office guy.
First, I assume we have done all the proper background checks on the prospect to make sure he’s a decent guy, and doesn’t have a meth lab or dead bodies hidden on his property. [Insert your Aaron Hernandez joke here.] Gordon’s problems have basically been that he loves marijuana. Okay, that should be manageable, but if we’re giving up a 2013 second-round pick to get this guy in the supplemental draft, then he’s going to have to agree to some stipulations. We’re going to treat him differently, because he is different. He didn’t finish his college career with dignity and earn an invite to the NFL draft. He fell asleep at a Taco Bell with weed in the car and failed multiple drug tests. He sat out the entire 2011 season just to declare for this supplemental draft. We’re going to play some hardball with the kid, because if he can take it early, then we’ll feel good about a long-term future together worth millions of dollars.
Upon drafting Gordon, my team would hold a special meeting with the owner, head coach and offensive coordinator all present. Maybe even the wide receivers coach since they’ll be spending so much time with Gordon. We invite Gordon to this meeting, along with his immediate family or the people most important in his life. The meeting would almost resemble an intervention, putting his dirty laundry on the table, but keeping in mind the great things Gordon can accomplish here if he’s committed to being a professional. Always remind him of his potential, but always follow it up with the warning of pitfalls. If people are going to start calling you “Hash Gordon” after a year here, then we don’t need you on our team.
While we invested a premium pick in Gordon, we’re telling him on day one that we won’t be afraid to cut him if he screws up. One pick and a few million dollars aren’t worth the headaches if you’re going to screw us over off the field. I wouldn’t be afraid to leak to the media some of the specific reasons for why we cut the player, so that could easily harm his chances of signing on with another team who doesn’t want to risk anything.
For the stipulations, one would be that Gordon (and any other players we include in this program) has to use a team-operated car service that also acts as his security detail. So if he wants to go “clubbing” like many athletes in their 20’s do at night, he’s not getting behind the wheel. This summer, Gordon was arrested for DWI in North Carolina. Maybe I’m speaking too much to my own preferences, but if I had big money, I would want someone driving my ass around, especially if alcohol consumption was expected. But every year we see countless athlete arrests (and owners) for this stuff. Take the keys away from them. I’m not going to be thrilled if he’s at a strip club, but I’ll at least feel some comfort in knowing he won’t be driving, he’ll have our eyes on him, and he still has the freedom to go where he pleases. It’s a fair trade-off. The first blatant attempt by the player to ditch the security will result in a team-imposed one-game suspension and dock him his game check. A second attempt will result in his outright release from the team.
Next, I would use the local drug rehab centers to get a sponsor for a player like Gordon who has had a history of drug problems. We won’t start him off in weekly group meetings, but he’ll at least have one person to meet with who has experience in that department.
Given Gordon’s history with drugs, he was entered into the league’s substance abuse program, so he can be tested randomly at any time. Our organization would make sure he is frequently being tested for drugs. The punishment for a positive test would again be a suspension on the first offense, and an outright release if he does it again.
Gordon stayed clean as a rookie, and had already displayed his talent. But he started 2013 on a two-game suspension for a failed drug test. At this point, I would have already been very cautious about moving forward with him, but these guys suck you in with their potential. I would have called some teams with a trade offer, which apparently the Browns did, but no one delivered the goods. Sure enough, Gordon was incredible upon his return with 1,646 receiving yards in only 14 games. By that point, almost anyone would be more lenient with the kid after a performance like that. Expectations for Gordon in 2014 only heightened when the team drafted Johnny Manziel in May, but in typical Cleveland fashion, the very next day brought the news that Gordon failed a second NFL drug test and could be suspended for the entire 2014 season.
Reportedly, the Browns were aware of the failed test prior to the May draft. At that point, I would have tried to sell high in a trade in April, though teams likely would have been very skeptical of my intentions to trade a 23-year-old receiver coming off the year Gordon just had. Something must be really wrong, but would I have the integrity to disclose the truth? No matter what I say, that’s probably going to kill the trade, so we’re stuck with him — as long as we want him, that is.
I hear Cris Carter say the Browns should release Gordon, because that’s what worked for him in Philadelphia. Well, I don’t buy that. Everyone’s different, and I like to think I would know my players better than Carter and know if Gordon’s psyche is strong enough to handle a release. Some of these guys could go off the deep end and harm themselves following news like that. You have to walk a fine line there, and I think Carter’s just caught up with his own experience.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are going through a similar situation with Justin Blackmon, the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft. It’s a shame when really talented players like Blackmon and Gordon can’t get it together off the field, but I think the key is to nip things in the bud by being hard with them from the beginning. It’s a privilege to play in the NFL, and no one deserves to keep their job just because of their talent and draft status. If you’re a lousy guy who will just keep getting suspended, then we have no use for you. Hopefully we can get that into your head on day one, and provide the assistance you need to overcome your problems. If not, there’s always going to be another player waiting to take your spot.
Even when things are looking great, some guys need that constant reminder of how quickly it can all disappear. It just doesn’t seem like anyone in Cleveland ever got through to Gordon. I’m trying to picture Gordon having this career path if he went to New England or played with Peyton Manning, and I don’t see that happening. So I think Cleveland’s instability has been part of the problem, but I also subscribe to the theory that some people are natural-born defects, unwilling to change for anybody. It’s not a Sophie’s Choice to pick weed or millions of dollars to catch footballs for a few years (then smoke a ton of weed in retirement), but I clearly don’t speak for everyone on this topic.
I think the final paragraph of Scott’s take states what I feel about this subject. At least one former and current teammate of Gordon has told the media that Gordon would benefit personally if he remained with the team and there was more done to assist the man. Scott’s hindsight plan to stage an environment like an intervention shortly after the supplemental draft is a good call.
Scott approaches Gordon much like I did with the left tackle in the “Freak Getting Freaky” RSP Writers Project scenario, hiring the player an outdoor babystter. Scott’s version was far more overt than mine and I’d still try to tailor the babysitting to a group of veterans that take the player under their wing.
However, we’re also talking about substance abuse in this situation. Personally, I’d be in favor of legalizing marijuana. If I was part of the NFL’s league office, I would seriously consider a plan to influence government or support federal studies that researched effective ways to legalize marijuana as a prescription pain-killer that professional athletes would be given access.
Today’s reality is that marijuana is illegal in most states and while the drug is not addictive in the sense that a person experieces major withdrawal symptoms there is a valid contention that people can abuse it. As Scott says, “It’s not a Sophie’s Choice to pick weed or millions of dollars to catch footballs.”
Then again, if marijuana has some addictive properties and Gordon’s behavior and influencing psychological makeup dovetails perfectly with drug and alcohol dependency, maybe it is.
I would go hardcore with Gordon from the beginning: No clubs or bars for year. No alcohol, either. But it’s one thing to tell a young man he can’t indulge in these behaviors and then leave him to his own devices.
Do you think the U.S. military would succeed if initial training wasn’t a bootcamp and recruits reported to the site each morning? Part of the experience is controlling the environment to make radical behavioral changes. If I’m running a team and I’m considering a player like Gordon, I would have consulted and hired experts with military training, behavioral modification programs, and I would have brought my veterans into the circle so they would be a part of this training before we even drafted Gordon.
I would have told the players that we are considering a great, but troubled talent capable of transforming the performance of this team if he pays off. However, we know that we can’t invest in him without going all the way–and it includes support from his teammates. You guys have to invest in him as well and we’re going to teach you the best way to be his friend and social mentor.
We’re going to pay you extra to commit to it if you agree. If we don’t draft him after you learn this stuff no big deal, odds are likely we’ll draft another player in this situation at some point. We’re making this part of our program because we believe that paying exorbitant sums of money to some young men that have problems that others have enabled comes with added responsibility to avoid this cycle of enabling.
I’d assure the players that their job is to be positive influences and we’re giving them a plan to work together that will help them steer Gordon towards positive environments and behavior and how to deal with the potential negatives. I’m not turning these veterans into actual counselors or security. If Gordon gives them the slip, we’ve hired a couple of professional security guys to handle it.
These men will be embedded within your circle of influence. You’ll tell Gordon he’s a friend – and hopefully he will be as you get to know him before we draft Gordon. If Gordon ditches your circle or engages in behavior that’s out of control it’s not your job to risk bodily harm or trouble with the law to save him.
I’d commit to this program for all but the final year of Gordon’s deal. My hope would be that Gordon will have matured enough by his final year to make wise choices and that his relationships with this circle of veterans will become more natural and something that doesn’t need to be as frequent or as incentivized. If not, then our financial commitment will end and he can go elsewhere.
I’ll know that I did everything to help Gordon and the team and that my team did what it could to support it. Otherwise, I’m not coming near a player like Gordon in the draft.