Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens WR Josh Gordon (Patriots): It’s Not Minutiae

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines the refined details of Josh Gordon’s game that makes the New England Patriots wide receiver a great player. 

When you listen to this week’s RSP Cast where Matt Harmon and I share our top five receivers in the NFL, Josh Gordon is missing from both of our lists. If I didn’t count reliability and professionalism as traits and skills Gordon would easily be on my list.

Addiction is a valid reason why these traits and skills are lacking with Gordon’s resume, but they are lacking nonetheless. Even so, if Gordon plays a year or two without missing a game and proves that he’s managing his addiction well, there may not be a receiver I’d rather have in the NFL.

The amazing thing about Gordon’s game is how technically sound and aware it is. His movements are as precise and refined as I’ve seen at the position. This is not trivial minutiae, it’s precision indicative of a player who sees the details so clearly that it’s like he’s playing the game as if everything around him is happening at half the speed he’s moving.

These two plays from the Packers game on Sunday night are evidence. Gordon’s adjustment to this errant pass was ruled incomplete because the officials saw his foot touch the boundary.

However, a closer look reveals that Gordon clearly established both feet inbounds for the briefest moment before the right foot dragged the infinitesimally minimal distance to the boundary. Even the best officiating crew watching this play unfold on the field in real time will rule this play incomplete 9 times out of 10 and because the contradicting evidence isn’t overwhelming, the booth would not overrule it. If the crew ruled it a catch, it’s equally unlikely that the booth would overrule for the same reasons.

Regardless of the technicality of the play’s ruling, Gordon’s initial turn to attack the ball while keeping his back to the opponent and then still has the awareness and mobility to even make the attempt to stay inbounds this close is a tremendous display of body control and awareness.

If you ask me, it’s a catch and his toe drag is an amazing display of precision. Many will be split on this point but when evaluating the talent of the player, the result is not as important an issue as the process.

Gordon’s skill for shielding defenders as much as possible while only opening his frame as needed to attack the ball is one of the receiver’s skills I most admire. It’s clear he does this in the play above as well as the one below.

In addition to shielding the defender, there are several details that you don’t often see from receivers much less from a receiver on a single play: the lightning-quick swipe of the defender’s arm the split-second prior to elevating for the ball, the turn of the hips to block out the defender while moving the upper torso to the ball, and the rotation of the hands so the fingertips are in optimal position to snare the target.

That rotation of the wrists and hands also allows him to catch the ball close to his front shoulder so he doesn’t have to turn his upper body any further to the trailing defender. It’s a refined detail that helps Gordon shield the opponent and also transition from the initial snare to the retraction of the target to his sideline arm.

The subtlety of Gordon’s game is incredible for a player who hasn’t played at this level for most of five years. Has he worked at his craft? I can only guess that he has.

However, let’s hypothesize that Gordon hasn’t worked on his own or extensively with other players or coaches on the details of route running and pass catching. If this is true then Gordon has an immense talent for observing and transferring complex movements and the contexts for using them into on-field performance.

In whatever way Gordon acquired these tremendous skills, he has them in his arsenal and many of them are as refined as any player who has ever played the position. Whether he worked his tail off to acquire these tiny details or he developed a rare ability to notice and translate the smallest details quickly, Gordon’s game — like every great player — encompasses the finest points.

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