Though the Cleveland Browns fell to 4-7 on the season in their Week 12, 27-11 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was one very bright spot for the team that should give them optimism about the future of their offense.
Second-year receiver Josh Gordon had the greatest performance of his career, catching 14 passes on 17 targets for 237 yards and a touchdown, shattering Ozzie Newsome's franchise-best single-day receiving record of 191 yards in 1984.
Making the feat even more impressive is that he did so while catching passes from two different quarterbacks—Jason Campbell was replaced by Brandon Weeden after suffering a concussion.
So far this season, Gordon has caught passes from three quarterbacks—Campbell, Weeden and Brian Hoyer. None are presently considered among the top tier of NFL passers, yet Gordon has 988 receiving yards on the season, the fourth-most in the league.
Gordon is a playmaker. He makes an impact no matter the quarterback under center, and despite his two-game suspension to start the 2013 season. It's not just the yardage that is impressive—it's also the fact that he's averaging 18.3 yards per reception, that he's had 16 receptions for 20 or more yards (including four on Sunday) and that he has 399 yards after the catch. Gordon has accounted for 40 Browns first downs along with five touchdowns this year.
This isn't a surprise, however. When the Browns used a second-round 2013 draft pick to select him in 2012's supplemental draft, Gordon's potential as a game-changing receiver was well known. So were his risks, though—he had missed a year of college football after being suspended from Baylor for multiple failed drug tests and transferring to Utah.
Further, it generally takes more than one season for a rookie receiver to take to the speed of the NFL and potentially even longer for a receiver who hadn't played in a year. Immediate expectations for Gordon were low—he was more of a long-term investment, a developmental player who could at least contribute in the meantime.
However, Gordon had an excellent rookie season, with 50 receptions for 805 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 16.1 yards per reception, had 40 first downs and 312 yards after the catch. The Browns clearly had found something special.
*Missed 1st 2 games, 2013 (suspension)
Gordon has turned into one of the NFL's best deep-threat receivers. His talent is on a similar level to the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green. He requires at least double coverage to be contained by defenses, and when they fail to do so, he's just as capable of making them pay as Johnson and Green.
On Sunday, Gordon had four receptions of 20 or more yards. This was because the Steelers underestimated him, thinking single coverage would be enough to keep him under wraps. Gordon is a mismatch for even No. 1 cornerbacks, and the Browns were able to exploit this on Sunday despite the loss.
Here, for example, is a first-quarter play that netted the Browns 24 yards. It began on Cleveland's 40-yard line on a 3rd-and-5. Before the snap, Gordon is lined up against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.
Instead of running down the field, however, Gordon takes off across the flat, leaving Taylor hanging. This move creates a huge mismatch in the Browns' favor, with Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons the only coverage in the area. Gordon is open and Timmons can't catch him.
Timmons does have some help—slot corner William Gay—but Gay doesn't have the speed to close in on Gordon, either.
Ultimately, Gordon is run out of bounds by cornerback Cortez Allen, who was working the other side of the field. Safety Ryan Clark also closes in, but if it were Clark alone then Gordon would have easily burned him for a touchdown.
The Browns went from being stuck on their own side of the field, potentially facing a punting situation, to a deep completion and a first down. It's the typical outcome, however, of throwing to Gordon and letting him do all the work.
Most notably, however, is how the quarterback change didn't affect Gordon. He continued to play well even after Weeden took over for Campbell. Here is a fourth-quarter play, a 1st-and-10, that begins with the Browns pinned at their own 1-yard line.
The goal here is to get open—and Gordon does, getting just a few steps ahead of Taylor and Clark, a window big enough for Weeden to get the ball to Gordon and make a play.
The catch and run nets the Browns 47 yards before Taylor can get Gordon out of bounds. Just like that, the Browns are at midfield in one play.
If Gordon can do this with quarterbacks of the likes of Campbell and Weeden, imagine what he can accomplish with a true franchise quarterback under center. The need for the Browns to get the quarterback position solved in 2014 is so much greater now that Gordon has emerged as such a talented receiver.
It's both a disservice to the team as a whole and to Gordon specifically if the Browns cannot field a good quarterback next year, whether that means a rookie, Hoyer or someone else. Gordon has proven he doesn't need elite-level passers throwing him the football, but a marked upgrade at the position would mean even better things for Gordon's career and for the Browns' win-loss record in turn.
Gordon's ceiling could be Johnson, it could be Randy Moss—but the Browns need to know what it is, and the only way to do so is to finally fix the quarterback problem. What Gordon has accomplished on Sunday and this season has only further highlighted how the Browns are just one player away from being true contenders.
Gordon needs to be the catalyst for an offensive renaissance in Cleveland. However, until that time comes, there is some comfort in knowing that Gordon will continue to make plays no matter who is under center.