Patriots Are Doomed in AFC Race Without a Dominant Josh Gordon

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 24, 2018

New England Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The New England Patriots are missing something. But their problems can be solved in a flash if wide receiver Josh Gordon returns to form to cover up the many ills found within the team's poorly constructed roster. 

That's a big if, though. 

Gordon hasn't been a dominant player since the 2013 campaign. Instead, a series of failed drug tests and suspensions prevented him from participating in all but 11 games over the previous four-plus seasons.

Even so, the Patriots organization decided his otherworldly natural gifts were well worth trading a fifth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for. But New England's coaching staff made him inactive for Sunday's 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. It's the first time the Patriots lost back-to-back games by double digits since the 2002 season, according to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer

Gordon's presence never loomed as large in Cleveland because the Browns never experienced the same level of expectations. Even so, relying on the 27-year-old cost the Cleveland multiple seasons hoping he'd realize his potential. The Browns stuck with him through thick and thin and multiple regime changes. 

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot, the Browns finally decided to make the move after Gordon showed up late to the building the previous Saturday and seemed "not himself." 

How could the Patriots reach the point where their season relies on a troubled and untrustworthy, albeit supremely talented, receiver? Simple. New England is desperate. 

Before going any further, everyone wishes the very best for Gordon in his battle against addiction. It's something he's attempted to overcome for years. Eventually, he needs to show he can dominate on the field again, or he'll run out of opportunities, especially if he can't be successful in Bill Belichick's program. 

The Patriots have already reached a critical point with a 1-2 start and the 3-0 Miami Dolphins next on the docket. New England's previous success means nothing when it lacks key components to remain competitive.

Wide receiver, in particular, is a disaster. 

Chris Hogan led the way Sunday with three receptions for 31 yards. Phillip Dorsett, who has 12 receptions for 110 yards, leads the team's wide receivers through three weeks even though he didn't catch a single pass against Detroit. 

The Patriots simply can't compete when relying so heavily on tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White in the passing game. Of course, Gronkowski should be the focal point of the scheme, but he needs help so defenses don't constrict the space in which he works. 

Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Quarterback Tom Brady connected with his All-Pro tight end four times for 51 yards. Obviously, Gronkowski makes an impact even if his overall usage isn't being maximized. 

Brady, meanwhile, didn't complete a single pass for more than 19 yards. In a pass-first league in which chunk plays are crucial to create a consistent offense, New England doesn't have a legitimate field-stretcher on the outside. At some point, Gordon will fill the role and make the middle of the field less constrictive. 

However, he must overcome a tweaked hamstring while trying to absorb the Patriots' elaborate offensive scheme. 

"Josh worked hard," Belichick said during his pregame interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub (via ESPN.com's Mike Reiss and Michael Rothstein). "He has a long way to go. We'll take it day by day here." 

The Patriots staff must rush the process. A limited Gordon operating in a simplified package can still be effective. The 6'3", 225-pound target scored an impressive touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Week 1 despite coming to training camp late with limited practice time and not being in football shape, as seen below:


JOSH GORDON. 😱 Unreal. @JOSH_GORDONXII 📺: CBS #Browns #Kickoff2018 https://t.co/XuTsnhhZtr

Once Gordon enters the lineup, defenses will have multiple decisions to make on a down-by-down basis.

A safety will likely be pulled out of the box to account for Gordon's deep speed. The running game should become more efficient as a result. The Patriots may be a pass-first team, but Brady can count the numbers in the box and take advantage if and when opponents are cheating toward a legitimate vertical option. 

The decision to play a safety over the top becomes a choice unto itself. Defenses won't be able to automatically roll coverage toward Gronkowski's side with Gordon also on the field. 

As a result, basic zone coverages to account for both will almost certainly become more prevalent, allowing Brady to pick apart opponents like he's done for years. 

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Furthermore, the defense should benefit once the Patriots string together successful offensive series and build leads. Right now, New England looks slow and unathletic, and the Lions pushed them all over the field. Coincidentally, Detroit's Kerryon Johnson became the Lions' first 100-yard rusher since 2013, with 101 yards. 

Physically, Gordon is on par with any wide receiver in the NFL. He's big, fast and dynamic with the ball in his hands. 

A fully committed and healthy Gordon can develop into something never quite seen before. Take a moment and realize he hasn't even scratched the surface to what he can become. The 2013 first-team All-Pro provided the NFL's 13th-best season ever with 1,646 receiving yards alongside quarterbacks Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer. 

"He was a monster then, and he's still a monster now," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, per Reiss. "He's a tremendous athlete, a great receiver. Glad to have him."

Now, imagine Brady building a rapport with that receiver. The allure is too much, even if it's not entirely rooted in reality. No one knows if Gordon can even play at an elite level anymore after missing so much time. 

"Look, he's been here for a few days, so we're working at it every day, and every day you try to make improvements," Brady said Friday.

The Patriots made the right move by investing in an exceptional talent. The decision may or may not work out in the team's favor, but it's worth a chance since Brady and Co. can't compete in today's AFC without a difference-maker at wide receiver. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.