So how did Josh Gordon look in his long-awaited and highly anticipated return to the National Football League wars Sunday in Los Angeles against the Chargers?
Like he belonged. Like he had not been away for nearly three years. Like the best wide receiver the Browns have had since, well, since he last suited up for the team back in December of 2014.
As much as anything, that tells you just how bad the receiving corps has been ever since Ray Farmer was general manager and wide receivers were anathema to his football philosophy.
It means Gordon, who was targeted a ridiculous 11 times by quarterback DeShone Kizer against the Chargers, is going to get even more work in the final four games of the season as coach Hue Jackson seeks to win at least one game.
It was obvious from the game’s opening play, a nine-yard slant to the extremely talented and troubled wide receiver, he was going to be Kizer’s go-to guy in clutch situations.
After all this time off, he showed he still possesses his two greatest assets: Strong hands and the ability to soar high to grab throws that appear to be overthrown and somehow magically wind up in his possession.
There seemed to be no rust to chip off as Gordon ran his routes, gliding along, seemingly effortlessly, at a speed that can be best described as deceptive. He gave the impression that the last competitive game he played was last week.
Only problem now is Kizer and Gordon, who played 76% of the offensive snaps, have not spent nearly enough time in practice to learn what and what not they can get away with. Get their timing down where it becomes precision-like.
It showed against the Chargers as Kizer frequently misjudged Gordon’s speed and overthrew him by several yards well after he had beaten his man. He connects with any of those and the Browns have their first victory of the season.
Of their four completions, two went for 28 and 39 yards, a clear signal Jackson will much more confidently pull out all the stops from here on out now that he has the kind of receiver who can actually produce.
Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins were merely window dressing against the Chargers, drawing zero throws between them, while Kenny Britt caught two of three passes his way in three targets and Corey Coleman was blanked on four targets.
If Kizer’s performance in the 19-10 loss to the Chargers is any indication, his favorite targets the rest of the way will be Gordon and tight ends David Njoku and Seth DeValve. Of his 32 pass attempts against the Chargers, 20 went their way for 10 of his 15 completions and 192 of his 215 yards.
At least Kizer now has receivers he can depend on; receivers who can get open with a large degree of regularity; receivers who can help sustain drives and move the chains. That reliability has not been in his arsenal until now.
Will that make him a better quarterback? In some ways, yes. It will also make him a much more confident quarterback as he attempts to prove to the front office – and fans – it was not a mistake to draft him.
It should also have a positive influence on how Jackson calls a game. With dangerous receivers for the first time this season, opposing defenses will have to pay more respect to the Cleveland passing attack, which in turn should open up the ground game.
Up until now when Kizer used play fakes to freeze defenders, opponents paid little or no attention to the move because they knew the Browns’ receiving corps was not a major threat. It is now with Gordon on board and should draw more serious attention.
After the game, Gordon was pragmatic about the team’s failure to win.. “We left things on the field,” he said. “You definitely want to get those. You can’t get them back. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
And once he and Kizer smooth out their symbiotic relationship on the field, there is no telling how successful they can be with an eye on next season and beyond.
While disappointed the Browns lost yet another game in what seems like a never-ending nightmare, Jackson has to be encouraged a corner is about to be turned. “Gotta make plays in critical moments,” he said. “I think we’re equipped to do that. We just didn’t do it.”
Equipped? They sure are now that Gordon is back.
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Jason McCourty has been silently having one terrific season for the Browns at age 30. He is clearly the best defensive back in the secondary. No one is even close to the nine-year veteran, easily the club’s best off-season free-agent acquisition.
Statistics do not accurately reflect McCourty’s value. He has made only 41 tackles (35 solo), forced a couple of fumbles and owns half of the team’s six interceptions, returning one for a touchdown in the Houston loss. He is also one of the surest tacklers on the club.
His main role is to shut down the opposition’s best wide receiver or at least hold them in check. Sunday against the Chargers, that was Keenan Allen, who caught 10 Philip Rivers passes mainly because of soft coverage calls by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams most of the afternoon.
Many of Allen’s receptions were of the short- to medium-range variety. He scored the Chargers’ lone touchdown of the day on a seven-yard slant on which McCourty bit on the initial outside move. The Cleveland cornerback clapped his hands in frustration as he was victimized. It was one of the few mistakes he made.
McCourty, who missed games seven and eight this year with ankle issues, is the one player in the secondary about whom Williams does not worry. His steady performances have more than vindicated that trust.
When he joined the Browns, it was thought by some that McCourty would be switched to safety because of his (for the NFL) advanced age. Williams, who coached McCourty in Tennessee, knew better and McCourty has thrived as a result.
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Here’s an off-the-wall thought: David Njoku as a wide receiver. Why not? At 6-4, 245 pounds, he has the size, speed and tremendous upside to switch to a position where he could really do some serious damage.
Njoku is a willing blocker as a tight end now, but is not very good at it. He has been flagged too many times for holding, short-circuiting promising drives. Face it, his main talent lies at another more valuable position.
Tight ends in the NFL are required to block for the ground game as much as, if not more than, being targeted for passes. Right now, the seldom-used Randall Telfer is the best blocking tight end on the roster, but isn’t much of a receiver.
The Browns need to draft a tight end who can do both well and free up Njoku to move to a position more suited to his talents. Imagine Njoku and Gordon as wideouts for whomever quarterbacks the Browns in the future.
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Is it any wonder opposing teams incorporate tight ends heavily into their game plans against the Browns? Hunter Henry of the Chargers caught seven passes for 81 yards and veteran Antonio Gates grabbed three for 25 yards. That’s 10 receptions for 113 yards. The following statistics show why that’s a smart move..
Tight ends have been targeted 103 times (second in the NFL behind Tennessee) against Cleveland this season, have caught a league-leading 77 passes and scored nine touchdowns (tied for the top with the New York Giants). Their 734 receiving yards ranks sixth. That’s on pace for nearly 1,000 yards this season.
Conversely, Cleveland tight ends Njoku (28 catches for 332 yards and four touchdowns), DeValve (26 for 335 and one score) and Telfer (two for 24) have responded with 56 receptions, 691 yards and five touchdowns.
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Finally . . . Browns linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey continue to pile up strong numbers on a weekly basis and rank in the top five in the NFL in tackles. Schobert, playing Pro Bowl caliber middle linebacker, racked up a dozen more tackles (seven solo) against the Chargers and is tied for second with Seattle’s Bobby Wagner at 113 tackles. Kirksey had nine solo tackles against L.A. and checks in at No. 5 in the league with 101 stops. . . . The Browns’ red zone defense, which has been awful all season, came up with its best effort against the Chargers, who scored only one TD after entering that zone. . . . The Chargers easily won the time of possession battle, owning the football 10 more minutes than the Browns (35-25). . . . Jackson does not yet own the worst start for an NFL coach with one team. That record is still held by John McKay, who lost his first 26 games as the head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976-77. . . . Go figure. The Chargers’ run defense is one of the worst in the NFL and yet Jackson called only 19 designed run plays of the 58 snaps. . . .A very forgettable week for the Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Two pass receptions for 10 yards; seven carries for two yards. Nine touches, 12 yards. Total misusage of the team’s best playmaker.