Orbiting Cleveland: Josh Gordon’s return makes the Browns the favorites in the AFC North


1388080437000-Stew-MilneHe’s baaaaaack.

It has seemed like an eternity, but wide receiver Josh Gordon has officially served his 10-game suspension and is once again a part of the Cleveland Browns. It could not come at a better time.

After a truly putrid performance against the Houston Texans on Sunday, the Browns sit at 6-4. Just like that, the former first-place Browns now find themselves in a three-way tie for second place.

Something’s got to give. The division has proven to be brutal, and some team is going to have to come out and stake their claim to it.

Thankfully, even with yesterday’s loss, the Browns may now be in the best position to take it.

Take a moment to consider exactly what the Browns have added today. In the 6-foot, 3-inch, 225-pound Gordon, Cleveland has a weapon with unlimited potential. Last season, despite missing the first two games, Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,646 on 87 receptions.

There will be no learning curve needed for Gordon. He is a special talent with the ability to immediately mesh with this offense.

For evidence, just look at last year. If you recall, Gordon missed the first two games while serving a two-game suspension. Many questioned how he would fit in once he joined the team. As it turned out, Gordon rejoined the Browns in week three, which also happened to be Brian Hoyer’s first start at quarterback. Would there be chemistry issues for the quarterback-receiver tandem?

Take a look back at Gordon’s stat line from that first game back: 10 receptions, 146 yards, one touchdown.

Clearly, the answer is no.

Can you imagine how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan must be salivating right now? Between Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon, Shanahan has coached some talented, playmaking receivers during his stints as offensive coordinator with Houston and Washington.

But guess what? None of them possess Gordon’s pure, natural talent.

While it’s true that the Browns left some games on the field this season (Jacksonville, Houston), the team is still in a desirable position. With six games left, they’re in the thick of things in the division, and they have now just added an All-Pro receiver. No other team can make such a claim.

Gordon’s return is similar to what we see every July in Major League Baseball. As teams push toward the playoffs, they often try to upgrade their rosters by making a big trade.

That’s exactly what the addition of Gordon does to the Browns. No team in the AFC North is perfect; every one has its holes. However, could the Browns, with Gordon, be the most complete team in the division? It’s not unreasonable to believe that.

Gordon immediately makes every other player around him better. Andrew Hawkins and undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel have been good players for the Browns this year, but just think of how much better and how much more dangerous they now become once Gordon lines up beside them.

Also, Gordon essentially makes a player like Miles Austin expendable. Plenty of things went wrong on Sunday against the Texans, but Austin’s two crucial drops loom large. At 30-years-old, Austin has clearly lost a step, and he struggles to get separation. Yet, since there are so few receiving options on this team, the Browns are often forced to target him in key situations. That now changes as Gordon immediately becomes the go-to guy whenever the Browns need a big third or fourth-down conversion.

One other thing to consider with the addition of Gordon is how much better this year’s team is when compared to last year’s squad. Think of the impact that Gordon made last year even though the team relied on a broken-down Willis McGahee to carry its running game.

In comparison, the Browns now have a three-back unit that consists of Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Ben Tate. The running game is going to benefit tremendously from the addition of Gordon and vice versa. Teams will be forced to always shadow Gordon, which means that’s one less defender to account for the running game.

Take a moment to think about the Browns offense that we might get to see this coming Sunday against Atlanta.

A backfield that consists of Crowell, West and Tate.

The return of the flashy (hence the nickname Flash Gordon) Josh Gordon starting at one receiver spot with the ever-consistent Hawkins at the other.

Taylor Gabriel lining up as the third receiver with a healthy Jordan Cameron at tight end.

Speed, big-play ability, endurance, power — this offense has it all. Very few teams in the NFL can field a unit that is capable of matching the talent and big-play ability outlined here. The Browns now have six games to show the rest of the NFL that this team is for real and ready to be a regular playoff contender.

Also, think about how important these next six games are for Hoyer. Soon to be a free agent after the season, the Browns now have a chance to get a look at Hoyer with a full arsenal of weapons available to him. It’s clear that Hoyer wants to be a regular NFL starter, and it seems as if he wants to be a starter with the Browns. Now is his chance to prove that he belongs.

Unfortunately for Hoyer, he never got a real chance to play with Gordon during his breakout in 2013. In just his third start last year, Hoyer tore his ACL.

Instead, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell reaped the benefits of playing alongside Gordon. Neither Weeden or Campbell are exceptionally talented, but they were able to put up some serviceable numbers while throwing to Gordon.

Hoyer is far more established and entrenched as the Browns quarterback than Weeden or Campbell ever were, so one has to believe that he’s excited for Gordon’s return.

Clearly, Gordon’s excited as well. Following the Browns’ loss on Sunday, he took to Twitter and posted the following:

Gordon is ready to get the ball rolling. Are the Browns?

What lies ahead though will be a challenge.

Only two of these remaining games will be played at First Energy Stadium.

Four of the Browns’ remaining six opponents are either .500 or above.

The team must close out the season against the Ravens in Baltimore.

Nothing about these final six games will be easy.

But these games will be easier with Josh Gordon than without him.

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