The Cleveland Browns better enjoy every last second of optimism that comes from having a plethora of selections in this year's draft.
They should dream about quarterback Johnny Manziel someday winning big games while cornerback Justin Gilbert forms a lethal duo with Pro Bowler Joe Haden in their secondary. After that, they better buckle up for a long ride through a dark alley known as reality. That's what star wide receiver Josh Gordon just gave them, as the lights appear ready to dim on his third pro season before it ever gets started.
There is absolutely nothing the Browns can do to change the fact that Gordon just wrecked what could've been a feel-good story this fall. If reports are true that he did fail a second drug test -- a transgression that would result in a yearlong ban for being a multiple violator of the league's substance-abuse policy -- then this is the type of boneheaded move that rips out a franchise's heart. Cleveland was primed to use this draft as a way of jumping into a new era, one in which consistency and reliability replaced futility and stupidity. Now, the Browns are in the awkward position of explaining why their best offensive skill player just reminded us why this organization has enjoyed just two winning seasons since being reinstituted in 1999.
The 23-year-old Gordon is the type of electric talent that teams hope to make the foundation of their futures. Despite missing two games last season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, he caught 87 passes and led the league with 1,646 receiving yards. At times, it was fair to argue that he was playing better than any other player at his position. More impressively, he was doing this while competing with three different quarterbacks over the course of the season.
Gordon was so good that it was legitimately worth wondering what he would do once the drug problems that plagued his career were finally behind him. That's a question that seems foolish to wonder about today.
If Gordon could put his livelihood on the line after producing a career season, then he's probably facing bigger problems than any of us realize. For him to do that at a time when the Browns are on the verge of moving in the right direction makes even less sense.
This is a team that is employing its fifth head coach since 2008. It's a franchise that traded one first-round pick in the 2012 draft (running back Trent Richardson) after 16 career games and gave up on another (quarterback Brandon Weeden) after five starts last season. If that isn't enough, owner Jimmy Haslam is under investigation by the FBI, and the previous general manager, Mike Lombardi, lost his job after a year with the team. And we haven't even gotten to all the frustration Browns fans have endured while watching this team blunder along since the turn of the century.
Gordon was one of the brightest lights for a team that has some blossoming talent in key areas. Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas are two of the best players at their positions in the league, and Cleveland's defense could thrive with a few more difference-makers added to the mix. Before losing their final seven games of last season, this was a team that intrigued people with its potential. Given the way new general manager Ray Farmer handled the first day of this year's draft -- by deftly orchestrating trades that led to the selections of Gilbert and Manziel -- it felt like this franchise was finally learning the tricky art of ascension in the NFL.
The reason Gordon's probable suspension will sting so much is that he's the franchise's only game-changer. He's the player who would make life easier for quarterback Brian Hoyer early and Manziel later, once the Browns' quarterback of the future officially stepped under center. Remember, this is a team that had no semblance of a running game last fall -- Willis McGahee led the Browns with all of 377 yards -- and hardly any other wide receivers who could scare defenses. If not for rising star tight end Jordan Cameron, Gordon would've been torching opposing secondaries with hardly anybody else to take the pressure off him.
That is the makeup of a special player, and anybody in football knows those don't come around often. In fact, Gordon's entire story should make you wonder how he produced such feats at the highest level of football. He was suspended from Baylor during his sophomore year in 2010 after police found him and a teammate asleep in a car with marijuana. He was suspended indefinitely 10 months later for a failed drug test. Two months after that, Gordon had transferred to Utah, where he sat out that season before entering the 2012 supplemental draft and becoming the Browns' second-round pick.
So what we have is a player who caught all of 43 passes in college and still managed to become a first-team All-Pro performer by his second season in the league. You might think that kind of success would breed more brilliance in the long run. The Browns had to be thinking about those possibilities when Gordon was torching cornerbacks last season. The idea of what Gordon could do with more talent at quarterback had to be even more thrilling.
Now, we're hearing stories that the Browns front office knew about Gordon's issues as early as two weeks ago. There's also speculation that the team's decision-makers didn't panic when the news broke Friday, fully believing they had a plan to answer whatever issues could result from Gordon's likely absence. That's often the first thing competitors do when faced with an unexpected punch in the gut: They try to make the entire world believe, while resisting the desire to wince and cringe, that they aren't really hurting as badly as one might think.
The Browns can play that game all they want. They can even hope the narrative that 10 new rookies in Cleveland -- along with a well-executed trade with the Buffalo Bills that landed them additional first- and fourth-round picks next year -- will keep fans giddy about the team's future.
The truth is that only the most misguided of loyalists would cling to that bit of folly in light of what just happened. Thanks to Josh Gordon, the Browns' dream draft weekend just turned into a nightmare, one that will sting even more once this coming season finally kicks off.