BEREA: The Browns hope life without wide receiver Josh Gordon won’t be as arduous as many outsiders believe it will be.
Gordon will sit out the first two regular-season games as he serves a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He has blamed prescription cough medicine that contained codeine for triggering a failed drug test in February.
No matter the reason, the Browns will be without Gordon, their No. 1 wide receiver, Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins in the opener. Gordon has been attending meetings and working out at the team’s headquarters this week, but he’s prohibited from practicing until after the second game.
“I think with Josh down, obviously it’s a loss,” starting wide receiver Greg Little said Thursday before practice. “But we have guys that are talented and can come in and make those same plays.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski named Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin “co-starters” in Gordon’s absence because they’re both expected to receive significant playing time against the Dolphins. The Browns acquired Bess during the draft April via a trade with the Dolphins, and Benjamin was a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft.
Bess is a reliable, experienced slot receiver, and Benjamin is the Browns’ fastest offensive player. Both expect to move around, playing in the slot and on the outside.
However, neither is a proven deep threat like Gordon, a second-round pick in the 2012 supplemental draft who caught 50 passes for a team-high 805 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. Gordon averaged 46 yards on his touchdown receptions, which suggests he’s an ideal weapon for the vertical, downfield passing attack Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are determined to showcase.
“You think about [Gordon’s absence] a lot, but there’s only so much you can do,” Turner said. “So we have a plan, and we’ve worked it hard. This league is a game of big plays offensively. If you make big plays, you’re going to have more production, and Josh is a guy who’s capable of making big plays. So if we’re going to make those, we’re going to have to get them from someone else.”
The only options in the receiving corps are Little, Bess, Benjamin and Josh Cooper, who’s entering his second NFL season. The Browns and Dolphins are among four teams that kept only four receivers on their active roster after making cuts this past weekend.
“We’ll be OK,” Chudzinski said. “I have done it before, and we can handle that. We can manage that.”
Another concern is the lack of size in the receiving corps when the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gordon is removed from the equation. Little’s last name is an oxymoron because he’s 6-2 and 220 pounds, but Bess (5-10, 195), Benjamin (5-10, 175) and Cooper (5-10, 190) are tiny by NFL standards.
“I think in this league, it’s not about size,” Little said. “It’s just about being able to get open. You see smaller guys all over the league that make huge plays.”
Little added that he likes the receivers’ chances against the Dolphins’ top three cornerbacks — Brent Grimes, who the Browns pursued as a free agent before he chose the Dolphins in the offseason, Dimitri Patterson, who the Browns cut last season, and nickel corner Nolan Carroll.
Still, the Browns aren’t discounting the impact of Gordon’s suspension.
“I’m not going to lie. It hurts,” quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “He’s a talented player. He’s a guy that we’re going to rely on for the 14 games after he comes back to be a big emphasis in this offense. But that being said, my confidence in the other guys who are going to step in there is just as high. They’re great players, have a lot of ability and they’re going to do a lot of things to help us win. It’s not an ideal situation, but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys that are taking his spot.”
The Browns hope Bess will show his former team what it’s missing after trading him in a swap of draft picks. Bess spent his first five NFL seasons with the Dolphins, catching more than 50 passes every year and compiling 130 third-down receptions, second most in the NFL during that span.
“I don’t hold any grudges,” Bess said during a conference call with Miami reporters. “I’m forever thankful to the Dolphin organization to give me the opportunity to play in this league. We’re nothing without the opportunity.
“I wouldn’t say [I’ll have] a chip on my shoulder [against the Dolphins]. If that’s the case, my chip is [there] every Sunday against every opposing team because I didn’t get drafted.”
Bess shot down the notion that a conflict with the Dolphins’ coaches led to his exit. There’s speculation in Miami about the coaches possibly becoming angry with Bess because he didn’t play through a back injury or the possibility of Bess becoming frustrated with the Dolphins because he was prevented from playing so he wouldn’t reach financial contract incentives.
“I had a fracture in my lumbar, they said the L2 [vertebra],” Bess said. “I don’t know exactly what it was. Everybody’s injury was different, they say. With mine, I couldn’t go, and I didn’t. That’s the way it unfolded.
“I have no idea about [the rumor about contract incentives]. I don’t know how the injury tied to my contract. This is the first time I’ve heard anything about that.”
Even if there is no bad blood between the Dolphins and Bess, the Browns hope coach Joe Philbin and Co. will leave town Sunday night realizing how much they miss him.
“I’m glad we have Davone Bess here,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “I think he’s also a critical part of what they used to do, and I think they’ve lost something in him.”
Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, a GlenOak High School graduate, agrees with Horton.
“He’s a special talent,” said Hartline, whose locker was next to Bess’ last season. “He’s got a great skill set. He busted his butt every single day. Any time you put those two together, he’s very hard to replace. Not saying you’re trying to replace what he does, but the coaches just felt they wanted to go in a different direction. At the same time, I still see things on film that we did a year ago that we still can use for teaching examples. However you want to feel about that, he’s definitely a guy that I will say was a well-noted loss to say the least.”
Still, the same can be said about the Browns missing Gordon for the first two games. It’s a blow the team hopes it can absorb without being knocked out.
The key will be whether Bess and Benjamin are able to hold down the fort while Gordon’s out.
“They have to,” Turner said. “Those guys just have to step up and make the plays that are there for them.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.