The Browns need Davone Bess’ playmaking ability and leadership more than ever.
Bess had been a big part of the organization’s plans ever since it traded for him during the NFL Draft in April, but he’ll certainly be expected to play an even more significant role while Josh Gordon serves a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Bess, who spent the past five seasons with the Miami Dolphins, is eager to do his part.
“When they brought me here, I understood that it was another opportunity for me to not only take my game to another level, but to help a team that is quite frankly tired of losing,” Bess said Thursday as the Browns wrapped up their three-day mandatory minicamp. “Me being in Miami, we had up-and-down seasons as well. I went to the playoffs my rookie year [in 2008] and haven’t been back since. I still have the fire. I still want to go to the postseason.”
The Browns have made the playoffs just once since their expansion era kicked off in 1999, earning a wild-card berth in 2002. Losing Gordon for the first two games of the 2013 regular-season — at home against the Dolphins Sept. 8 and on the road against the Baltimore Ravens Sept. 15 — won’t help their chances of ending the drought.
On Friday, the NFL announced it suspended Gordon without pay for the first two games of 2013 and fined him two additional game checks. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gordon failed three marijuana tests in college, but in a statement, he blamed prescribed antibiotics and cough medicine containing codeine for triggering the failed test that got him in trouble with the league. The NFL does not reveal how players violate its drug policies because of an agreement it has with the NFL Players Association.
Regardless of Gordon’s explanation, the Browns won’t be able to rely on him to help set the tone for the season. Gordon, the team’s No. 1 receiver who had 50 receptions for a team-high 805 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie last season, is projected to start opposite the 6-2, 220-pound Greg Little.
But without Gordon in the lineup, Bess will be counted on to step up. The Browns traded picks in the fourth (No. 104) and fifth (No. 164) rounds in this year’s draft in exchange for Bess and selections in the fourth (No. 111) and seventh (No. 217) rounds. They also signed him to a three-year contract extension, which secures him through the 2016 season.
Bess’ role in Cleveland
The 5-10, 195-pound Bess was the Dolphins’ primary slot receiver, and he filled that role for the Browns throughout organized team activities and their recent minicamp. Still, offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes to move receivers around to create mismatches, so at times, Bess has lined up on the outside with Gordon or Little working in the slot.
“I’ve been everywhere, and all the receivers have been interchangeable as you can see,” Bess said. “So it’s just a matter of them putting us in the positions to make plays and we’ll be ready to go.
“It’s an advantage. With defenses as fast as they are becoming, you have to be sharp and know [all the positions]. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you aren’t able to play.”
Like Bess, David Nelson is new to the receiving corps. The Browns signed him to a one-year contract in April. He has yet to practice with his new team as he attempts to come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he’s expected to be ready for the first full-squad practice of training camp July 25. If he can rebound from his knee injury, the 6-5, 215-pound Nelson, 26, could also be vital to compensating for Gordon’s absence.
Travis Benjamin’s role could expand, too. As minicamp closed, the 5-10, 175-pound Benjamin, 23, received praise from quarterback Brandon Weeden.
“Travis had at least as many catches if not more than anybody in camp,” Weeden said. “His route running is phenomenal, probably because he’s so fast. Guys have to honor him running by them. He’s been getting in and out of breaks so well. Whether it’s in-breaking routes or out-breaking routes, he’s really found a knack of getting separation and giving me a chance to complete some balls. He’s had a lot of catches this camp. He’s stuck out.”
Bess, though, is the most established player in the group. He has never had fewer than 50 catches in a season, and he has compiled 130 third-down receptions, second most in the NFL during the past five years. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White is the leader with 146.
“He brings consistency,” Weeden said of Bess. “He doesn’t make many mistakes. If he’s reading routes or doing certain things, he doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s a very solid player. He’s a pro. He knows how to prepare. He’s the ultimate pro, and it’s starting to rub off on everybody in the locker room, not just the receivers. He goes about his business in the right way, and I commend him for it.”
Teaching the youngsters
Bess, 27, knows the Browns value him not only for his ability to contribute on the field, but also for his reputation as a quality leader in the locker room. He hopes to mentor Gordon, 22, and Little, 24.
Gordon failed two marijuana tests at Baylor University and another at the University of Utah before former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert selected him July 12 in the second round of last year’s supplemental draft. In accordance with the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, the league doesn’t suspend players for a first offense, so Gordon must have failed another drug test before his most recent one, which he attributed to codeine.
Now Gordon must stay clean or risk throwing his career away. It’s not clear exactly how long he would be suspended if he failed another drug test, but it could be for a minimum period of one calendar year if he’s in stage three of the league’s substance-abuse program. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in his sole discretion, decides whether players may return to the league after a one-year banishment.
Gordon is at least in stage two of the program. If he’s still in stage two, he would face a six-game ban for another failed test.
Either way, another strike against Gordon would be bad news for the Browns. Although Bess can’t ensure his young teammates will stay on the right path, he can set a good example.
“They’re gifted athletically, physically,” Bess said of Gordon and Little before news of Gordon’s suspension broke. “They can run, jump, catch. You can tell that they’re hungry. They’re young and hungry. But for the most part, I’m just excited to come in and to be able to share my little experiences over the course of my career to help mold them even more to make them better players.”
Bess believes the advice he can give Gordon and Little about how to conduct themselves off the field is just as valuable as his tips for the gridiron.
“The way I approach the game, they go hand in hand,” Bess said. “You can’t tend to one side more than the other. They both feed off of each other from eating right, getting proper rest, getting massages, taking care of your body outside of the facility.”
The Browns’ receiving corps has the potential to drastically improve, but Gordon must atone for his mistake, and Bess and Co. must weather the storm early on without him. For the first time in years, the group finally has a combination of legitimate playmakers and a solid veteran presence to provide guidance.
It would be a shame to see it all go to waste.
“The sky’s the limit,” Bess said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself too early, but we’ve definitely got weapons. With Norv’s track record, scoring a lot of points and racking up a whole bunch of yards, we know he’s going to do his part. We’ve just got to show up and do our part.”
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.