Wide receiver Josh Gordon provided the Browns with a glimmer of hope and showed he still has what it takes to be an elite playmaker.
“I see it all the time, every time he’s out there practicing with us,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said after the game. “He’s a special player that can just be able to turn it on and do his thing, and I’m super excited that he’s out there with us.”
Gordon was one of the Browns’ few bright spots Friday night during their 30-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third preseason game for both teams at Raymond James Stadium.
Gordon caught two passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in his 2016 preseason debut and first game action since Dec. 21, 2014.
“It was great. Definitely something I missed,” Gordon said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to do for a long time, but I was happy to be out there, excited. Had a wonderful time.”
Reinstated by Commissioner Roger Goodell on July 25 after being banished from the NFL for all of last season because of recurring violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy, Gordon sat out the first two exhibition games this summer with a quadriceps injury.
However, he didn’t have trouble making an immediate impact upon his return.
Gordon used a double move to become wide open on third-and-8 at the Browns’ 27-yard line during their first possession of the game. He caught a 44-yard pass from quarterback Robert Griffin III, his close friend and former teammate at Baylor University, to set up Patrick Murray’s 44-yard field goal with 8:04 left in the first quarter.
“It gave me a boost, gave the team a boost,” Gordon said. “Get that experience again, get that feeling again, what it feels like to make a big play, but it was great. I think uplifting for the team and something that we needed at that point and time in the game and something we could build on going into next week.”
Later, Gordon made a spectacular play on first-and-10 to give the Browns’ starters their only touchdown in their two quarters of action. With the ball in the air, he maneuvered at the goal line to gain position on four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and caught Griffin’s 43-yard pass for the score with 1:53 remaining in the second quarter.
“[Grimes] didn’t leave me too much room to the boundary,” Gordon said. “So I kind of just thought I’d reach over, make a play on the ball and fall in the end zone.”
Added Haden: “JG, he’s super strong and very athletic and is able to make those kind of plays, reaching over a dude, and it’s all hands. When he jumps over him, he’s just catching it with his hands. Not everybody can make that play.”
Gordon will serve a four-game suspension to begin the regular season, so the Browns won’t have the 2013 All-Pro selection in a real game until they host the New England Patriots on Oct. 9.
Still, he provided a source of optimism.
“He did. He made a tremendous play,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “It was good just to get him back out there in the game and playing. He did some good things. There are some things we’ll continue to improve on with him, but I thought it was a good start for him.”
Added Griffin: “It’s just good to see him out there making plays, getting an opportunity to get back in the league, and we look forward to him making the most of that. So I’m really excited for him.”
A couple of weeks ago, Gordon said he’s still the same player who led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards three years ago.
Did Friday’s performance validate his theory?
“I’m not really looking for validation in any regards,” Gordon replied. “I’m just looking to go out there and give effort. I think that’s what got it done before, and I think that’s what’s going to get it done another time and not only for me but for everybody in this room. That’s how we’re going to win games. We’ve got to give effort. When it doesn’t look like there’s an option or we’re down, we’re out, go a little bit harder and make a play on the ball.”
The NFL preseason debut of rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman didn’t go as well as Gordon’s first game back. And although Jackson said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll play his starters in Thursday’s preseason finale at home against the Chicago Bears, he implied Coleman will play in an attempt to knock some rust off.
Coleman, the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, was targeted twice but finished without a catch against the Bucs. He made a 9-yard grab in the first quarter, but the play was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.
After suffering a left hamstring injury Aug. 5 while dominating a scrimmage at Browns headquarters, Coleman sat out five practices and the first two exhibition games.
So what does he need to do to be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener?
“Just play. That’s all,” Jackson said Saturday during a conference call. “I just think he needs to play. I think we all got to remember there was a two-week or 2½-week period where he did nothing. I think his process probably changed a little bit from being out there at practice and doing the other things he was doing each and every day because he had to get healthy.
“Now that he’s healthy ... you go through those situations kind of like starting back over, getting the real feel for it all. But I think this guy’s a tremendous football player, and I think he’ll bounce back and I think he’s looking forward to playing this week.”
Coleman looked a bit lost at times Friday, but Jackson insisted “he has a tremendous grasp” of the playbook.
“I thought what you saw last night was a young man that was coming to his first NFL game excited to play and wanting to go out and do really well. Maybe he was pressing a little bit,” Jackson said. “So much has been said about this great receiving corps we have, but I think at the same time, I think they understand you’ve got to prove that on the field. Sometimes there’s a lot of anxiety that can be built up from that. He needed to play. We all understand and know he can play, and I think he’s only going to get better from here on in.”
Jackson said cornerback Justin Gilbert suffered a concussion and wide receiver Marlon Moore suffered a hip pointer against the Bucs
“There were no other significant injuries to report,” Jackson said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.