CLEVELAND (AP) — Every day he stays committed and sober, Josh Gordon takes another step toward playing again in the NFL.
The long walk and wait are nearly over.
The wide receiver, who squandered millions in potential earnings and derailed a promising career because of substance abuse, will practice with the Browns on Wednesday for the first time in 14 months — a return that once seemed unimaginable.
Gordon was recently reinstated on a conditional basis by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being suspended for the past two seasons. So far, the enigmatic 26-year-old has fulfilled every requirement placed on him by Goodell, and on Monday he threw with Cleveland’s quarterbacks.
Gordon, who has been suspended for the Browns’ past 43 games and 53 of 58, has impressed teammates with his attitude since rejoining the team on Nov. 7. He’s been working out under the team’s guidance, and on Sunday he was on the sideline when the winless Browns lost to Jacksonville.
“First and foremost, I’m just happy for him,” guard Joel Bitonio said. “I think he’s in a good place. You can kind of tell that he’s just mentally refreshed almost. He’s been away from the game and I think it was a little humbling for him.”
Gordon was poised to make a comeback last year, but after spending training camp with the Browns and playing in the exhibition season, he checked himself into a rehab facility.
One of the worries about Gordon is that he will relapse, but coach Hue Jackson believes the Browns have a strong support system in place to aid him inside and outside the team’s facility.
“Josh knows that we’re always available to him,” Jackson said. “But he’s entitled to be a man and make his decisions and do the right thing, and we truly believe and support that he will. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do thus far. He’s working extremely hard. He’s excited about being back and about having the opportunity. I know every chance I get to be around him, he was on our sideline yesterday and it was a treat just dialoguing with him, the things he saw, the ways he thinks he can help.
“To me, that was exciting. He’s doing well and hopefully that will continue.”
Gordon’s return is a boost for the Browns, who have gone 1-25 over the past two seasons and don’t have a playmaker close to his stature. Gordon led the league with 1,646 yards receiving and scored nine touchdowns in 2013 despite being suspended for two games.
With a dazzling blend of size, speed and strength, he was one of the league’s most dynamic wide receivers. The Browns can’t wait to see if he can get close to that level again.
“It’s like Christmas,” Jackson said. “I’m going to open a new toy. I know what’s in that box. I just want to see how good it is.”
As long as Gordon abides by the league’s guidelines — he’s subject to random drug testing — Gordon will be eligible to play on Dec. 3 when the Browns visit the Los Angeles Chargers. Gordon hasn’t played in a regular season game since Dec. 21, 2014.
While he was in a Florida rehab facility, Gordon did all he could to stay in shape, and he’s been seen in the Browns’ weight room with the team’s strength and conditioning staff. He’s leaner than when he last played.
“From what I’ve heard from our strength staff, he’s looking in pristine shape,” Bitonio said. “So I’m excited even to see him run a few routes on the scout team or whatever this week. The dynamic he brings to the team is something that can’t be replaced.”
The Browns need Gordon, as their receiving group has been a major disappointment. But with Gordon’s return and Corey Coleman back after missing nine weeks with a broken hand, things could change dramatically for Cleveland’s struggling offense. Coleman caught six passes for 80 yards on Sunday.
For Bitonio, there’s a bigger story with Gordon.
“I just hope he’s in a good place,” Bitonio said. “If he can get back on the field, that’s one of the stories of the Cleveland Browns that, hey, this guy was down in the dumps and he’s kind of risen from the ashes, so to say, and hopefully gets back out there and helps us get some wins.”