We were robbed of what could have been one of the most compelling receiver-cornerback duels of the decade.
It’s easy to forget now, because the narrative in the week was caught up by foolish remarks from Mike Pettine, the sloppy early days to Johnny Manziel’s career and Russell Wilson’s blazing finish to that season, plus the suspended wideout’s absence was already long foregone. But when the Seattle Seahawks met the Cleveland Browns back in December 2015, that should have been Josh Gordon week.
Remember, that was the period when it seemed like every game showcased some challenge meant to make or break Richard Sherman’s reputation as the black hole in Seattle’s defense. Randall Cobb, Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, Dez Bryant, Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Cordarrelle Patterson — and that’s not counting two other duels missed to injury that season by players who were, in those days, big-time threats: Alshon Jeffery and Kelvin Benjamin. Sometimes Sherman would cover the man across the field. More often he just stood at his post on the left side, waving his finger like a lighthouse: “Don’t go there.” And for the most part, quarterbacks wouldn’t.
This narrow denominator for attempts against Sherman’s half both supported the All-Pro Seahawk’s body of work while at once making it mathematically precarious. Like, because the scarcity of throws in his direction, any few lapses in coverage might have shifted Richard’s coverage rate, and his claim as best corner on the planet. That was the mood. Plus how Sherman took such vocal pride in the mantle, how he demanded it for himself, only beckoned these high stakes clashes the more. With the scrutiny. Sherman demanded it. We demanded it. We, and he, ate it up.
So it would have been, let’s just say, interesting had Gordon been available and on a similar trajectory in his career that Sherman followed to that date.
Gordon, though three years younger and a year later to the league than Sherman, had similarly exploded in his second season, leading the NFL in receiving yards in 2013 but — probably more importantly — also in explosive plays, with 44 gains of 16 yards or more. Using Pete Carroll’s standard of course. (Gordon in fact tied in this category with Calvin Johnson. After this duo, the next most by any player was 34 by DeSean Jackson; that’s how dominant they were. Unlike Calvin Johnson, Gordon also supplemented his 41 explosive catches with 3 rushes for 22, 22 and 34 yards!) A man can be an artist at anything, and this guy was like Percy Harvin but could run routes.
By 2015, Gordon should have been one of pro football’s biggest superstars. Instead, he played 10 games combined between the end of 2013 and the start of 2018.
We missed an all-timer. So Richard Sherman and Josh Gordon meet for the first time Monday, each for very different reasons, in quite different places in their lives and ours.
For Seattle fans, it’s a bittersweet encounter, obviously. Not only because it lacks the blockbuster appeal of a hypothetical 2015 collision with Gordon at the top of his form, but it now comes with Sherman in a San Francisco 49ers uniform.
Of course, you could argue neither player has been the same since 2013. After storming the league for 16 interceptions from 2012-2013, Sherman only managed 10 more interceptions total in his remaining four seasons with the Seahawks.
Now, Sherman’s defenders will point out:
“He didn’t get thrown the ball.”
Defenders of Gordon’s potential in the face of his productivity could also say:
“He didn’t get thrown the ball.”
This is not to make an equivalence of fault between quarterbacks throwing away from a shutdown corner and someone repeatedly failing the NFL’s substance abuse program. Look elsewhere if you’re trying to take a moral accounting of these players’ records or decisions. All it means is we don’t know what we don’t know.
We don’t know what Sherman might have accomplished at his peak had he crouched upon A-list receivers game to game. We certainly don’t know how Gordon might have developed had he stayed off the Commissioner’s naughty list.
But these are the terms on which I’m taking the arrival, at last, of Monday’s matchup. Whatever Gordon offers can only be a revelation. If it even happens! Who knows? Seattle seems hopeful he will be ready to play, but Gordon appeared on the injury report Thursday and how often and where he lines up remain in serious doubt. If it turns out Gordon is limited in his Seahawks debut, that’s no big deal after all.
Still. If he goes against Sherman — and wins? If Gordon even hints at that explosiveness that made him such a match in our imaginations for Pete Carroll football. The opportunity to promise another, more exciting duel between them later in the season? In years even to come. Josh Gordon is still only 28.
Okay, before I put him in the Hall of Fame, let me just say it will be cool anyway to get one or two moments Monday that let our minds expand with what possibilities Gordon might have been, but more importantly for Seattle what possibilities are left. Richard Sherman, on the other side of Achilles surgery, might not be the absolute test of cornerback play, but in 2019, in San Francisco’s scheme with three picks already, he’s not far from his most interceptions since that peak Super Bowl year — and even scored his first touchdown since 2013 too. Plus, you know Sherman plans to put himself to his own tests, just ‘cause Seahawks.
Gordon put up more than 10 yards per target with the New England Patriots in 2018 after being traded midseason. Whatever he used to be, Gordon’s clearly still capable of being a dynamic contributor. How quickly he adjusts and integrates himself to Russell Wilson’s offense could shape the size of his opportunity to challenge Sherm on MNF.
So I’m not the kind to wish failure on a former LOBoomer out of spite. Like I said, this isn’t about the judgment of these players. I’ll ride for Richard Sherman no matter the helmet. But I’m stoked for any sort of possibility Gordon makes Sherman look silly Monday, even a flash of silly, for what it means to the division race and the brightness it could shine on our outlook for Seattle’s weapons for the year.
Even the chance of that glimpse raises anticipation. Might even make the matchup worth the long wait.