CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon's well-written essay in The Cauldron lends some clarity to his recent suspension and blasts commentators who broadly categorize him as an alcoholic or drug addict.

Gordon
Gordon
But by making the distinction he’s neither of those things, he’s basically blaming his issues on being a 23-year-old with a few lapses in judgment. This means he has the worst luck in league history or he thinks readers are incredibly naive.

A DWI, three NFL suspensions and one team suspension in three years -- that’s a lot to pin on a capricious nature. Gordon is authoritative at the top of the story -- yes, I have a "problem" -- but teases the reader by not delving into that problem other than stating that he "messed up" and describing his rough upbringing in the Houston area.

Gordon isn’t making excuses for his behavior. It’s just that the explanations of his incidents with the league still require more details. Gordon hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt to ignore them. "Inadvertently" inhaling secondhand smoke and not knowing his zero-drinking stipulation might stretch into the first few days of the offseason don't seem like things that just happen. (If the second part is true, shame on Gordon’s camp for not reminding him 100 times over about the end date. Wonder how many of his teammates knew about the stipulation on the way to Vegas.) Missing team activities doesn’t just happen. There are rumblings from the team's office that Gordon's timeliness was an issue more than once late in 2014.

And it’s still unclear from Gordon's letter what concrete steps he plans to take to curb poor decision-making.

Good for Gordon for speaking out. He has every right to combat those who brand him as an NFL outcast. The letter strikes with conviction. You’re right, Josh, we don’t really know you. This letter helps, in spots.

But if your only "problem" is being young, that paints with the same broad strokes that your critics used on you. Perhaps Part II can dive deeper into this area.

After a growing number of incidents in three NFL seasons, Browns fans hoping for the best could use more to go off of here.

Sorry, guys, I wasn’t thinking, I’m only 23 -- that isn’t enough, especially when you start the letter throwing footballs at targets.

Fewer Charles Barkley rants, more energy pointed toward staying suspension-free.
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In a pointed and poignant statement about his recent failed alcohol test, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon stated: "I am not a drug addict; I am not an alcoholic ..."

Gordon's first-person letter was posted on a website called Medium.

He directs it to his critics, especially Charles Barkley, and ESPN analysts Stephen A. Smith and Cris Carter, all of whom have expressed serious concern for Gordon's future and well-being, with Barkley saying Gordon's actions could lead to a premature death.

Gordon continued on the offensive at the end of his letter with a message for his critics who said his life would end badly if he maintained a reckless lifestyle.

"If you see me someday, Chuck, Stephen A., Cris, or any other well-intentioned person to whom this letter is directed, please come on over, shake my hand, and say hello," he wrote. "I won't be holding a grudge, but I will expect you to admit you were wrong about me."

Gordon explained his conditions for alcohol testing and his failed test in the letter, saying it came on a flight he took with teammates and former receivers coach Mike McDaniel on Jan. 2.

Gordon posted videos from the flight of he, teammates Joe Haden, Travis Benjamin and Andrew Hawkins and McDaniel joking around -- and throwing "touchdowns" with a bundled up wad of cash.


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One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
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Two Cleveland Browns players came to the defense of Johnny Manziel this week following criticism of him in an ESPN.com report that chronicled his rookie year.

Cornerback Joe Haden, who played in last week's Pro Bowl and is appearing at the Super Bowl festivities as part of his Global Ambassador role for the Special Olympics, told Cleveland.com that Manziel is "definitely not a joke." Linebacker Karlos Dansby also said from the Super Bowl that Manziel practiced well during the season.

"It's not true at all that Johnny's teammates think he's a 100 percent joke," Haden said. "There's a lot of players on the team that do [love Manziel]."

One Browns player told ESPN for a story published last week that Manziel throughout the 2014 season was a "100 percent joke," a reference to his lack of preparation and the Johnny Football persona affecting his work life as a rookie, a sentiment echoed by many sources interviewed for the story. Manziel has become a lightning rod for criticism from many outlets after his struggles as a starter late in the Browns' season.

"When opportunities present themselves you've got to take advantage of it," Dansby told Cleveland.com


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NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:00
AM ET
Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

CLEVELAND -- Jordan Poyer didn't drive Browns headlines in a year that included a quarterback mess and a five-game losing streak to end a promising season, but the safety had to overcome a brutal October.

Poyer was an ascending NFL punt returner, a second-year Brown brimming with confidence, before a muffed punt return made him the subject of easy laughs on social media video loops.

"If I could have anything back in my football life, that might have been the play right there," Poyer said.

[+] EnlargeJordan Poyer
AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton"If I could have anything back in my football life, that might have been the play right there," Jordan Poyer said of his fumbled punt against the Jaguars.
If you're a Browns fan, you definitely know the play -- Week 7 in Jacksonville, Browns down 10-6 with 6:12 left, Poyer deep in his own territory, ready to field Bryan Anger's punt. Anger's punt was near perfect, sailing toward the goal line by the left corner. Poyer had lined up toward the right side, forced to back-pedal diagonally -- a nightmare scenario even for a player with good hands. He took his eyes off the ball for "one second," he said. He probably should have gotten out of the way and let the ball bounce.

Instead, the ball bounced off his facemask at the 2-yard line, the Jaguars convert the turnover into a touchdown and the Browns lost.

Try living with that for the next 10 weeks. Poyer was the starting punt returner that week, replacing the struggling Travis Benjamin. He never fielded another live-game punt after that Jacksonville trip. The Browns played veteran safety Jim Leonhard before Poyer because of his sure hands, even if Leonhard was no threat to break more than 5 yards.

For a guy used to having his way as an Oregon State punt returner, the forgettable moment was a Vegas-level luck change.

"I'm itching for another chance," Poyer, a seventh-round pick by the Eagles in 2013, said by his locker late last month. "I've got a bad taste in my mouth. Definitely next time I'm in a situation like that, it will be different."

Poyer admits he was shaken up for a few days. He came to work like he always had, then headed home to hole up and regroup. After the game, he resorted to blank stares out of the bus window. That's when special teams coordinator Chris Tabor provided some timely coach speak.

"He told me on the bus, 'Jordan, you're a good football player and we're going to need you the rest of the way,'" Poyer said. "Teammates really encouraged me throughout it. Once I turned the page on that day, I was determined to make an impact whether blocking on Sunday or making tackles."

Poyer had plenty of chances for that, recording 21 tackles and two forced fumbles in special teams coverage and as a backup safety. He played meaningful safety snaps late in the season, finishing the year with 21 tackles and a forced fumble.

His punt return line stayed the same for the final two months -- seven returns for 28 yards -- but he's glad to get his first ugly NFL mistake out of the way.

That doesn't mean he'll laugh off the blooper, though. He knows the play cost his team points.

He still believes he can be a great punt returner, and he's aiming for that chance in Cleveland.

"I've been moved on from it," Poyer said. "I still want the ball in my hands. Waiting for the opportunity when it comes."
The play: Alex Mack breaks his leg against Pittsburgh.

The situation: While blocking for a simple run, Mack’s left leg was caught in a pile. The result: A broken leg that sidelined him for the season.

The reason it mattered: The ripple effect from the injury was stunning. The Browns tried three different centers after Mack, none with any level of success. As a result, the Browns' offense suffered -- for two reasons. First, the Browns lost a Pro Bowl center. Second, the front office was not adequately prepared for the possibility of injury. Two of the centers the Browns used had never played the position before and the other hadn’t played in more than a year. Mack was important because of his unique ability to make line calls and because of his prowess in the run game. The Browns' offense was run dependent, and when Mack was injured the Browns couldn’t run. Mack’s injury was crippling and showed the value of a Pro Bowl center.

What Joe Thomas said: “The two most important positions for stability are your center and your quarterback because those are the two guys that kind of get everyone else organized on the offense.”
CLEVELAND -- Some news on the Browns' assistant coaching front courtesy of ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan:

The Cleveland Browns will hire former University of Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips as their wide receivers coach, a league source confirmed to ESPN. The Browns still need to hire a quarterbacks coach and an offensive quality control coach.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported earlier on Wednesday that the Browns are interviewing former NFL QB Kevin O'Connell for the quarterbacks job. Others confirmed to have interviewed for the quarterbacks job were former Bills QB coach Todd Downing (now Raiders QBs coach) and Glenn Thomas (Falcons QBs coach). A league source told ESPN that former NFL QB Steve Walsh interviewed for a job on the Browns offensive staff.

My thoughts: If the Browns are looking for experience, Phillips has it. Since 1991, Phillips has coached wide receivers at Kentucky (where he also was head coach), Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Florida. This is Phillips' first experience in the NFL but he should adapt just fine.

First thing Phillips should do on the job? Show Browns brass a list of free-agent wideouts, then pick out a few names. The free agency list is loaded -- Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Michael Crabtree, Kenny Britt, Cecil Shorts, Eddie Royal. Some of those names will stay put via the franchise tag or otherwise, but plenty of impact players are worth exploring here.

The Browns' top-three returning receivers -- Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin -- combined for six touchdowns. No one from that group is taller than 5-foot-10.

The impact of Phillips will be felt, one way or another.
Adam Schefter broke the news Wednesday that the Cleveland Browns were interviewing Kevin O’Connell to be the team’s quarterbacks coach.

Because he’d never coached in the NFL, the news sent me to Google to find out more about him.

Hoyer
Manziel
Here’s what I learned:
  • O’Connell came out of San Diego State with good size (6-foot-6) and the ability to run.
  • Prior to the draft he was tutored by a group that included former Browns quarterback Charlie Frye.
  • He was drafted by New England in the third round in 2008.
  • He originally was the third quarterback but moved up to backup when Tom Brady tore a knee ligament in the season opener. Matt Cassel started that season and won 10 games.
  • O’Connell threw six passes and completed four, for 23 yards.
  • The next season, O’Connell was cut after he was beat out for the backup spot by Brian Hoyer, an undrafted rookie.
  • O’Connell bounced around the league but was only on an active roster again with the Jets, where Mike Pettine worked as defensive coordinator. Apparently the two have remained close since.
  • After 2011, O’Connell became a private quarterback tutor.
  • Last offseason, he worked extensively with Johnny Manziel to prepare him for the NFL. O’Connell was invited to George Whitfield’s quarterback camp, where O’Connell spent a lot of time with Manziel.
  • At last year’s NFL draft combine, O’Connell told ESPN's Field Yates that if he were Houston he’d take Manziel with the first pick, though he admitted he was biased because he worked with Manziel.
  • After the draft, O’Connell gave this honest assessment in a podcast with CBSSports.com: “I think the decision personally is this guy can win us games by being a playmaker, and when the throw is there to be made he’s going to make that throw. And if he doesn't, either because he’s not protected or he doesn’t understand the protections, he’s gonna then ... his creativity and natural ability will take over and he’ll move on from there and make a play. With the NFL, what scares people is defenses are just too darn good. And the speed ... you saw it a little bit last year ... sideline to sideline closing on RGIII in his second year vs. the first year. I mean, you have to have a passing concept. You have to have the ability to read the entire field. Evaluate matchups. Understand the weakness of the defense.”
  • O’Connell added that Manziel needed to combine his playmaking ability with the preparation of a Russell Wilson and improve his understanding of NFL defenses if he wanted to succeed. O’Connell stressed Manziel’s success would depend on his work ethic but said Manziel would be “fantastic” if he dedicated himself.
  • During training camp, Pettine had O’Connell spend a few days with the team, both in the meeting rooms and on the field.
  • O’Connell was an analyst on CBS for Mountain West games last season.
ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on five awards for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player), and one will be handed out each day throughout this week. Consider this our version of the NFL Honors show.

For Wednesday, it's the 2014 AFC North Defensive Player of the Year ...

There was no overwhelmingly dominant defensive player in the AFC North in 2014. That’s the result of this voting, as eight players were nominated, the most for any award. No player received more than two first-place votes.

Dumervil
The winner: Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil, who led the division and ranked third in the league with 17 sacks. Dumervil paired with Terrell Suggs (who finished tied for third) to form the best pass-rushing tandem in the division, and perhaps the league. The two combined with 29 sacks.

Dumervil was a smart pickup by Ozzie Newsome after he left Denver following a snafu in faxing him a restructured contract offer in 2013. He had one game this past season with 3.5 sacks, and he set Baltimore’s single-season sack record.

Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden finished second, with Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley and Suggs tying for third.

Haden went to his second consecutive Pro Bowl after a season when he had three interceptions and 20 passes broken up. Haden ranked first in the division and second in the league in passes defensed.

Suggs had his usual excellent season with 61 tackles and 12 sacks. Mosley’s 133 tackles ranked seventh in the league.

Dumervil had two first-place votes, with Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Suggs and Mosley receiving one vote each.

AFC North Defensive Player of the Year: Elvis Dumervil, 10 points; Joe Haden, 5; C.J. Mosley, 4; Terrell Suggs, 4; Lawrence Timmons, 3; Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland, 2; Vincent Rey, Cincinnati, 1; George Iloka, Cincinnati, 1.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
The image of the Cleveland Browns offense in 2014 was one of a running team that threw the ball off the run.

The numbers paint a different picture, though.

The Browns were better than the league average in only two major offensive categories, and both were passing categories: Yards per pass attempt and yards per reception.

It’s nice to lead the league in yards per reception, but the more important number is yards per attempt. Most football types feel that is the key figure in showing the passing game’s effectiveness.

The Browns as a team average 7.33 yards per attempt; the league average was 7.21. Cleveland ranked 13th in the league. Brian Hoyer averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, Johnny Manziel 5.0 and Connor Shaw 6.3.

The Browns actually led the league in yards per reception, as the team’s average of 13.4 was well ahead of second-place Green Bay at 12.7.

What this means is up to interpretation, but it would seem to indicate two things: 1) the passing offense was not a season-long problem, and 2) Kyle Shanahan’s offense was well designed to produce big plays.

The problem with the passing offense was that it didn’t produce enough touchdowns. The Browns' 12 passing TDs ranked last in the league. That was offset by 13 rushing TDs, which ranked third. So clearly the passing game put the running game in position to score. As you would guess, the number of total touchdowns is the most important stat, and the Browns' total of 27 ranked 26th in the league.

That’s not enough scoring, and the lack of success on third down probably contributed to that problem. The Browns converted a league-worst 29.5 percent, well below the league average of 39.9.

As for the running game, it struggled over the course of the season.

The Browns average of 3.62 yards per attempt ranked 28th and was more than a half-yard below the league average.

That low per carry figure and the high number of carries (477, sixth in the league) led to an extremely poor ranking in overall yards per play. The Browns were at 5.14, well below the league average of 7.21.

The Browns ranked 19th in the league in overall plays, and 23rd in yards at 5,190 (the league average was 5,570).

Bottom line: The Browns offense was not good enough, and the main issues were third down conversions, scoring touchdowns and running the ball.

The passing game was not a season-long concern.
The play: Brian Hoyer finds Travis Benjamin for a 6-yard touchdown to complete the greatest road comeback in NFL history.

The situation: The Browns were down 28-3 in the first half in Tennessee but somehow managed to score the game’s final 26 points.

The reason it mattered: The win confirmed coach Mike Pettine’s belief in Hoyer and in his team, and reaffirmed the character shown in the season opener in Pittsburgh. The result was an uplifting win that led to a locker-room scene to remember as Joe Thomas and Hoyer danced like little kids with teammates. That it only made the Browns 2-2 didn’t seem to matter. Things were headed in the right direction -- at least at that point they were.

What Benjamin said about Thomas and Hoyer's dancing ability: “They have pretty groovy moves -- back in the ’80s, ’90s moves."

Colts, Duron Carter near deal

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
6:11
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Wide receiver Duron Carter is closing in on an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Carter, the son of Hall of Famer and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter, played for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League last season.

It has been reported that Carter wasn't eligible to sign with an NFL team until Feb. 10, but the Indianapolis Star reported that the receiver has an agreement with the Alouettes that he will be released from his contract immediately if he signs an NFL contract.

The 6-foot-5 receiver was very productive in the CFL last season with 75 catches for 1,030 yards and seven touchdowns.

Besides the Colts, Carter, 23, has drawn interest from the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns

Carter might have had a more traditional path to the NFL if not for academic issues at Ohio State and Alabama. He went undrafted in 2013.

Information from ESPN.com's Pat McManamon and Ben Goessling is included in this report.


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CLEVELAND -- On the last week of the season, Browns players were getting ready for Christmas as reporters roamed the locker room. Small-chatting with Josh Gordon by his locker sparked an answer that's curious now, given the recent news of his impending one-year suspension for violating his third NFL-mandated drug or alcohol test.

"I just want to play a full 16-game season," said Gordon, unprompted, right before putting his backpack over his multi-colored hoodie and walking out. "I've never done that in my career."

Then he was gone -- likely for good, it turns out.

Gordon
Gordon
Gordon's words could never validate his actions. A few days later, the team suspended Gordon for missing team activities. Nearly a month after that, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Gordon failed another NFL test and would miss the year as a repeat offender.

That locker-room exchange with Gordon reminded of what's been told from others about him -- his good intentions are overmatched by his influences and his demons. His track record suggests it's been that way for quite some time.

When Gordon returned to the Browns on the week of Nov. 17 after serving a 10-game suspension, he seemed humble and hungry. Gordon told the media he was "very ready." He planned to build on his 1,600-plus-yard pace from the year before. Performing well would pay back the people he felt he owed.

"My family members, friends, people that felt more embarrassed about it," Gordon said. "The people closest to me feel it harder than anybody and I feel as though I owe them as well as the Browns, but I'd like to do that by performing well."

For some reason, following through on those promises has been painfully difficult for Gordon, who seemed soft-spoken and well-liked in the locker room. His problems stretch far beyond football. Something seemed to change with Gordon in those final weeks. Media members recalled how cooperative Gordon was in 2013. Those last few weeks, he seemed distant on and off the field. Something wasn't right.

Though Brian Hoyer cautioned not to make Gordon "the savior" upon his return. Players were legitimately excited when he came back. That's what makes this sequence so odd. Support from the Browns was there. "You put him on any (of the) 32 rosters, it's a significant upgrade," receiver Andrew Hawkins said back in November. "I can't wait to have him back."

Twenty-four catches, zero touchdowns, multiple missed team meetings and another suspension later, the Browns have little choice but to replace excitement with a wave goodbye. The Browns have done all they can. Gordon is not a salary cap hit in 2015, so the Browns could wait a year and see if he holds value on the open market for 2016, which is technically a contract year.

Most people in the organization probably care less about his contract and more about him getting better, which only happens with the right support system around him. Whether Gordon really has that is difficult to tell.

It's not too late for Gordon to get right. Fulfilling that goal of playing a full NFL season has never seemed less attainable.
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Browns CB Joe Haden, a two-time Pro Bowler, joins "SportsCenter" to talk about the importance of being involved with the Special Olympics and shares his thoughts about being named its global ambassador.

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