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Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon, in many ways, is in a fight for his life.
This is not an overstatement. Any player who has failed at least three drug tests and battles constant mental health issues (like millions of Americans) is in a hardened battle. That needs to be acknowledged and respected.
His announcement on Thursday that he is stepping away from football again to attend to his mental health, combined with the fact he allegedly violated the terms of his reinstatement, according to the NFL Network, under the substance abuse policy, is far from a surprise. But if you have a beating heart, it is also sad.
League sources tell me they believe Gordon will likely be suspended for at least a year. They also don’t think he will ever play in the NFL again.
“He has burned every possible bridge,” one league source told me.
The human part of this story—the most important part—is undeniably a tough one to assess and a much tougher one for Gordon to deal with as his career and life move forward. The football side only comes later, but, unimportant as it may be when it comes to a person’s well-being, it does come.
As the picture of the Patriots’ season moves forward without Gordon, though, it’s clear that, maybe for the first time during this staggeringly impressive dynastic run, New England enters the postseason as a floundering team. This is one of the few times they aren’t a dire threat to the rest of the league.
Read those words again, because they rarely have been written before. The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Patriots have been to eight Super Bowls and won five. They’ve only missed the playoffs twice in 18 seasons together. Never have they entered a postseason this injured, slow or unintimidating.
It must be said that the Patriots have been counted out before, and it’s always dangerous to underestimate them. Belichick is the best coach of all time, and Brady the best quarterback. Not showing them respect or deference would be foolish.
Yet these Pats face obstacles they have not faced before, and that goes beyond losing Gordon.
For one, age is starting to catch the Patriots in ways opponents never could. Brady is 41 and Belichick is 66. They are obviously remarkable talents, and there are trillions of men have Brady’s age who want to be him.
The problem is the rest of the AFC has gotten younger, hungrier and more talented, and New England will face many of those up-and-coming teams in the playoffs. There’s Kansas City‘s Patrick Mahomes, a number of young receiving stars in Pittsburgh, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney in Houston. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is healthy again. The Chargers have seven Pro Bowlers this year.
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Throughout the length of their dynasty, the Patriots usually have been forced to duel with a limited but known set of foes in the Peyton Manning Colts, the Steelers and sometimes the Ravens. Now, they are surrounded by a number of great talents on many different teams.
It’s one reason why the Patriots took the risk of trading for Gordon in the first place. He was going to add explosiveness to the offense (in the regular season and the playoffs) the way Tyreek Hill did in Kansas City.
Beyond the Pats’ graying hair, there’s a case to be made that they simply aren’t that good.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a shell of himself, receiver Julian Edelman has been solid but not great, and the defense ranks a pretty un-scary 23rd overall.
Given their pedigree, New England could always transform into something better. After all, this is what they do. They shift and adapt. They surprise. They shock. You don’t win five Super Bowls not doing these things.
Yet the looming Gordon suspension, the drop-off in play from the team’s stars and the playoff fight that lies ahead scream that this isn’t the well-oiled machine to which we’ve grown accustomed.
These aren’t the dominant Patriots. These are the Patriots near the end of a dynasty.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.