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Josh Gordon fallout: Cleveland Browns failed to properly prepare

This was two weeks ago and already the Cleveland Browns were frustrated.

Training camp had reached the dog days, a quarterback competition was in full, not-terribly-reassuring swing and still the Browns were waiting on Josh Gordon.

They knew then that, in all likelihood, their All-Pro receiver, who had already been in the league's substance-abuse program prior to this latest indiscretion, would be suspended a year. The entire process following a failed test, including what can be an attenuated appeals process that may include a discovery process and interviewing of witnesses, is supposed to be kept private until the resolution is final. So, if the system had operated the way it was supposed to, nobody outside of the Browns and Gordon would have known until now that Gordon was lost.

The Browns have known since Gordon failed the test that triggered the suspension and ensuing appeal that it would take an extraordinary series of events for them to have the gifted 23-year-old for any portion of the 2014 season. On Wednesday, the bad news was made final.

Harold Henderson, the league's appeals officer, upheld the one-year suspension mandated by the collective bargaining agreement, apparently convinced that Gordon did not deserve the benefit of the doubt after repeated run-ins with the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Henderson did allow Gordon a small concession: The 2013 breakout superstar will miss the entire 2014 season, but could be eligible for reinstatement during the 2015 offseason -- meaning Gordon could return before a full calendar year expires and could be back in time for training camp.

Maybe that was a small olive branch offered so that Gordon will not pursue legal action over the decision. Whatever it was, the Browns' frustrating wait for finality is over. Now their offensive catastrophe can begin.

Quibble all you want with a collectively bargained policy that mandates such a lengthy suspension for using a substance that is now legal in some states. Raise an eyebrow at the reported barely-over-the-line number that triggered the positive test. Blame, as Gordon did, Henderson for not using what Gordon called "discretion" in deciding his case.

But if you're a Cleveland Browns fan today, your questions now should be directed not at the people who crafted the drug policy or even at Gordon himself. They should be, instead, pointed at a franchise brain trust that often seemed to approach much of the Gordon episode with a wing-and-a-prayer belief that somehow it would all work out if everyone just wished hard enough.

Rookie head coach Mike Pettine has barely let his irritation with the long process leak out, but with 10 days until the season kicks off in Pittsburgh, he is presented with a monumental problem: His best player is gone, the team has made few moves to prepare for life without him and the two quarterbacks he will lean on need all the help they can get.

"He's arguably the best wide receiver in the league," one Browns official said a few weeks ago about the potential of life without Gordon. "You don't replace that guy. This is not 'next man up.' "

True, but especially because there is practically no man to be up next. The news first broke that Gordon had failed another test just before the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft began in May. And yet, the Browns did not dive into a deep pool of college receivers for help. Twelve wideouts were selected in the first two rounds -- the most in almost 50 years, indicative of the quality attached to this class -- but none went to Cleveland.

Instead, Miles Austin was signed -- one month after the addition of another 30-something wideout, Nate Burleson -- and the Browns have approached the summer with the idea that one of their unknown receivers would emerge. General manager Ray Farmer has made the point that nobody knew Austin until he had a breakthrough, and that is fair. But there has been no indication so far that anyone from the cast of underwhelming receivers -- or even Austin himself -- has developed the requisite chemistry with Brian Hoyer to help ease the loss of Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards last season while playing just 14 games and accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Browns' passing yards. Burleson has spent the entire summer grappling with injuries that have kept him off the field.

The plan, then, according to the aforementioned Browns official, is to deploy different personnel packages, with more tight ends and fewer wide receivers. The Browns believe new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme can thrive like that. Cleveland does have a dangerous tight end in Jordan Cameron, who finished second only to Jimmy Graham last season in receiving yards at the position. Cameron, though, undoubtedly benefited from the attention defenses had to pay to Gordon, who went on a mind-bending four-game blitz in which he caught 36 passes for 774 yards and five touchdowns. With Gordon gone, defenses will switch their attention to Cameron as Hoyer's most reliable target.

Which raises another question. If the Browns were smart enough to recognize they would have to deploy so many others to try to fill the hole left by Gordon, why did they use up so much valuable practice and preseason time letting Gordon play, instead of getting the others ready? Gordon was on the field for 47 percent of the Browns' snaps in the second preseason game against the Washington Redskins, especially odd considering that it was clear from his lack of effort and dropped passes that his mind was elsewhere.

The Browns have one more preseason game -- Thursday's contest against the Chicago Bears -- and one more week to get everyone ready for life without Gordon. To be fair, there wasn't much chance that the Browns -- or anybody else -- could unearth a receiver who would immediately be Gordon's equal. He is a special talent, which is why his loss is so devastating, especially for a team in the throes of an offensive transition.

Pettine sprang from the Rex Ryan school of coaching and so he embraces the idea that you can win in the NFL with a stout defense, a very good offensive line, a powerful running game and a quarterback who can make efficient passes and generally won't mess things up. The Browns have to hope he is right and that they have all those pieces in place.

The quarterback controversy between Hoyer and Johnny Manziel will thread its way through the season, but Gordon's absence will undermine the prospects for success of whoever is in there. So far this preseason, with Hoyer and Manziel under center, the offense has accounted for just three touchdowns and four field goals in three games. Now, the team's best playmaker is removed.

"There is no magical thing to do," the Browns official lamented about trying to replace Gordon.

He might just as well have been talking about trying to replace hope for the Browns' season.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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