Browns WRs up to task without Josh Gordon

BEREA, Ohio -- It’s impossible to understate how much the Cleveland Browns receivers have contributed and how important they have been as the team moved into first place in the AFC North.

When the season started, the conventional wisdom about the group was that the team would suffer tremendously without Josh Gordon, who is slated to return from suspension on Monday. The conventional wisdom was that the group, as constituted, would hold back the offense.

Yes, I was among the skeptics who now must admit to simply being wrong. And proven wrong.

Prior to the season, GM Ray Farmer simply said of the group: Talent is talent.

Some numbers about the Browns passing game show just how well the group has played:

The Browns lead the league with 13.7 yards per catch, almost a full yard (nine-tenths) ahead of second-place Washington.

As a team the Browns are averaging 8.0 yards per attempt, sixth in the league.

The Browns have 36 plays of 20 yards or more in the passing game, sixth in the league, and are tied for seventh in the league with seven plays of 40 yards or more (numbers that should also speak to Brian Hoyer’s arm strength).

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Hoyer has thrown 74 passes that have traveled 15 yards, which ties for sixth in the league.

His completion percentage on those throws -- 55.4 -- is the best in the league. Hoyer gets the credit for throwing them, the receivers for catching them.

How did it all happen? First came belief, then trust. The team believed in the players it had, and the coaching staff and quarterback showed trust in them. The players lived up to the trust.

Miles Austin talked earlier this season about a big catch by simply saying it’s a catch an NFL receiver has to make. He then said the group’s approach is to do the best it can on every play, even though sometimes it might not work out. Austin’s approach has rubbed off; he does his job, takes care of himself and comes through when asked.

Andrew Hawkins was signed to be a third/slot receiver, but was surprisingly moved into the starting lineup in place of Gordon. He has played far more than anyone thought he would, and leads the team in receptions (39) and yards (504).

Taylor Gabriel was a minicamp invitee and earned a roster spot at training camp, where he earned a spot on the team. He now ranks third in the league and first among rookies averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Gabriel has been invaluable as the third wideout, with 24 catches, three longer than 40 and the game-winning touchdown against Tampa Bay.

Travis Benjamin was thought of as a returner when the season began, but his receiving skills have vastly improved. Among Benjamin’s catches are three crucial fourth-quarter touchdowns, two against Tennessee and one in the opener against Pittsburgh.

In no way did these parts seem to add up to the production the Browns have received.

The limited expectations were fueled by the group’s limited experience, both in the league and in the system, and no doubt increased by the negativity of six double-digit loss seasons in a row.

But Pettine showed faith in the players, and Hoyer showed more by shrugging off who was playing and simply throwing them the ball.

At this point of a surprising season, the receivers could be the biggest surprise on the team -- to everyone but themselves.