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Josh Gordon relief experiment not perfect but promises big payoff for Browns

ATLANTA -- Everything you need to know about Josh Gordon’s return from suspension and the Cleveland Browns' plans for him, you can find in a screen pass.

Late in the first quarter, Gordon gained 22 yards on a well-contested screen play that had no business gaining even half of those yards. Brian Hoyer shoots the ball to the left, then Gordon begins to twitch, contort and smash his way through at least three Falcons defenders to set up an Isaiah Crowell touchdown in the first quarter.

It's why Cleveland fights for Gordon after all his troubles; the Browns believe in him, sure. Good kid making bad decisions? Very possibly. But they also know what he can do on that screen pass. He turns bleak options into fruitful ones. That’s why he was here in Atlanta, playing 41 of the Browns’ first 63 offensive snaps despite the team's best efforts during the week to quell expectations on Gordon after he missed 10 games.

Gordon wants to fight for Cleveland, like he fights for those yards on the screen, like Cleveland believes he’s worth fighting for.

“I knew the guys weren't going to quit on me," said Gordon, minutes after his eight-catch performance for 120 yards. "I definitely wasn't going to quit on them."

And the Browns didn’t quit throwing in the direction of Gordon, who was targeted 17 times, equaling 42.5 percent of Hoyer's passing attempts.

That number is a bit startling, even for an elite receiver, since Gordon and Hoyer obviously haven’t found their rhythm yet.

The day was not without its issues. Gordon felt he got pushed in the back by Falcons corner Desmond Trufant on Hoyer’s throw to the back of the end zone with 4:59 left that Trufant picked off. On Hoyer’s third interception of the day, he threw Gordon a go route when Gordon cut toward the sideline. A few more weeks together and they can clean those up.

The Browns’ identity is still running with Crowell and Terrance West -- see Crowell’s shifty second touchdown and you’ll understand -- so the Browns' decision to throw on five of seven downs midway through the fourth, when they were gaining nearly six yards per carry, was curious.

Hoyer is at his best when he’s not asked to throw 40 times. Twenty-five to 28 times is more like it.

That’s why getting this win, and letting the storyline of Gordon’s return dissipate, releases tension the offense might have put on itself to get Gordon the ball. Hoyer never said there was pressure, but you could sense he wanted to let Gordon naturally ease into the offense, which was already working for the team before he arrived, even if it was clear Cleveland needed a game-breaking receiver.

Gordon said it’s “a matter of time” before he regains the form that earned him 1,646 yards in 14 games last year. The athleticism certainly hasn’t left him. That was obvious Sunday.

Gordon’s biggest impact will be how he elevates this offense, regardless of where the ball goes, and how he forces defenses to play. He’ll get his numbers and targets.

“He opened a lot of stuff in the run game by going deep on some passes,” said Crowell, who finished with a team-leading 88 yards. “He really helped me a lot.”

The Browns must find ways to feed Gordon the ball while not compromising what got them this far, a calculated offense that will run the ball 50 times if you dare it to.

Gordon made a point after the game to highlight how far the organization has come. The Browns just avoided a double-digit-loss season for the first time since 2007. The door for general managers and head coaches is not revolving at the moment.

After Billy Cundiff's 37-yarder burst through the uprights, Gordon was seen beating his chest continuously. The Gordon experiment in Cleveland might take time to refine, but his pulse can be found on every play.

“It means the world to me to be back -- not just to be back but to be back with this team,” Gordon said. “I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity I get.”