CLEVELAND — Browns coach Hue Jackson was all smiles this week as he answered questions about wide receiver Josh Gordon, who took another step toward ultimately playing in his first regular-season game in almost three years.
Gordon, who was reinstated on a conditional basis earlier this month after multiple suspensions for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, returned to practice Wednesday and is on track to play against the Chargers in Los Angeles next week.
That had Jackson, who has been looking for a spark to jolt the winless Browns, beaming as a young team hopes to salvage a disappointing season. And Gordon, who led the league in receiving in 2013 and became one of its most electric players, looked as if he hadn't missed a beat.
"You can just see there's a different spirit at practice," Jackson said. "Josh is just a different talent. I think we all recognized that and appreciate that. I think his teammates see it … There are a lot of things he has to continue to do and work through, and I think he's willing to do that."
It wasn't always this way.
When Gordon, who was conditionally reinstated in July 2016 before a setback led him to enter aninpatient rehabilitation center, Jackson said he'd had enough of the talented but embattled player.
"I was (done with him). I want you to know that," he said. "I was in the fact that for the football team a year ago, I thought it was important to really establish a culture here that was right and strong. If somebody was not going to be here, then I need to move on beyond that and we did. I was [done] based on what the situation was at that time."
In between then and now, Jackson said he challenged himself to learn more about Gordon, who has had a long and public struggle with addiction. "Let's be honest," he said, "what this man has dealt with is a disease. It happens and it affects a lot of people in the world. I had to first educate myself and what he was going through and what he was dealing with."
"I haven't had a lot of exposure to him other than what I knew. Then once I understood it better and watched him earn the right to be back in this building – again, I was able to monitor, wasn't able to talk to him but was able to monitor what he was doing and understood what he was going through; I felt more comfortable of understanding what was going on," Jackson continued.
"If this was just another one of those fly by situations where he was going to be in and then back out again, I wouldn't want any part of that. I don't think that's fair to the team, I don't think it's fair to the staff; and I don't think it's fair to the fans. I really don't because he is a very talented player."
Jackson believes Gordon, who has spoken of being the best version of himself on and off the field, has turned a corner.
"I truly believe this young man is working at it. He still has to earn that from his teammates, from the coaches, from the fans and from (media)," he said. "That's what I think he understands now. He's in a lot better place now and a lot better place to have people assist him through this process."
Beyond football, that offered Jackson a reason to smile.
"I think he's in a really good place just as a person, first and foremost, and then in good shape [physically]," he said. "I think he's eager to continue to learn and to get better. He has done everything that we've asked him to do."