Jason Miller/Getty Images
Do you remember Odell Beckham Jr.?
Of course you do. He’s a member of the Browns Melodramatic Theater Troupe, the guy with the $2 million watch, the non-regulation cleats, the nagging injuries and the frequent murmurings of discontent.
No, no. Not that Odell Beckham Jr. Do you remember the original Odell Beckham Jr.?
The guy who made the catch of the decade? The receiver who caught 35 touchdown passes in his first three seasons? The NFL‘s most breathtaking talent and compelling new star from 2014 through 2016? The player who flew past deep safeties and leapt over double coverage for big plays?
It’s getting harder and harder to remember those things, though. We’re at the point where we must consider, unfortunately, that the guy we have been watching for the last three years is the “real” Beckham now.
He’s no longer one of the NFL’s biggest difference-makers. And he has not been for some time.
Beckham has been playing through a sports hernia this season, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. It has robbed him of a little bit of speed and a significant amount of practice time. There’s no questioning his toughness and dedication, though those are two of the first things that his many detractors are sure to question as this Browns season comes to a merciful close.
But injuries are a recurring problem for Beckham: a quad injury last year, multiple ankle injuries in 2017 and so forth. He’s always playing through them, working his way back from them, missing practice with them and returning from one of them just in time to suffer another.
If Beckham were still a game-breaking, defense-threatening superweapon when healthy, he would be worth waiting through injuries for. But he’s not.
Beckham is averaging just 4.5 catches on 8.3 targets for 64.9 yards per game this season. And while those numbers are all career lows, they’re also not aberrations. After averaging 6.9 on 10.7 for 102.0 in his first two seasons, he’s averaging just 5.8 on 9.8 for 79.2 over the past four.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Those are still fine numbers, but they are not Michael Thomas-Julio Jones-DeAndre Hopkins numbers, and those receivers can be relied upon to stay reasonably healthy for 16 games. Beckham has just 11 touchdowns over the past three years, just as many as Demaryius Thomas, Mohamed Sanu, Emmanuel Sanders and Michael Crabtree—useful bounce-around veterans, not All Pros.
If Beckham were an oft-injured second-tier deep threat who came with no extra baggage, it would be easier to cope with the reduced production and enjoy the sporadic highlights. But he comes with so much baggage he has to tip the bellhop 50 bucks.
There are two schools of thought when discussing Beckham’s long, colorful relationship with sideline equipment, stadium tunnel walls, watercraft, designer watches, Instagram intimacy, non-regulation footwear, Lil Wayne and his sometimes-exasperated employers.
One approach is to rip Beckham as an immature ninny who represents everything that’s wrong with America. The other approach is to pretend that there’s nothing unprofessional or counterproductive at all about Beckham’s knack for generating endless unnecessary controversy, so just learn to deal with it, Boomer. Wisdom, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
Beckham is really not the guy your father-in-law who changes the channel during end-zone celebrations thinks he is. But he’s a lightning rod for the kind of pointless distraction that gives most coaches migraines. As Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson noted in his Monday column, sources close to Beckham believe the receiver has been “lost” and that “fame got to him.” Beckham reportedly wants to redeem himself, but that’s hard to do while playing through injury on a traveling circus of a team.
Per Robinson, Beckham is also uncomfortable with his role in the Browns offense, such as it is.
The Browns haven’t done a very good job of getting Beckham the ball when it matters. He has been nearly invisible on third downs (11 catches on 28 targets for just seven first downs) and in the red zone (one catch on an inexcusable seven targets). But Beckham hasn’t done much to justify lots of extra attention and targets, either. He has dropped eight passes, per Football Outsiders. More alarmingly, he’s been ineffective on the sort of acrobatic catches that made him special. Touchdown catches get swatted from his hands. His second foot doesn’t quite come down in bounds on sideline bombs. He makes three or four jukes after the obligatory quick screen to “get him involved” early in the game but only gains minimal yards.
Perhaps the injury is holding him back. But that brings us full circle: Beckham is banged up, but he needs lots of targets to be happy, but he can’t quite do what he used to do (or what a Hopkins or Thomas routinely do) with those targets.
It’s been this way for Beckham through five head coaches and three general managers for two organizations and two different quarterbacks. Beckham is the only common variable in Beckham’s frustrating past three years.
Ron Schwane/Associated Press
So it’s time to adjust our expectations down for Beckham. He’s not Julio, Nuk or Thomas. He’s more like DeSean Jackson, Brandin Cooks or Marvin Jones Jr.: a deep threat for hire to turbocharge your offense when healthy. He’ll still smoke an overmatched cornerback for 60 yards now and then. He still demands double coverage and forces safeties to play deep. And yes, he can help a team win. But his name doesn’t belong above the marquee anymore, and he’s no longer suited to be the focal point of an offense.
The problem, of course, is that Beckham is paid like the focal point of an offense—to help an aging quarterback like Eli Manning or a second-year quarterback like Baker Mayfield improve, not regress, or at least to put up huge numbers in spite of them, as those other elite wide receivers do—and that situational/complementary guys aren’t worth all the drama.
The Browns and Beckham aren’t good for each other right now. Beckham is surrounded by a coach, quarterback and others who douse every little flare-up with accelerants. The team has a bad case of both sticker shock and unfulfilled expectations. Both sides are downplaying their mutual disappointment, just as the Giants did with Beckham until the moment they traded him. Everyone is likely to be looking for a solution that saves face in the offseason.
Beckham doesn’t fit in Cleveland. He didn’t fit in New York. He probably fits just fine someplace where the locker room is strong, the coaching staff is player-friendly and the offense is built for speed.
The next team to land Beckham just needs to know what it is getting: a good receiver but not a spectacular one; a dangerous weapon but not the ultimate weapon.
The original Beckham is just a fading memory. Everyone must learn to be satisfied with the Beckham we have now. And that includes the man himself.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.