The NFL has often been called the grown man’s league. Good players ― great ones, even ― see their will tested every Sunday. Mental toughness is often more important than physical ability. And in the case of Odell Beckham Jr., we are finding out exactly why.
In Beckham’s first two professional seasons with the New York Giants, it all came too easily. He burst onto the scene with that gravity-defying catch against archrival Dallas on “Sunday Night Football,” and went on to become a weekly one-man highlight reel for an otherwise hapless Giants team.
In just 12 games as a rookie, the first-round pick from LSU amassed over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns while earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Then, last season, Beckham’s numbers improved across the board and he was recognized as a second-team All-Pro. In fact, no receiver in league history ― not even the spectacular Jerry Rice ― totaled more receiving yards through his first two seasons. Just last year, Beckham had 1,450 yards, while the rest of the Giant receivers had 1,405 combined.
Naturally, 2016 was supposed to be yet another one for the record books for Beckham, with the Giants drafting Sterling Shepard to help No. 13 shoulder the load.
At the quarter pole of the 2016 season, however, the 2-2 Giants have looked mostly anemic offensively, and Beckham has had a measly 22 catches for 303 yards and zero touchdowns ― the worst four-game stretch of his young career. He hasn’t found the end zone since Dec. 20, 2015. That’s five straight games played for Beckham without a touchdown, the longest streak of his career. In fact, prior to this stretch he had gone two games without a touchdown only once.
But arguably more concerning is his behavior on the field and the sidelines. Long praised for his fiery personality, the mercurial Beckham has become a distraction.
During a 24-10 Monday night loss to the Vikings ― a game in which he had a career-low 23 yards receiving ― he once again let his emotions get the best of him. Going back and forth with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Beckham was hit with yet another unsportsmanlike penalty, an all too familiar pattern.
“Nobody on another team bothers, upsets me,” he told reporters after the game.
Of course, when we watch Beckham play, that hardly seems to be the case. Perhaps it all started during last year’s on-field debacle with then-Carolina Panthers All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. Beckham was suspended for one game (thus ending the Giants’ playoff hopes) and the controversy spilled over into the offseason.
“He has got to be aware,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “They’re looking for him, and he has got to play smart. We can’t afford to do anything. They’re going to call him, and he brought that on himself.”
The hardest part when evaluating the 23-year-old Beckham is that he’s just so damn talented and passionate. You throw in his admirable work ethic, and there is no question that he can ― that he should ― go down as one of the all-time greats.
While we can certainly make the argument that referees aren’t treating him fairly, we must also note that he isn’t exactly giving them a choice, either.
There is a fine line between passion and overzealousness and Beckham has been toeing it all year. He talked incessantly about how “it is what it is” following Monday’s game. The harsh reality, though, is that “it is what it is” only because of Beckham’s petulant actions.
“I just have to understand if I sneeze the wrong way, it’ll be a flag, it’ll be a fine,” Beckham said. “If I tie my shoe the wrong way, it might be a fine or a flag.”
At their core, these statements sound like denial and stupidity from a player widely recognized as a thoughtful and brilliant young man. Surely, Monday night will not be the last time players attempt to throw Beckham off by baiting him and trying to get him thinking about anything but football. And surely the referees will keep an eye out for any little misstep he might make.
Beckham needs to understand that he’s too talented and too valuable to continually fall into this trap: Causing brawls, as he did against the Rams in 2014. Fighting kicking nets, as he did last week. Getting suspended with the season hanging in the balance.
Go back and look at the recent history of the truly great wide receivers in this league. Plenty of them were known hotheads with questionable on-field antics ― think Randy Moss, Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens ― and yet for the most part they were able to put aside the emotional outbursts and play great football.
It’s time for Beckham to take accountability and turn this thing around before it spirals completely out of control.
Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpo