By Jason Keidel
Before we proceed, we must agree on two items:
1) Odell Beckham Jr. is an absurdly gifted football player, whose eye-defying catches are rare, even by the NFL’s high standards.
2) His behavior over the last few weeks is not only odd, but also personally and professionally destructive.
This all began last November, when Beckham and the New York Giants played the Carolina Panthers, at MetLife Stadium. And he hasn’t been the same since he morphed into Mike Tyson against then-Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
If Norman, the loquacious cornerback who migrated to the Redskins, isn’t yet in Beckham’s head, then he at least sketched a roadmap directly to Beckham’s rawest nerve. Norman not only knocked Beckham off his game, he still lingers like an apparition over Beckham’s soul. If you aren’t convinced, consider the all-world wideout’s production since their epic battle at the Meadowlands.
Up to that point, the electric, eccentric receiver was rewriting the record books at his position for the first two years of his career, in catches, yards and touchdowns. Yet in his subsequent six games — including the Panthers game — Beckham has averaged just 5.5 receptions per game for 72.16 yards. He has caught one touchdown… total.
Beckham had eight months to flush his dwindling game down the vocational toilet in preparation for the new season. But he has a mere 22 catches for 303 yards and zero touchdowns in first four games of the 2016 season.
Not only that, his meltdowns are no longer restricted to Norman or the field of play. He’s now getting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, looking for more players to blast after the whistle, and becoming a tearful mess on the sidelines, while the defense is on the field. His face may replace Michael Jordan’s as the crying meme du jour.
We all saw him lose that battle with the FG kicker’s practice net, which boomeranged back and hit him in the face after he slammed it with his helmet.
More and more he finds himself being pulled aside for ad hoc counseling and mentoring sessions, including a solemn chat with his QB, Eli Manning, who is as close to the anti-Beckham as one can get. Beckham nodded solemnly while receiving sage advice from Eli, a two-time Super Bowl MVP and the youngest member of America’s first football family.
Reports suggest that Beckham, who has clearly crossed over from competitive to destructive, refuses to stretch across a sports psychologist’s couch. That’s not good. Not only is Beckham not addressing his problem, he’s not admitting he has one.
Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall has admonished the Giants to refrain from adjudicating the Beckham matter in the media. Marshall urges the Giants to help him, not lecture him.
No doubt this issue hits Marshall close to home. You may recall that he once was like Beckham — an obscenely gifted wide receiver whose moody and impulsive ways threatened his All-Pro career.
Marshall was way too talented to pinball around the NFL map. Despite catching 21 passes in one game — landing him the nickname “Blackjack” — Marshall hopped across the football nation, starting at Denver, then Miami, then Chicago. He eventually found the source of his disturbance (bipolar disorder) and became the de facto spokesman for the opaque and sensitive world of mental illness.
In the testosterone-drenched world of pro football, men refuse to concede injuries, much less mental disturbances. But it doesn’t take Dr. Freud to see that something well beyond the gridiron is bothering Beckham.
Ray Lewis said he recently reached out to Beckham, texting him all night one night this week. That’s a nice start. It must be comforting to know that Lewis — as tough, talented and respected as any player of this generation — can see through the fog of rumor, rancor and ignorance surrounding emotional problems and go directly to the source.
This is about more than a pampered athlete prone to temper tantrums. It could be a matter of mental illness. And if it is, then Beckham needs to forgo his epic pride and performance and allow a professional to break down his internal problems, much like a coordinator would break down his game film.
Some see this week’s opponent, the Green Bay Packers, sans Sam Shields, as the perfect tonic for Beckham to get back on track. But he may need more than a soft secondary. Perhaps it will take a soft psychiatrist’s couch, not a film projector, to fix his game.
We’ve all had fun watching his histrionics on eternal loop. But if Odell Beckham Jr is truly troubled, then there’s nothing funny about watching a man melt down before us every autumn Sunday.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.