Odell Beckham Jr. is presumably still on the verge of being benched for bad behavior, but until the Giants decide they can’t deal with Beckham’s temper, they’ll continue to enjoy his breathtaking moments and hijinks. Against the Ravens on Sunday, he had a career high 222 yards receiving, 211 of which came in the second half. Two plays accounted for 141 yards and both touchdowns, and Beckham celebrated by consummating his relationship with the kicking net he once fought out of frustration.
This is one of the NFL’s biggest superstars: Mercurial, funny, and a little broken. Beckham had been criticized this season for putting up inconsistent numbers and poorly disguising his emotions, but no one doubted he was capable of what he did against the Ravens. Beckham will be one of the faces of the league for as long as he can play.
Beckham is one of the best things about the NFL right now. The league is getting lower ratings this season for reasons no one has quite pinpointed, but it probably doesn’t help that the product hasn’t been very good. The primetime games have been bad, and aren’t getting much better — don’t tell me you’re looking forward to Jets-Cardinals.
Perhaps more importantly, the league’s tried-and-true superstars are gone or struggling. Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch, and Calvin Johnson have left us. Tom Brady was suspended four games and is entering twilight alongside Drew Brees. Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt are hurt. Aaron Rodgers is on the fritz.
None of those players have ever had much trouble containing their feelings, or (Lynch being an exception) ever revealed a personality that wasn’t also tailor-fit for the role of Football Player. They have conducted themselves more or less how we’ve come to expect well-primed professional athletes to conduct themselves — always crediting the opposition, lamenting their failures to execute, and mostly saying as much nothing as they humanly can.
That’s not Beckham, nor is it many of the players among the new generation of stars. Cam Newton needs no introduction, nor does his longtime battle against public perception. Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown are two of the best offensive weapons in football, and both play and live with exuberance like very large children. LeSean McCoy ran all over Chip Kelly’s 49ers, and barely veiled how happy he was to throttle the coach he accused of racism last year.
It isn’t better or worse that so many high profile players are making their hearts so available. It almost seems partially like chance.
Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have two of the most polished outward faces of any quarterbacks of recent memory, and ostensibly have superstar talent, but the Colts’ struggles have seeped into Luck’s reputation, and Wilson is so on-brand he has become off-putting. Neither have been awe-inspiring so often that they are must-watch engagements.
This is the season of black sheep. The Vikings look a full margin better than Packers in the NFC North, and not at all in spite of Sam Bradford. Seven years and two teams after he was selected No. 1 overall, Bradford looks like one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.
This is the year that the Raiders might win the AFC West, that the Cowboys might bench Tony Romo for a fourth round rookie, and the Falcons are on pace to allow the second-most points of any playoff team in NFL history.
This is the season that the NFL made the Patriots seem almost like an underdog, and that may be proof enough that something is different this season.
Manning retired in March, and seemingly closed an era when football players could manage their images entirely through press conferences and interviews. He played college football at a time when the Internet was young and online media was, at best, just digitized newspaper articles. He didn’t have to react to things in real time. Manning was never an age when social media might have scuffed his unhewn armor.
Beckham, in contrast, takes his problems with him on the field. We watched him meet, embrace, make love to (?), and begin a life in loving matrimony with a kicking net in the span of three weeks.
While Manning pontificated his statements several steps away from the field, Beckham made his in the same place as his problems in full view of everyone, saying by his actions that he’s sorry, but also isn’t this all kind of silly? And also, lol.
It’s possible that none of this is new, that there have always been more weirdos than not in the NFL and that they finally have the means to be more like themselves. If that’s the case — and we know for sure that the players entering the NFL are only going to come in better and better practiced with these tools — then the league might have no choice but to embrace its full array of individuals sooner than it would like. The most sellable players won’t have to come in just a few flavors any more.
This season feels like the long-awaited generational hand-off from old heroes to new. It’s possible that the ratings reflect that to some extent, that those who watch football on television no longer recognize today’s superstars. That’s sort of fuzzy right now.
Two things we do know: 1) Beckham is certainly in the new class, and 2) No one could possibly look quite like him.