Odell Beckham Jr. headlines offseason moves that make the NFL relevant — at least this week
Even the most on-the-fence NFL outsider has to admit these past 96 hours have been fun
Is this the best week the NFL has had in recent memory? Just before 8 p.m. Tuesday, when the final happy hours on the East Coast were wrapping, news dropped that megastar New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was traded to the Cleveland Browns. Beckham, the most popular and influential player in the NFL, who is entering the second year of a five-year deal worth $90 million, was previously said to be a Giants made man.
“We didn’t sign Odell,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said just days ago at the NFL combine, “to trade him.” So much for that. But what was New York’s heartbreak became Cleveland’s new love affair. No one was more ecstatic than Beckham’s close friend, former college teammate and fellow Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis “Juice” Landry.
Reactions, both of joy and pain, were instantaneous.
“I am no more a Giants fan!!!” a friend’s uncle vented in a group chat. “I am officially done with their a–.”
“My nerves is way too bad for this s—,” was another comment on Instagram. “@obj, I’m headed to Cleveland as well.”
LeBron James, Ohio’s most famous son, posted “OH MY!! … S*#% just got REAL!!”
As if that weren’t enough, not even five hours later, Le’Veon Bell announced his signing with the New York Jets. The deal not only ends Bell’s self-imposed exile from football — he sat out the entire 2018 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers over contractual disputes — but finds the talented dual-threat running back making $52.5 million over four years with $35 million guaranteed. Including incentives, the maximum value of the contract could be north of $60 million. The deal has been widely panned, mostly because Bell’s yearlong exodus resulted in a financial setback. “That’s a good deal for the Jets considering what it could’ve been or should’ve been for Le’Veon Bell,” said ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio.
For context, NBA players such as Marvin Williams, Ian Mahinmi, Bismack Biyombo and Chandler Parsons all earn more annually than the three-time Pro Bowler Bell. Roster dynamics notwithstanding, it’s hard to rationalize how the NBA/NFL compensation divide makes sense.
There’s synergy, though, in both moves. Beckham departs for the Browns, who now figure to have the most offensive firepower in the league aside from the Kansas City Chiefs. And Bell enters New York as the biggest AFC East acquisition since the New England Patriots traded for Randy Moss in 2007. Both changes detonate on the heels of the transaction that started it all: Antonio Brown’s trade to the Oakland Raiders.
Which begs the question. Is this the best week the NFL has had in recent memory?
The NBA’s summer of 2010 free agency, when Chris Bosh and James joined Dwyane Wade at the Miami Heat, changed the landscape of the NBA offseason. Besides superstars changing teams, there’s also the fervor the NBA has been able to generate, year-round, about its changes.
The NFL hasn’t been able to mimic that sort of excitement. Reasons are aplenty. Collective bargaining agreements and the overall nature of the business in football place more power in management’s hands than that of its workforce. Of equal importance are the issues that have plagued the NFL for the past decade.
Football is a violent sport, physically and psychologically. The issues include but are not limited to head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, domestic violence and “Deflategate.” There’s also the human rights debate spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick, and other players’ protests. All have taken a public relations toll on football. Some fans have left the sport altogether, and negative headlines have, in many ways, come to define America’s most popular sport in the 24/7 media-driven world.
But now, especially with Kaepernick having settled with the NFL, there’s real football to talk about. The moves of Brown, Beckham and Bell are now the subplot of conversations about NFL player mobility, front-office business and the chilling disconnect between both.
At least for now, the reasons for the hot football chatter feel like strictly X’s and O’s. And there’s a poetic sense of role reversal with the NBA as well — heading into the Super Bowl, the biggest news in sports was New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis’ trade demand. This all but made Patriots-Rams a supporting character in America’s best drama: the NBA.
The sheer mundanity of the Super Bowl didn’t help. Now, with NBA hysteria centered on James all but guaranteed to miss his first postseason since YouTube’s rookie year (2005) and concerns about the Golden State Warriors appearing vulnerable, it’s the NFL that has commandeered headlines that can be used to promote its brand, rather than having to protect it from stuff like Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s legal situations.
The questions are compelling. How could Pittsburgh lose the two best players at their respective positions? Is Brown — arguably the league’s most enigmatic personality and no stranger to controversy, both on and off the field — ready for a reboot out west? How might Brown’s strong-arming of the Steelers, praised by many in and around the league, set a precedent? How much is Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to blame for what happened in Pittsburgh? Did the grossly underpaid Bell sitting out a season hurt him financially?
And, importantly, are we ready to live in a world where the Cleveland Browns are bullies? The answer is we better be. Beckham at worst took a trip with his guys to Miami after winning the NFC East in 2017, dished out the fade to a sideline net and mimicked urinating like a dog after a touchdown celebration. Despite the Giants getting a better compensation package for Beckham than the Steelers got for trading Brown, what’s the logic of trading a Hall of Fame talent like Beckham — under contract, who wanted to be in New York while still very much in his prime — and alienating one of the most passionate fan bases in football just days after letting safety Landon Collins bounce to Washington?
They bout to be doing routines like TLC in the “Creep” video https://t.co/TeMHa2vPMg
— #OneBrownBruh (@CheerwinePapi) March 13, 2019
Narratives drive sports because America loves drama. The prospect of each superstar on a new squad is intoxicating. Brown paired with head coach Jon Gruden in what could be a rebirth and redemption season for both. Bell in New York gives the Jets its best offensive player since the days of Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.
Then there’s the most provocative move: Beckham in Cleveland. Beckham’s massive, one-of-one popularity — he’s still the most followed NFL entity, player or team, on Instagram by a considerable margin — coincides with the Browns’ unpopular decision to sign Kareem Hunt last month. The talented yet controversial former Kansas City Chiefs running back re-enters the league, under uber-strict financial parameters, on the heels of a video of him shoving and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel last year.
Meanwhile, running back Nick Chubb isn’t a media darling á la Saquon Barkley, whom Beckham instantly embraced as a younger bro in New York, but a savage nonetheless. Baker Mayfield, who in just his inaugural season became the best Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar, presents an instant upgrade at signal-caller, making the Giants’ decision to stick with future Hall of Famer but over-the-hill Eli Manning over Beckham even more confounding.
The powerhouse point in Beckham’s trade to Cleveland is the reunion with high school friend and college teammate Landry. Not since the days of James and Dwyane Wade in Miami has there been such a potentially explosive and highlight-laden tandem of best friends. Aside from James, Beckham’s arrival is the biggest culture shift in Cleveland sports in the past 30 years. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.
Superstars changing teams. Doing so with chips on their shoulders. And shifting the balance of power in the process. The script reads like entrees on the NBA’s menu. However fleeting the moment could ultimately prove to be, the NFL is currently the belle of the media ball. Even the most on-the-fence NFL outsider has to admit these past 96 hours have been fun. If the NFL was really about that life and really wanted to keep this momentum going, though, it’d make Kansas City vs. Cleveland a Monday Night game. On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t jinx it.