On Nov. 23, 2014, in a nationally televised Sunday night game against the Dallas Cowboys, Odell Beckham Jr., then a Giants rookie, leapt high in the end zone, twisted as he arched backward, fought off a defender and made a fingertip, one-handed touchdown grab that seemed unfathomable even in slow motion replay.
The next day, Beckham’s acrobatics had physicists, mechanical engineers and sports scientists scratching their heads.
“It was a bit like Spider-Man,” said Jim Gates, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland. “A near superhuman activity.”
In that moment — in just the seventh game of a nascent pro career — Beckham’s place in N.F.L. lore was cemented.
Within months, he had won the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award, played in the Pro Bowl and became the youngest player ever to grace the cover of the omnipresent Madden N.F.L. video game. Beckham’s No. 13 jersey quickly became the hottest-selling football apparel nationwide. He was the new face of the storied Giants franchise.
It is hard to believe that a little more than four years later, Beckham has been brusquely jettisoned from the team. On Tuesday, the popular, if sometimes mercurial, Beckham was traded to the Cleveland Browns for Jabrill Peppers, a safety with a modest record of N.F.L. achievement, and two draft picks (the 17th and 95th of next month’s draft) that, while valuable, are not likely to yield a star of Beckham’s magnitude.
Beckham’s mystifying departure may be a window into a new N.F.L., in which players and teams can transition from seemingly amicable partners — Beckham signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension with the Giants about six months ago — to rivals on opposing sidelines faster than ever before.
Star players were once bound to teams for many years because restrictive guidelines made unfettered free agency hard to achieve. There is more movement in the modern N.F.L., and even Beckham’s contract, which at the time made him the highest-paid wide receiver in football, did not mean that the Giants wanted him around for long. Still, Beckham’s trade did not happen in a vacuum. In the last week, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, whose offensive production in Pittsburgh made them prospective Hall of Fame players, moved on from the Steelers.
Beckham, 26, surely played a role in his exit. He embarrassed himself and the team with his mano-a-mano slugfest with Josh Norman, which contributed to a 2015 Giants loss. His end zone celebrations could be profane, and his antics on the sideline self-aggrandizing. As the leader of an ill-advised, overnight Florida boating trip when the team was preparing for a rare playoff game — followed by an inferior performance in a loss at Green Bay — he continued to demonstrate a level of immaturity.
A television interview last fall in which Beckham did not show support for quarterback Eli Manning and seemed to question his teammates’ effort produced more hand-wringing in the Giants offices at the highest levels, including ownership. A portion of the Giants fandom also began to sour on Beckham because of his volatility.
In today’s N.F.L., some teams choose to abandon their hefty investments in players who are distractions rather than wait for those players to become such problems that they must be moved. Or team executives ditch the player before he tries to force a trade, as Brown did, and in that way maintain their trading leverage.
The real surprise in the Beckham case is that it was the staid Giants who chose to push their most talented and popular player out the door — and to do it in his prime. The Giants are historically much more conscious and concerned about fan reaction to their transactions. But not in this situation. Beckham was dispensable, even if it meant that the tens of thousands of Giants fans with one of Beckham’s replica jerseys hanging in a closet — many of them prized fans under the age of 35 — were thunderstruck by Tuesday’s deal.
The Giants fan base is already reeling, and not just because its team has had one winning season since 2012. Beckham’s trade is just one of several recent purges of the team’s roster that have left many fans confounded and angry. There are, for example, only three players remaining from the team’s Week 1 starting lineup in 2016.
Moreover, if there is a clear path that the Giants are following, indeed if there is a plan at all, it’s not easily deciphered.
Yes, the Giants are in a rebuilding mode. But they will have to rebuild with financial constraints. About $16 million of Beckham’s salary will count against the Giants’ 2019 cap, and more startling, that’s less than half of the $32.5 million on this year’s salary cap ledger for players who are not here anymore: The Giants also recently traded or cut players like cornerback Eli Apple, defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and offensive lineman Patrick Omameh.
And Manning is due about $23 million next season. That total could be reduced if Manning is cut in a few days, before his bonus is due. If that happens, it may provide some clarity on the front office’s apparent overall strategy of tearing down everything to start over. But losing Manning on top of Beckham may leave some Giants loyalists apoplectic. If not catatonic.
In the end, Beckham’s exit underscores another relevant pattern: Every Giants first-round draft choice from 2013 to 2016 has either been traded or released by the team. Of the 70 players the Giants selected from 2008 to 2017, only six remain.
More than any other factor, that is why the Giants have lost 24 of their last 32 games and have not won a playoff game in seven years. With his magical pass-catching skills, Beckham was once seen as a Giants savior. The team and its fans now have to find a new one.
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