Next year will be Odell Beckham's "prove it" year.
One year, $8.5 million. That's what Beckham will earn: the value of the option season of his rookie contract.
It's a bargain, probably. The NFL's best receiver will get the Alshon Jeffery or Terrelle Pryor treatment. Beckham will have to prove he's healthy and with-the-program to get paid like his Antonio Brown-caliber peers.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Giants are supposed to be contenders. Beckham is supposed to be the focal point of the NFL's most explosive offense. But everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.
This has been Beckham's most frustrating season yet—for himself, for the Giants and for fans. And Beckham, as he is so often, is part victim of his team's woes and part culprit.
Before talking about Beckham, we should toss out the lazy, polarized arguments that define popular opinion about the mesmerizing, exacerbating superstar:
- Opinion A: Beckham is a lazy, selfish, immature crybaby who should be benched/traded/cut/forced to dig ditches so he knows what an honest day's work feels like.
- Opinion B: Beckham is a glorious exemplar of individuality and self-expression whose wall-punching, boat-partying and make-believe end-zone peeing are all charming and would not bother us one bit if we were his head coaches or team owners.
Now that those are out of the way, we can seek the nuanced truth that lies somewhere between the two poles.
Beckham stated at the dawn of training camp that he hoped to be the highest paid player in the NFL. It ignited the usual debate between Opinion A Beckham bashers (football players should be musing about Super Bowls, not salary goals) and Opinion B Beckham boosters (c'mon, who doesn't want to make gobs and gobs of money?).
The best way to earn lots of NFL money has always been to never talk publicly about your desire to earn lots of NFL money. Love him or hate him. Beckham blazes his own trail, and that comes with its own set of rewards and perils.
Beckham is such a transcendent talent that his preseason financial expectations did not sound unrealistic. The Giants customized their roster to complement his talents by adding Brandon Marshall to draw defensive attention and rookie tight end Evan Engram to work the middle of the field. Beckham just had to bring the touchdowns and the victories—and perhaps tone down the histrionics just a smidge—and the Giants would gladly open up the coffers.
Beckham's frustrations began with a preseason ankle injury. In Beckham fashion, a relatively routine sprain became high melodrama, complete with recriminations about a dirty hit and a televised Captain Kirk death scene in the tunnel outside the locker room.
Beckham's miniature ankle-sprain passion play was a small detail, but it underscores a bigger issue: Beckham doesn't handle setbacks very well. For evidence, see his beefs with Josh Norman, his complex relationship with the Giants' sideline equipment or the patched-up hole in the wall near the visitor's locker room at Lambeau Field.
That's fine; lots of playmaking wide receivers are high strung. They just aren't rewarded with historic contracts.
Beckham's preseason injury turned into a disguised blessing, for him if not the Giants. Despite all the new additions, the Giants offense was excruciating without Beckham. After a 19-3 loss in the season opener, it was clear that no non-quarterback in the NFL was more important to his team.
Beckham took the field for pregame warm-ups before the Monday night game against the Lions and fans reacted like they were witnessing a Beatles reunion. When Beckham was barely able to do more than run decoy routes in an embarrassing loss, it only magnified his importance. With the Giants offensive line in shambles, Beckham needed to catch passes, keep safeties 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage and deter opponents from blitzing. He was like a combination wide receiver and offensive lineman. That's something to take to the negotiating table.
Beckham returned to full speed in the Eagles game. He and Eli Manning found their rhythm. They connected on a fourth-quarter touchdown—just the second Giants offensive touchdown of the year—and it appeared that the Giants would rally, shake off that 0-2 start and be the team they expected to be. All Beckham had to do is get through the end-zone celebration without incident, which shouldn't have been a big deal in a league that relaxed the rules against boogie-woogie specifically so guys like Beckham could have some fun.
Then Beckham lifted his leg like a peeing canine and drew a 15-yard penalty and the ire of both the New York sports-talk circuit and the decidedly old-fashioned Giants owners.
We're back to Opinions A and B here. You are free to love the urination celebration. It was edgy! Innovative! Quasi-political! But it was also obviously the kind of thing that makes check-writers nervous. Even Pop Warner players know to tone down the celebrations when playing from behind for a winless team.
The Giants lost a heartbreaker to the Eagles. Then they lost another heartbreaker to the Buccaneers. Without Beckham though, they probably wouldn't have even been competitive in those games. Blaming the best player for a losing streak is the worst kind of rabble-rousing analysis.
But Beckham was caught in a Catch-22. The incompetence of the rest of the Giants offense made him look all the more dazzling and irreplaceable. But it's hard to endorse a player on a last-place team as the NFL's first $100-million wide receiver. The Giants were dragging Beckham down with them. Players of his caliber are, fairly or not, expected to pull bad teams up.
Sunday should have been Beckham's moment to reframe the narrative. Marshall got hurt. Sterling Shepherd got hurt. Even Dwayne Harris got hurt. Beckham was the last wide receiver standing for a team that entered the season with, on paper, one of the league's best receiving corps.
Beckham raced past the Chargers secondary in the fourth quarter, hauled in a 48-yard pass to give the Giants the lead, and celebrated in a way that was well within NFL and Giants taste parameters.
Then he broke his leg.
Then the Giants lost.
The Giants' season is now essentially over. Their "don't call it a dream team" experiment failed miserably. Coach Ben McAdoo probably won't be back after this travesty of a season. Longtime general manager Jerry Reese will have a lot of explaining to do about how he maxed out the credit cards but neglected to acquire a single decent offensive tackle.
This year's spending spree was out-of-character for the buttoned-down Giants, anyway. Look for them to embark on a salary purge that would make the Browns blush at the end of this season.
Which brings us back to Beckham and his dreams of franchise quarterback-level money. If he wants to get it from the Giants, he must prove next year that he deserves it, with an argument that is far stronger than "the team stinks without me."
Beckham must prove that he's a player that a team can build around. That means knowing for sure that he won't be driven to distraction by mouthy cornerbacks. That means knowing he won't cause off-field headlines before and after a playoff pratfall. It means being 100 percent certain that he puts team goals above personal goals.
He must prove that he can handle this setback, the biggest of his career, better than he handled all the smaller ones that have made him a back-page tabloid staple.
This should have been Beckham's year. Had the Giants held up their end of the bargain, his big plays in the last three weeks would not have been in vain. His peccadillos would be easy to excuse: Hey, we all got a little carried away in the madness of Week 3. If not for Sunday's injury, we would be answering questions instead of asking them, wondering about the size and shape of Beckham's payday instead of whether he would ever reach it.
We would also get to watch Beckham for 11 more Sundays, to be dazzled, frustrated, stunned and occasionally disgusted. Without him, the Giants are road kill, and the NFL is a little less entertaining.
That's the most frustrating thing about Odell Beckham's short, doomed 2017 season.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.