The Browns were steamrolled in Week 1 by the Ravens, with Beckham, once the top headline grabber in the NFL’s most important market, relegated to the role of spectator.
It’s not that long ago that Beckham felt like he was redefining the laws of physics and what was possible at the position. He was the feature star of the Giants bail-out offense during the back-end of the Eli Manning era: Manning would throw it and hope; Beckham would bail him out.
Beckham’s first couple of years in the league are almost without precedent. He became a household name with that catch and has been tabloid fodder and Hall of Fame producer ever since. Until now.
In his first three seasons in the league, Beckham eclipsed 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns each year. He snagged an average of 9.6 passes a game at an average of 14.3 yards per reception. The only player to match those numbers in each of their first three seasons in the modern era? Randy Moss.
Like Beckham, Moss was considered a cultural distraction, a Me First guy who couldn’t exist in the NFL’s ever-conservative ecosystem.
The Vikings got tired of Moss after seven seasons (he was also traded, coincidentally, for a first-round pick and a dime linebacker). It took the Giants all of five seasons – one missed due to injury – to cut bait on Beckham. Could the Browns bail mid-way through his second?
Moss offers a decent career parallel and a cautionary note. His second career stop was not his most successful, either. Moss played fine in his first year after a trade to Oakland but battled injuries and the Raiders culture throughout his time with the team.
Not before long, he was on the move again. But after the frenzy of his initial trade, the league was out as a collective on Moss after Oakland. Too selfish. Bad attitude. Too beat up. He was considered all-but done.
And then New England. And then Tom Brady. And then Bill Belichick. 16-0. It remains the single greatest, most destructive run of receiver play in the history of the league – with a hat tip to literally every run of Jerry Rice’s career and Rob Gronkowski’s 2015. And all for the price of a fourth-round pick.
For Moss, it was about finding the right system fit, getting healthy, and about rediscovering his chemistry with a quarterback. Even Hall of Famers can need a sabbatical in what should be the prime years of their career.
Few receivers since peak-Moss have put such fear into defensive coordinators as Beckham. During his early career explosion, coordinators tried all manner of innovative scheme stuff and downright nonsense in order to try to slow him down. None of it worked.
What eventually slowed Beckham down was a fossilized Manning. And at some point, the off-the-field guff began to have a tangible impact. You could see it through the TV screen. The frustration. The disappointment. I’m doing my job. How about you do yours. There was kicking the kicking net, Paris, the Miami boat trip, Josh Norman, and a daily deluge of stories that were accompanied by the word ‘antics’, even for stuff as benign as a clothing line.
Beckham, at the root of it all, had committed the most heinous football crime of all: He was becoming a distraction.
Cleveland was supposed to signal a new beginning. Beckham has purposefully tried to sterilize his on-field behavior, at least on the sidelines, since the shift to Cleveland. “It’s a tough position to be in with the way that I feel like I’ve been misrepresented to the world,” Beckham said this week. It’s a difficult thing for many stars: Trying to be themselves while trying not to be the person they’re portrayed to be.
Away from the New York hack pack (which, though massively diminished in terms of its national impact, remains a real, tangible thing for those playing locally), with a young, talented quarterback, one with the vision and ability to pus the ball downfield as well as being able to create off-script, Cleveland should have offered the perfect reprieve.
But it hasn’t worked. There is still a steady drumbeat of stories, though they’re fewer and less, umm, brutal in tone compared to his New York days. Worse: the on-field relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield has failed to gel.
Beckham’s production has dipped. His receiving totals were a near mirror image of his final year with Giants – a significant dip from those special early years – while his per-target numbers fell off a cliff. From 10.0 yards per target (a walking first down) at his best in New York to 8.5 yards per target in his final year with the team to 7.6 last season with the Browns … and down to 6.0 this year after Thursday night’s win over Cincinnati.
The conventional wisdom holds that early in the Mayfield-Baker marriage the quarterback was forcing it to Beckham. That Beckham was demanding the ball too much of the ball. That in an effort not to upset Beckham, Mayfield was forcing him the ball, and thus the natural rhythm and flow of the Browns offense was distorted. But that wasn’t true, and it remains untrue this season.
The Browns switched coaches in the offseason, bringing in former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski in a bid to turbo-charge the offense.
The early returns haven’t been great. Stefanski had hoped to move to more of a move-type structure – a wide-zone running game with plenty of play-action – with short, sharp timing routes that would spread the ball around and use the Browns’ stable of playmakers efficiently. But, so for, despite the new wrinkles, the offense looks the same plodding mess it was for the majority of 2019; there are little of the double-moves, nor the time to execute them, that helped make Beckham so effective in his early career (In truth: Beckham is pretty damn dominant running any style; he just laps most of the field on double-moves).
Moving Beckham may become an option, particularly if the receiver becomes disgruntled. But engineering a trade won’t be easy. Such a move is the kind that gets a general manager fired, particularly one who pinned his colors to the Mayfield-Beckham, let’s-go-win-it-now mast. If Beckham thrives elsewhere, it becomes evidence that Mayfield is the real problem. If he continues to struggle, either with the Browns or for another team, he becomes a nagging, expensive reminder of the assets the team gave up in the first place – this being a transaction over action sporting culture.
And then there’s the money. Beckham costs $14m towards the salary cap this season. There are precious few teams with the maneuverability to figure out a deal at that price-tag, let alone agree with the Browns on the terms of compensation.
What would that compensation even be at this point? A third-round pick? A two? Could you squeeze a first out of a sure-fire contender?
Some spots make sense. The Patriots (*shudders*) have $30m in cap room and a gaping hole in their receiving corps. If they’re all-in on a one-year Cam Newton run, adding Beckham to the mix is a tantalizing proposition. He did workout with Newton this past offseason.
Or there’s Philadelphia, who have just enough cap room to squeeze in Beckham’s figure. Or Miami, who have the assets and room to complete a deal, but would Beckham be willing to move to be one of the poster boys for another rebuilding spot?
Or the obvious: A desperate-for-relevance, desperate-to-cover-for-Gase move from the Jets.
It’s now been five years since the catch and yet it is still the defining moment of Beckham’s career. Where is the jump-on-my-cape playoff performance? Where is ‘should he get MVP buzz?’ stretch?
One of the greatest to ever do it is still in there, and somehow he has been Cleveland-ed.
At this point, a trade might be in the best interest of all parties: The teams, the players, and those of us who want to see the greatest at their greatest.