It seems like so very long ago that I sat down to innocently watch an NFL pregame show and was confronted by the harrowing words COMING UP: ODELL SOUNDS OFF ON THE GIANTS in the corner of my TV screen. After all, so much has happened since that moment: There have been two New York Giants losses, each one painful in its own way. There has been a sprawling seven-part Instagram video series from the rapper Lil Wayne (“Little Wayne” as pronounced by Eli Manning) addressing topics like Frank Isola, an incarcerated uncle, and Manning family workouts. There has been a heated encounter with a cooling fan, a possible institutional cover-up involving dehydration, the sparkling performance of perhaps the most exciting element of the Giants’ future, and the brutal demise of the franchise’s core. And yet somehow, all of this has taken place in less than a week, as if the Giants are aging in dog years, which would be fitting, because everything about the team lately is extremely woof.
Odell Beckham Jr. frequently has this sort of disorienting, time-altering impact on the world around him; just ask cornerbacks around the league. He has the stubbornness of an immovable object and the energy of an unstoppable force, two characteristics that, when harnessed correctly—the way the Giants thought they’d be able to do when they re-signed the wide receiver to a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason—make him one of the most fun and fearsome talents in the NFL.
But the flip side is that Beckham is quick to perceive himself as being pushed around or boxed in, and lately he hasn’t been shy about making that discomfort both known and felt. Staring at my TV screen Sunday, waiting to hear Beckham SOUND OFF, I felt a rising combination of déjà vu and doom. With the team then standing at 1-3 and Beckham still without a touchdown, I could only imagine what he might have to say. What I definitely didn’t envision, as I waited for the segment with anxious dread, was that I would agree with so much of it.
There were many depressing moments for the Giants in Thursday night’s long, gloomy 34-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles: the interception thrown by Eli Manning within the game’s opening minute, the MetLife Stadium crowd huddling in their ponchos and booing, the sad milestone of being thwarted on 15 straight third-down attempts. (At one point in the first half, Fox ran a Giants lowlights package titled “FRUSTRATION.”) But one of the worst came in the fourth quarter, when the Eagles punted the ball 53 yards into the arms of Beckham, who was returning kicks for the second straight game. He danced and he spun and he wound up out of bounds—for a loss of 8 yards. It was the perfect play given the state of the New York Giants: a lot of fancy footwork and a lot of backward progress.
Shurmur not feeling the checkdowns. Looks like “Throw the ball” to me. pic.twitter.com/2Vpckys7zq— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) October 12, 2018
A few things were clear during that game. Saquon Barkley is a sensation, a player who moves like Quicksilver and seems to pause time whenever he pivots. Manning is washed. (And given the Giants’ recent draft strategy, there is a tense and tragic relationship between these two facts.) New York’s offense is, at its essence, one dud of a slant throw after another; cameras caught head coach Pat Shurmur yelling at one point: “Throw the ball!” Beckham was double-covered and stymied and emotional; he walked into the tunnel with two seconds remaining in the first half and the Giants with the ball, and in the second half he head-butted a big industrial fan on the sideline in the same way he once did bodily battle with a kicking net. It was all childish, but at the same time, he was in the midst of being proved right.
This past Sunday morning, with the rapper Lil Wayne seated next to him, a touch that was simultaneously baffling and, this being Beckham, the most normal thing in the world, Beckham had aired some of his grievances to ESPN’s Josina Anderson. He was tired of catching uninspiring shallow routes “and trying to take it to the house,” he said. “I’m, you know, I want to go over the top of somebody.” He was frustrated by watching other wide receivers around the league who “get the ball the way that they, you know, should,” he said. “And if they don’t, they say something about it.” Regarding his quarterback, Beckham offered the assessment that “I feel like he’s not going to get out the pocket.” Regarding New York City, Beckham noted that he liked the sunshine in L.A.
None of this was a lie! At worst, it was a Walter Sobchak situation—no, you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole!—and at best it was a necessary release of steam that could motivate (and aggravate) the organization. For a brief period following Sunday’s 33-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Beckham’s interview appeared to be closer to the latter, even though the result had been yet another Giants defeat.
Beckham not only caught a touchdown against the Panthers, he threw for one, a 57-yard completion to glorious rookie Barkley that at last showcased some true play-calling creativity. Carolina’s winning play, a 63-yard field goal that tied for the NFL’s longest game-winning kick, was so outlandish that it was hard to get or stay too mad about it. Shurmur was reported to have been “livid” about the interview, but he effectively shut down all postgame chatter on the subject: “I’m not going to give the public a pound of flesh,” he told the media, adding that he was confident any Giants with lingering problems could take things up with Beckham directly. “He’s a big man,” he said.
But by Thursday night, the team’s problems only became more glaring, there were a lot of new wounds to rip into, and Shurmur was back on the interview podium sounding increasingly evasive, like someone afraid to perjure himself before Congress. Asked about Beckham and the head-butting, he said he wasn’t aware of it but that Beckham, in theory, shouldn’t do that. Asked about his own caught-on-camera exhortation to just throw the ball, Shurmur said he couldn’t recall the circumstance and that, regardless, it wasn’t exceptional. Asked about Beckham leaving the field before halftime, Shurmur said that his player was dehydrated and heading in early to get an IV.
It will be interesting to see how New York chooses to handle Beckham; he may be childish, and he may lack impulse control, but it’s really a self-own by the organization if it can’t figure out how to manage and build around the wide receiver regardless. He may be an eccentric human, but he’s not unpredictable; he may be volatile, but it comes from a place of obvious frustration rather than unpleasant maliciousness. When it comes down to it, he is an avatar for the common-sense fan.
The guy subsists on a diet of raw competitiveness, and he’s super hangry. Surely a world-class professional sporting organization that has re-signed a player to a $95 million contract would take into account his personality and his motivations when drawing up blueprints and (one would hope) making contingency plans. For all the constant Sloan-style talk about where teams find their microscopic competitive edges, the Giants are seemingly struggling to handle a player whose major issues mostly boil down to being pathologically blunt.
Thanks to Beckham, earlier this week I learned that when it comes to the topic of Eli Manning, Lil Wayne and I are basically the same. “I’m the first one to back you up, man,” Lil Wayne said in one of the Instagram videos he posted Monday. By “you” he meant Manning. “I be like, ‘Man, he got two rings before his brother.’” I could just imagine it: Lil Wayne out there reacting to Manning underthrows and interceptions by blaming the offensive line, Lil Wayne getting riled up about that one season when Giants receivers led the league in drops, Lil Wayne mocking Ben McAdoo on message boards, Lil Wayne caping for Manning like the rest of us basic New York Giants fans.
But like the rest of us, I’m confident that Lil Wayne also now groks that the era is over. The Eagles loss was a dagger, and not just because the NFC East is so weird this season that a win would have put the Giants in as decent a position as it’s possible to be in with a 2-4 record. Instead, the team is a hopeless 1-5, the season is effectively over, and the path forward is unclear. A lot can happen in the span of five days; the team now has a long week-plus to hear and talk about it incessantly.
The season trudges on, and with it, the promotional appearances: Later Friday, Beckham will appear at the Northeast grocery chain ShopRite where he will attempt to take 250 selfies with fans in the span of 20 minutes, as one does. Reading about this cursed event, I went down a rabbit hole that led to something that really, really seems like it was so very long ago: that in-house ad for the NFL during the Super Bowl that featured Manning and Beckham dirty-dancing and warming the heart. In hindsight, it was probably the last time they’ll ever be so in sync.