This is starting to feel like a familiar drill: a flailing New York team suddenly unloads a young, fun, unique athlete, someone widely projected to be not only the future of the franchise but one of the faces of the entire sport. It’s a real bummer, this loss of an exceptionally vibrant, compelling, and dynamic player, the kind capable of single-handedly kick-starting games and captivating kids. But hey, at least the trade is a crucial linchpin of absolutely no discernible master plan!
On February 1, it was the Knicks trading 23-year-old Kristaps Porzingis, their big, bouncing, shot-blocking, crisp-shooting Latvian boy now free to romp alongside the likes of Luka Doncic in Dallas, a transaction that cleared the way to wipe the franchise freakishly clean. And on Tuesday night it was the Giants parting ways with 26-year-old Odell Beckham Jr., a mercurial playmaker who for years has been the brightest light on a has-been team with rapidly dimming prospects, and who may now thrive downfield from Baker Mayfield.
Both were blockbuster trades, in that they were highly entertaining: splashy movies, filled with big narratives, featuring the comings and goings of the stars of stage and screen. That’s how it must feel to fans of the Dallas Mavericks or the Cleveland Browns, at least. Both of their teams have found bold leading men who will almost certainly benefit from appearing in creatively energizing new productions with enthusiastic casts … I write bitterly, because for me, a twice-rattled Knicks and Giants fan, these transactions just taste like stale popcorn.
The announcement that the Giants dealt Beckham hit me the same way the Porzingis news had: with a paralyzing wait … WHAT?!, a confusion that delayed the onset of other applicable feelings, such as despair, or righteous fury. In both cases, there had long been rumors out there that something big might go down, but they’d always felt more like public posturing—just agents being agents, or something—than actual, actionable scuttlebutt. It was only slightly more than a year ago, after all, that Beckham and Eli Manning were dirty dancing together in a Super Bowl advertisement so good that it technically counted as a third Giants championship over New England. It was only last August that the team re-signed its marquee wide receiver to a five-year, $95 million contract, making Beckham the league’s highest paid at his position. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Giants general manager Dave Gettleman all but scolded reporters at a press conference before anyone had even asked a question.
“We didn’t sign Odell Beckham to trade him,” Gettleman preemptively lectured on February 27 at the NFL combine. “I know that’s all over the place right now, but we didn’t sign him to trade him. That’s all I need to say about that.” In hindsight, such aggressive defensiveness should have been a sign that something unpleasant was brewing, that there was a whole lot more to be said.
Of course, plenty already has been said about Beckham, which has always been part of the problem, even when things are going just fine. During training camp in 2016, Beckham spoke with Mike Francesa about what it was like to go from player to superstar seemingly overnight thanks to his now-iconic one-handed touchdown catch in November 2014. “I tell people all the time,” Beckham said, explaining how wild it was to have little control over the existence of his sudden celebrity, “be careful what you ask for.” Instead of being the prologue to a long Giants career, that quote now feels like a coda. Beckham has always been the kind of player, on paper and on the field, worth asking for, but his moments of brilliance have over the years been matched, in intensity and volume, by his flashes of sideline frustration. Whether or not Beckham is actually a “distraction,” the endless debates on the subject sure as hell are. But even among Giants fans who won’t mind getting rid of his TDs-to-talk-radio-fodder ratio—and, to listen to WFAN this morning, there are more than I would have expected!—there is still plenty to question about whether this move even had internal logic.
Trading someone like Beckham isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. So why did the Giants wait until the team was $16 million worth of dead cap dollars deep to make this transaction? (Not to mention the adjacent one that unloaded Olivier Vernon?) For how long has the franchise considered Beckham to be a legitimate trade target? If the answer is more than a season, why select (the wonderful, breathtaking, you’re not to blame here, this isn’t about you) Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, only to strand him in the offense without a star receiver? If the answer is less than a season, what the heck happened to make things get so bad? At least with the Knicks, if I squint, I can maybe make out some shreds of logic: Porzingis could be one injury away from being a unicorn forever put out to pasture. The star-heavy NBA does create the conditions in which sweeping everything off a dining-room table with your arm to make a point during an argument can actually be construed as a workable organizational plan.
Both teams are going nowhere fast, and so dismantling them isn’t inappropriate. But there’s a difference between a ruthless rebuild and a directionless drift. Can a team add by subtraction? Absolutely. But that’s not the same thing as digging as big a hole as possible and expecting it to magically yield a sturdy new foundation.
UPDATED: Number of Giants draft picks, by year, who are still on the team:— Dan Graziano (@DanGrazianoESPN) March 13, 2019
The Knicks have lots of cap space, and the Giants, should they ever emerge from the sunken swamps of this season’s absurd $34 million in lost cap space, will too. In 2020 they might have more than nine figures in cap space to spend, and the team is now the proud owner of some valuable new draft picks, including a first-rounder. But that last part might annoy me the most. Since when have the Giants demonstrated any lasting prowess in the draft, such that it’s suddenly an obvious solution? The Barkley pick was A-OK in a vacuum but bizarre in light of everything that has transpired since. The Odell pick was everything you could want in the draft, and here the Giants are, bidding it adieu, in order to accumulate some new draft picks, in order to … be so lucky as to find some other player in the same echelon as Beckham already is? It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that Manning will outlast Beckham in New York. Talk about being careful what you ask for: This was not the ironman streak that anybody had in mind.
It’s been difficult to find much of a bright side to all of this. The Knicks at least have the potential to be entertaining, with that ridiculous, petty owner and those big-name free agents circling the chummed-up waters and the general truth that at this point there isn’t much further to fall. But the Giants … who even are the Giants? Their offseason has been more strongly defined by all that they’ve gotten rid of than by anything that they’ve built. There’s no blueprint in sight—for their roster specifically or for their identity in general. The most optimistic thing I can come up with when I look toward the NFL season is that my Sundays might become more peaceful.
For once, Beckham’s unexpected departure from a Giants sideline won’t trigger a week’s worth—a month’s worth!!—of angry discussion about IV fluids, slushy stomachs, and the wide receiver’s personal relationship with water. No longer will I have to hear Francesa, and also my own misguided father, concern-troll Beckham with their judge-y use of the word “antics,” or to spend time wondering whether maybe they’re right and I’m the rube. No longer will I have to worry that this dumb team that I love so much is wasting the career or clipping the wings of such a singular football talent. Those are … good things? … I guess. But if it were up to me, I’d rather keep those players, and all that noise.