Spread the love

The Giants’ dumbfounding decision to trade an all-time great at the peak of his powers is the latest example of an NFL team valuing their culture and the allure of hope over talent

Odell Beckham Jr
 Odell Beckham Jr celebrates a catch during a game against the Carolina Panthers in October. Photograph: Jason E Miczek/AP

The Giants traded Odell Beckham Jr to the Browns on Tuesday night, weeks after paying the star receiver a $20m signing bonus, and after general manager David Gettleman proclaimed less than two weeks prior: “We didn’t sign Odell to trade him. That’s all I need to say about that”.

Gulp. In return, the Giants picked up a first- and third-round pick, safety Jabrill Peppers … and $16m in dead money. It is the kind of trade that would cause a mutiny in your fantasy league.

An organization waits a lifetime to draft a player like Odell Beckham, a star so singularly gifted he can tilt a game with a single play, and help a rickety quarterback age gracefully through the twilight of his career.

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.

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. He was too much of a show pony. Too interested in his own numbers, not enough in the collective.

The Vikings got tired of Moss after seven seasons. It took the Giants all of five – one missed mostly due to injury – to cut bait on Beckham.

Beckham’s last year in New York was good, not great. Anchored by Eli Manning and one of the league’s weaker offensive lines, the Giants became plodding and predictable on offense, relying on sparkles of magic from Beckham and rookie Saquon Barkley.

Beckham has become one of the 10 most important non-quarterbacks in the league. Not because of his star wattage or place in the discourse, because he affects wins. Beckham finished ninth among non-QBs in Pro Football Focus’s Wins Above Replacement metric.

Odell Beckham Jr
 Odell Beckham’s penchant for highlight-reel catches has made him one of the NFL’s brightest stars. Photograph: New York Daily News/NY Daily News via Getty Images

But this isn’t about skill. This is a cultural battle. There’s an ongoing, generational feud between the league’s players and its decision-makers.

Star players feel empowered. They want a larger say in the shape of the organization or, more often, to renegotiate their contracts on a year to year basis, regardless of how long is left on their present deal. And they want to have fun.

Older general managers want to keep the sport as close to the good old days as possible. Players should be all about the team, not individual accolades. There should be no dancing. Anybody but the statuesque quarterback, the face of the franchise, should be seen but not heard.

Giants general manager David Gettleman is carved into the Mount Rushmore of old-school thinkers. He’s the author of this gem: “There’s two kinds of players in this league, folks. There are guys that play professional football and there are professional football players.”

That’s a real quote from an NFL executive.

Gettleman is a general manager of unrivaled arrogance, a tough thing to pull off in professional football.

This is a man who loves to punctuate the football as he recites the expression “The New York Football Giants”, as though we will forget the team he runs or the sport he’s discussing.

Gettleman proudly flaunts his lack of understanding of analytics and market inefficiencies, typing on an imaginary keyboard at his introductory press conference. Applying basic economic principles to a salary-capped sport is for nerds, apparently.

And that’s not to mention his brazen draft strategy: Gettleman refuses to trade down and add assets, staunch in his belief that he will pick the right players in the right spot. He doesn’t need to throw more darts at the dartboard, because he’s David Gettleman.

We’ve become used to the viewpoint that talent wins out in the NFL. That organization will overlook anything and everything if the player is talented. But more and more we’re seeing teams value their culture, and the allure of hope – by way of future draft picks – over talent.

The Steelers relationships with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, their top two skill-talents, disintegrated before both left for virtually nothing. The Raiders traded away Khalil Mack after Jon Gruden questioned whether Mack wanted to stay with the Raiders.

In Beckham, Brown and Mack, we’re discussing three future Hall of Famers, all traded in their primes for non-football reasons.

Browns general manager John Dorsey may fit the Football Guy casting call, but he’s working as a new age executive in this stuffy league. From real, awful crimes (Kareem Hunt’s domestic assault allegation) to football ones (Beckham), Dorsey is willing to take on everyone’s cast-offs.

That right there is the current dichotomy across the NFL. There are teams hoarding talent: The Rams out in LA, Dorsey in Cleveland. And there are those, like Gettleman, like the Steelers, who believe in the good old days: that their brand power and culture can conquer raw talent.

That mindset has left the Giants resembling an expansion team with a 38-year-old quarterback who only remains on the team because of his surname and relationship with the owners. And they have $34m in dead money.

The Beckham trade is the kind of deal gets everybody fired. It’s tough to evaluate the effectiveness of a team’s culture if a team isn’t winning.

It will be easy to evaluate the outgoing presence who has been labeled as toxic: Beckham is an all-time great at the peak of his athletic powers. Moving to a more advanced offense, with a better quarterback and complimentary pieces will re-assert his claim as the NFL’s best.

“Ernie [Acorsi] taught me something a long time ago,” Gettleman said at his introductory press conference a year ago. “Don’t quit on talent.”

Rather than start a rebuild in earnest and build around their star, the Giants decided to plunge for the unknown, betting on the ego of their general manager and the culture he hopes to foster.