By Martin Rogers
Just like it was coming out of a spectacular Sunday virtuoso, the National Football League was also talking about Odell Beckham Jr. around this stage in 2019.
Back then, the discussions surrounding the enigmatic wide receiver involved the bizarre saga of his decision to wear a Richard Mille watch as pricy as an average home during a game, sparking all kinds of related humor as to whether it was finally the Cleveland Browns’ “time” to shine or they were on the clock, heading towards another campaign of gloom and regret.
Spoiler alert: it was the latter.
On this occasion, he was at the forefront of the discussion for the right reasons, thanks to a 154-yard, three touchdown display in a 49-38 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. Yet in truth, timepiece analogies notwithstanding, the same questions remain.
At 3-1, which is somehow the Browns’ best start in 19 years, it is worth wondering whether this is the opening chapter for a new Cleveland story. Or possibly, once again, is the countdown to implosion already underway?
They’re darn good queries because the answers are so uncertain. Partly because Cleveland’s history emphatically states that even the most hopeful of uplifting moments should not be automatically trusted. And because Beckham, throughout his career, has been a purveyor of brilliance but also, frankly, a source of frequent disappointment compared to his ability.
“I am who I am, I haven’t stopped being that,” he told reporters. “Last year it was the (hernia) injury, this year I feel good. I just want to be able to help this game. I get choked up about it because it means that much to me. I put my heart and my soul into this. That’s why you see the emotions on my sleeve.”
Beckham always talks a good game and divides opinion like few others. He has routinely offered tantalizing glimpses of excellence yet was cast as a troublemaker with the New York Giants and was unable to make the most of his fresh start in Cleveland, at first.
Also, this is the Browns, a team so beaten down, so often, that 3-1 feels like a magical treat. Where every glimmer of optimism, especially like we saw on Sunday, needs to be celebrated.
In Dallas, after a 41-14 buffer dwindled to a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Beckham ignited a moment of magic to gladden the hearts of the long-sufferers.
On a planned reverse, Beckham found himself 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and looked primed to be flattened by a defender. Instead, he escaped initial contact, then took off down the right sideline, with blockers in front of him. Beckham skipped into open space and kept going, slicing through the floundering Cowboys resistance, and effectively putting the game beyond doubt.
It was why Cleveland got him. It was a big play at a big time from one of the biggest names in the sport. Beckham is box office entertainment, he just hasn’t shown it often enough, sparking the doubting voices.
“Nearly since the moment the Browns traded for Beckham there have been trade rumors,” wrote News 5 Cleveland’s Camryn Justice. “A prominent narrative was his apparent unhappiness in Cleveland. Fans flooded social media with demands that he be traded.”
Not so much now.
“We knew the (Browns) were a talented football team,” FOX Sports NFL analyst Michael Vick said. (They had) a lot of potential that wasn’t being used correctly. But now we see the offense ran through Odell.
“He was due for a day like yesterday. He is the catalyst. Moving forward, this is a sign of good things to come for the Browns.”
Perhaps things should have improved for Cleveland before now, with no shortage of proven personnel. Jarvis Landry arrived in 2018, Myles Garrett is one of the NFL’s best defensive players, while Baker Mayfield relishes the challenge of a battle.
The Browns are still selective about when they use Beckham, who does not receive a persistent flurry of targets. He was efficiency personified on Sunday, picking up either a touchdown or a first down every time he got the ball.
For former Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, it is not enough.
“When you have got one of the best athletes ever and one of the best wide receivers on your team, you need to get him involved,” Marshall said on FS1’s First Things First. “If you really take advantage of him, you have the opportunity to have a really good year.”
There are caveats. The skeptics would say this was “just” the Cowboys, who have stumbled to 1-3 and are managing to pad quarterback Dak Prescott’s stats while underperforming defensively, week after week.
Also, Cleveland is operating in a division where the Baltimore Ravens are one of the best teams in football and the Pittsburgh Steelers remain undefeated. Three games against those opponents are left on the schedule, matchups that may provide a truer test of what this team can truly do.
Not everyone is going to believe, but more people are going to start wanting to. FOX Bet gives the Browns a +3500 shot to win the Super Bowl, and FiveThirtyEight believes the Browns have a 63 percent chance to reach the postseason.
Beckham has the capability for an instant spark and the football public has waited a long time for him to make the kind of splash that has a tangible, season-shifting impact on his team and sets them up for a postseason charge. Could it be now?
The Browns, well, it feels like they have been waiting forever. Maybe this is the time.
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