No. 31: Odell Beckham Jr.
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Odell Beckham Jr. has reached out and grasped fame with both hands. The question now is: Can he hold onto it?
Ever since his made-for-Vine one-handed grab against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football last November, Beckham’s Q-rating has skyrocketed. It presented a choice. He could shun the spotlight and protect himself from its glare. “Or,” Beckham says as he lounges in an empty meeting room at the Giants facility in June, “realize this doesn’t happen to everybody, and go out and enjoy life.”
And so, the Offseason of Odell has included (but in no way was limited to): hobnobbing at the Super Bowl, sitting alongside Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour at New York Fashion Week, dining with LeBron James, befriending Michael Jordan, hosting an NBA All-Star weekend party, upping that with a soiree at The Michael Jackson Mansion, meeting childhood idol David Beckham and attending yet another fashion show with Wintour, this time in London.
Because Beckham will appear on the cover of EA’s Madden NFL 16, pose nude for ESPN The Magazine and appear in two out of every 10 commercials (a rough estimate) during sporting events this fall, it’s easy to forget that he has yet to play his 16th game in the NFL. Heck, he hasn’t even completed a full training camp. Beckham is 22. At this point last year he anxiously awaited his first trip to California. He barely participated in 2014 summer practices because of a nagging hamstring injury, and his immediate future was murky.
This summer he is on a trajectory to become the most popular non-quarterback in the NFL. He is the league’s most explosive playmaker, manning one of its most visible (and marketable) positions, playing in its largest media market. In 10 games as a full-time starter after Victor Cruz was injured last October, Beckham averaged 8.5 receptions, 123.3 yards and more than a touchdown per outing. He toasted all-world corner Richard Sherman in Week 10—specifically on a double-deke and dash for a 44-yard haul late in the first quarter—and was the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year. And yes, there was The Catch. Almost instantly, Beckham's jersey became one of the NFL’s top-selling (in May his was fifth in sales—behind four quarterbacks), and he became a fixture in the New York tabloids.
But Beckham ranks No. 31 on our list not because of what he has achieved, but what he is capable of. NFC East headlines have been dominated by Chip Kelly’s master plan and the Cowboys’ high-stakes bets on the defensive side of the ball; they are the kind of chemistry experiments through which winning rosters are built. The Giants, static (and frustrated) since their Super Bowl XLV victory, are in dire need of volatility. That is Beckham: potentially dominant on the field, increasingly polarizing off of it.
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The last six months have hardened Beckham. He limits interactions on social media (“I can post a picture of my dog on Instagram, and there will be people getting into fights in the comment section”) and is wary of headline-hungry reporters (“There are times I respect and admire what Marshawn Lynch does”).
He became so frustrated by discussion of the Madden Curse that he can now cite the Webster definition of curse with near-perfection. “The expression of a wish that misfortune, evil, doom, etc. befall a person.” There was an element of intent. “Why,” he wondered, “would anyone want to wish harm upon something I view as a blessing?”
Consider it yet another paradox of NFL celebrity. Reporters have pegged Beckham as New York’s next great sports star; now many of them criticize him for enjoying fame too much. While analysts gush about his athletic ceiling, they also dwell on his unreliable health. And Beckham knows appeasing coaches with textbook route running and conventional two-handed catches won’t satisfy fans, who expect his theatrics to become routine. “You don’t go out and try to make a catch like that,” he says. “If the opportunity presents itself, and that’s your only option, that’s what you do. But you teach yourself to catch with two hands. If I go out there and do just what I’m supposed to do, people might say it’s not good enough.”
A week after an expansive conversation with The MMQB at the Giants facility, he was in the news again, and not for the right reasons. Beckham told ESPN that he was bothered by his teammates and coaches ribbing him for having to sit out during practices with injury. Two days later, quarterback Eli Manning countered on WFAN’s Boomer and Carton: “He’s got to learn how to handle the media.”
This could be an example of why Beckham says he studies Lynch’s reclusive approach with the press. “It’s not a way to stick it in [the media’s] face,” he says. “I’m just not about to let you make these stories up, or twist my words into what you want. I’m trying to help you with a story, but you’re taking it and making it what you want.”
Aggravating for Beckham: three of his most common interview topics—hamstring, the Madden Curse, and The Catch—focus on negativity or the past.
Until he suits up on Sept. 13—against Dallas, no less, on Sunday Night Football—his narrative remains stagnant. “I feel like I’ve talked about The Catch enough,” he says. “I mean, what more is there to say?”
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Throughout the offseason, Beckham has maintained the stance—part bulletin board material, part truth—that opponents would be foolish to double-team him, calling it a “slap in the face to the rest of our offense” and a strategy that’s “not going to work.”
“What I see within this team…” Beckham says, smiling as he inches forward in his chair. “It kind of feels like that championship year. Everybody has that same mentality, that same demeanor, and last year it wasn’t like that. Seeing Victor [Cruz] working out, knowing we have Rueben [Randle], and myself, we’ve picked up Shane Vereen... it seems like the weapons are here.”
When asked about his personal goals, Beckham blurts: “Super Bowl.” The Louisiana native has never been a champion, at any level. In fourth grade he hit a buzzer-beater to win the final of a local basketball tournament. The referees waved it off. “There was no review—because it was fourth grade basketball—so they took it away.” he says. “I cried so hard.”
Those emotions fuel Beckham. Think what you want of his partying, his exposure, his envy-inducing Instagram account, but he is driven to win. Sure, he will reap any perks along the way, but who wouldn’t? “I don’t want to be timid to live for fear of what someone else will think of me,” he says. “When I leave this game, when I leave this Earth, I want to say I did everything I wanted, lived life the way I wanted. I made mistakes, but I grew. I accomplished my goals.”
It’s easy to think no player has experienced a meteoric rise quite like Beckham—he didn’t get on the field until October and didn’t have a breakthrough game until three weeks before The Catch—but even he knows that statement lacks perspective. It has happened to one of his closest friends in football, Tyrann Mathieu.
Teammates at LSU, Beckham watched Mathieu, the play-making cornerback, morph into the Honey Badger, an alter ego that quickly became infamous. Mathieu was dismissed from the team for failing multiple drug tests. It took a nine-month football hiatus and image rehabilitation campaign before the Cardinals selected Mathieu in the third round of the 2013 draft. “Tyrann would tell me how blinding the spotlight is,” Beckham says. “Everything is coming at you so fast, he said, you feel like you can’t be touched. But the fact of the matter is, you can.
“With everything happening so fast, it’s just a matter of staying out of trouble. Because if I do...”
40. Todd Bowles, Head Coach, New York Jets
Ask coaches around the league which defensive scheme impressed them the most in 2014, and every single one of them will tell you it was Todd Bowles’ Arizona Cardinals. That’s why Bowles is now the head coach of the New York Jets. He’s armed with the necessary cogs to make his system go: quality man corners on the perimeter (Darrelle Revis, far and away the league’s best, plus Antonio Cromartie, who thrived under Bowles in Arizona), versatile safeties (Marcus Gilchrist and Antonio Allen can both play matchup man coverage out of zone looks inside, and Calvin Pryor has a chance to be a quality dime ’backer in the box) and a three-man front so dominant that it might as well be a four-man front. With this foundation, Bowles can concoct any blitz he desires. He’ll have to come up with some new doozies; the rest of the league will surely be copying what he did last season.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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39. Tom Benson, Owner, New Orleans Saints
One of the NFL’s iconic owners—universally respected by other owners as well as his players and coaches—is unfortunately in the midst of a dysfunctional family dynamic playing out on a public stage. Saints owner Tom Benson recently pulled the inheritance silver spoon from family members in favor of passing the club to his wife, Gayle, prompting a messy lawsuit challenging Benson’s mental competence and Gayle’s motivations. Benson has fired back with indignation, furthering the hostility with teams of expensive lawyers at the ready. This appears likely to turn nastier before any resolution. Benson is a proud man. I vividly recall him—at a league meeting in 2001—proudly introducing granddaughter Rita, a freshly minted graduate of Texas A&M, who was going to represent the Saints in league business from that moment on. With Benson’s endorsement, owners and executives immediately accepted Rita. A couple of years later, Benson introduced another woman in his life, new wife-to-be Gayle, at NFL meetings and functions. He was clearly smitten and sent an elaborate wedding invitation to all NFL owners. Now these two women are the central characters in a nasty drama, with Benson having clearly chosen Gayle over Rita in his estate planning regarding the Saints. Team staffers will say all the right things about the feud having no effect on operations, as the key people in place—such as capable general manager Mickey Loomis—will continue with business as usual. They have dedicated themselves to achieving success for Benson, who staunchly backed them, and awarded contract extensions, during the Bounty saga a couple of years ago. The team has put a large picture of Benson holding the Lombardi Trophy, after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, in their practice facility watching over their preparations, as if to say that if he is tied up with his issues, they have his back. (It was no also secret around the league that Saints management and coaches bristled at Rita’s management style.) And so does the NFL. Commissioner Goodell has predictably backed Benson, an owner who—despite being irate about the Bounty sanctions—has repeatedly stood behind Goodell. For now, the “Saints Family Feud” follows “PSI: New England” as unfortunate and uncomfortable NFL reality shows. Substantial wealth does not immunize against family dysfunction, and in the case of the Bensons, it may be at its root.
—Andrew Brandt (@ADBrandt)
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38. Andy Dalton, Quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals
We interrupt this list with a bit of pro football trivia: Who are the only two quarterbacks in NFL history to have lost their first four playoff games? Answer: Y.A. Tittle and Andy Dalton. The latter has been a postseason disaster, with one touchdown, six interceptions and a 57.8 passer rating in losses at Indianapolis, vs. San Diego and twice in Houston. Another playoff loss would put Dalton in uncharted territory for a quarterback, historically and locally; his $96 million contract is low on guarantees and could reasonably be torn up after the 2015 season. Armed with a healthy cadre of wide receivers after a spate of injuries contributed to his statistical downturn in 2014, Dalton has every incentive to turn around a souring reputation and stake a long-term claim on the Cincinnati QB job.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
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37. Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots
If you debated who the top player is at every position, the debate about the No. 1 tight end would be short. Everyone agrees: Gronk is the best. Rob Gronkowski’s receiving prowess down the seams is the key piece of what’s really a ball-control Patriots passing game. Equally impressive is his blocking. And last year’s All-Pro campaign began just nine months after he tore his ACL and MCL. With jolting downgrades at cornerback likely to bring New England’s defense down a notch, this team will need at least 28 points a game if it's to have any chance of defending its Super Bowl title. With a suspension still hanging over Tom Brady’s head at the moment, a repeat NFL title is only possible if Gronkowski maintains his status as the best at his position. It’s seemingly only a matter of staying healthy.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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36. Howard Katz, Senior Vice President of Broadcasting, NFL
Howard Katz is on this list for two reasons: He heads up a four-man team that makes up the schedule, and he is part of two-man team (with Roger Goodell) that decides which games are flexed to Sunday night on NBC—and which, conversely, are moved into the regular Sunday afternoon rotation. A senior vice president at ESPN for six years and president of ABC Sports for four, Katz arrived at the NFL in 2003 to help launch NFL Network and run the business side of NFL Films. Soon after, he began to honcho the 256-game regular-season schedule, a role that consumes Katz and his three aides in the NFL broadcasting department for most of four months every year. This year Katz acted on a request from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because of a September visit by the Pope (and two home Sundays for the Phillies in September) to make the Eagles a road team for three of the first four weeks of the season… he positioned Super Bowl rematch games in prime TV spots in honor of the 50th Super Bowl… he put Rex Ryan’s return to New Jersey on a Thursday night in November, when there’s no guarantee either Ryan's new team (Buffalo) or his old one (the Jets) will be in contention, figuring the “Return of Rex” angle would sell the game regardless… and he saved the Brady-Manning Bowl (the 17th meeting of the great passers) until the Sunday night of Thanksgiving Weekend. But the big test for Katz will come when he and Goodell have to decide on flexing games from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night, which is hugely inconvenient for fans but so much better for the TV audience. Could it be Kansas City-San Diego in week 11? Cincinnati-San Francisco in week 15? Or neither? That’s when Katz will justify his place on this list.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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35. Greg Hardy, Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys
After a season trapped in a legal and public relations limbo, Greg Hardy arrived in Dallas and was immediately used as an example for the league’s enhanced domestic violence policy. Even as he faces a 10-game suspension (which he is appealing) to start his Cowboys tenure, Hardy’s impact on the league looms large. On the field he is dominant at his best and flaky on his worst days. If the Dallas offense carries the team through the first half of the season, a rested Hardy—essentially the highest-impact midseason addition the league will see—could be what puts the Cowboys over the top in the ultracompetitive NFC (last year Dallas's top three sack leaders combined for 14 sacks, one less than Hardy’s solo total for 2013). Perhaps more important than any of this, Hardy will function under a magnifying glass off the field. His mere presence signifies the Cowboys’ willingness to win at any cost. But with one off-the-field slip-up, Hardy’s cost will prove to be too great.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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34. Dean Spanos, Team President and CEO, San Diego Chargers
Dean Spanos says he wants to keep the Chargers in San Diego, but actions speak louder than public comments. After spending 14 years lobbying for a new stadium, the Chargers’ chairman constantly reiterates his commitment to San Diego. Yet, as the NFL’s return to L.A. finally has real momentum, Spanos’ true intentions are unknown. He spent the owners’ meetings palling around with Raiders owner Mark Davis, a potential partner for a $1.7 billion stadium in Carson, Calif., 20 miles south of downtown L.A. Is that a backup plan or the Chargers’ top priority? At what point does the leverage become the actual plan? In 2015, listen to what Spanos says, but pay closer attention to what he does.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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33. Dean Blandino, Vice President of Officiating, NFL
The job of NFL vice president of officiating has gotten significantly more important with the advent of the replay-control center in New York. It used to be that the officiating czar had a vital job Monday through Wednesday, reviewing games and grading the performances of the 117 NFL zebras. Now the importance has been ratcheted up. Dean Blandino runs the replay center, and games can ride on the 21 league employees and 82 TV monitors he oversees. I spent a Sunday afternoon inside the center last fall, and it’s clear that all eyes are on Blandino during replay challenges. For example: Late in the first half of the Cardinals-Raiders game, replay technician Austin Moss called out: “Muffed punt in Oakland.” Blandino walked the four steps to Moss’s station. “What do you got?’’ he said. This: Oakland return man T.J. Carrie let a punt bounce, and the ball came very close to touching him. Maybe it did. Referee Clete Blakeman’s crew ruled the punt was not touched by Carrie. Oakland ball. “Very close,” said Blandino, with headset on, and he punched up two replays on a touch screen. Then he communicated with replay official Richard Reels. “Richie!’’ Blandino said with some urgency, “stop the game. We don’t know if he touched the ball. Look at replay D. D as in dog.” The replay showed, in slow motion, the closest view of Carrie getting out of the way as the ball hit the turf. It may have grazed him. Blandino set up two plays for Blakeman to watch. Within two quick views, it was evident that there was no view showing the ball hitting Carrie. “The fact that the ball didn’t change direction is not definitive evidence,” Blandino said into the headset to Reels and Blakeman. “You need to see hand or body on the ball.” They didn’t see it. Blakeman leaves the hood. Blandino takes the headset off and says, “The call has to stand. It’s just not indisputable.” That’s what Blakeman announced in the stadium. The point is, Blandino has more game-day authority on the outcome of NFL games than did his predecessors. If anything, he’s too low on the list.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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32. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, Seattle Seahawks
The fateful interception that sealed Super Bowl XLIX was a perfect example of everything wrong with the Seahawks’ passing game. Jermaine Kearse couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage to set a pick. At the catch point, Ricardo Lockette was outmuscled by Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie reserve on whom Lockette had three inches and 20 pounds. Russell Wilson’s favorite target, Doug Baldwin, was not an option on the other side of the field; Darrelle Revis had shut him down all night (with the exception of an umpire’s pick on a short third-quarter touchdown). Baldwin’s protestations aside, the Seahawks relied on smoke and mirrors in the passing game for one play too many. Enter Jimmy Graham. Seattle sacrifices a bit in the run game with Graham in the lineup (there has been much talk about a newfound devotion to blocking, but after five NFL seasons Graham likely is what he is), but he gives the Seahawks a true matchup nightmare for the first time in the Wilson era. In New Orleans, Graham beat double teams with regularity, with Drew Brees putting the ball up high where only the 6-foot-7 tight end could get it. Expect Wilson to do the same often. (Remember Chris Matthews’ Super Bowl performance?) And with Marshawn Lynch and now Graham, Seattle should be all but unstoppable in the red zone. That would have come in handy on a certain evening last February.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
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31. Odell Beckham Jr., Wide Receiver, New York Giants
Since The Catch, Odell Beckham Jr. has been swept up in the whirlwind of instant celebrity. But his contributions were far greater than that single play. Beckham is poised to become the dominant force the Giants need to get back to the playoffs, as well as one of the most recognizable faces in the NFL … if he can handle the spotlight. FULL STORY