Sports what-ifs can drive you mad. What if Player X caught that pass in a crucial moment, or Player Y didn’t strike out with the game on the line, or Player Z hit that desperately-needed free throw? You’re probably thinking right now of the what-ifs of your own sports fandom, aren’t you? Yeah, sorry about that.
More painful than the what-ifs from in-game miscues and misfires, though, are the what-ifs because of injury. Sports are brutal and unforgiving, and today’s star is tomorrow’s Injured Reserve entry. Sometimes the star will return to their former level, and sometimes they heal up only to find the game has left them behind.
One of the NFL’s great what-ifs is now playing ball for his fourth team and hoping to recapture a bit of the old magic. Odell Beckham Jr., one of the most magnetic receivers of the mid-2010s, is once again healthy and back on the field, and that’s giving NFL observers the opportunity to wonder what might have happened had he been active most of the last few years.
“I wish we could rewind back the time and he [had] never gotten hurt. I think he might have been the first $200 million deal,” Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson recently told Cam Newton on the first episode of their new podcast, “The Uno & Ocho Show.” “He does more than just play football. He’s bigger than that.”
Ochocinco’s right. For the first three years of his career, Beckham was all but unstoppable. In his rookie season, he led the league in yards per game with 108.8, and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. From 2014 to 2016, he caught 288 passes for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns and played his way onto three straight Pro Bowl teams, as well as the cover of Madden 2016.
And then there was that catch. The one-handed, full-extension, sacrifice-the-body layout of a 51-yards-in-the-air pass that he snared for a touchdown on Sunday Night Football against the hated Dallas Cowboys. It was magnificent in the moment, and still never stops impressing nearly 10 (!) years later — so much so that you probably don’t even remember that the Giants went on to lose that game.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) June 16, 2023
The trouble with early brilliance, though, is that before long, everyone expects an encore. And like Buster Douglas, Jeremy Lin, Trevor Bayne and other out-of-nowhere stars, Beckham had trouble with the followup.
Injuries cost him most of the 2017 season, hampered him in 2020 and kept him off the field for all of 2022. Failure to connect both on and off the field with Baker Mayfield, among others, led to Beckham’s departure from Cleveland after two-plus unremarkable seasons. Prior to this week, the last time he had live contact against another team came in Super Bowl LVI as a rent-a-receiver for the Rams.
Now he’s back in uniform, suiting up for Baltimore on a one-year, $15 million guaranteed deal. His signing drew plenty of attention — that’ll happen when you’re as famous as Beckham — but the real question is whether he’ll be anything more than a second or third option for Lamar Jackson, and whether he’ll be happy if that’s all he is. Beckham’s total numbers over his last five seasons don’t come close to his first three, and it’s fair to wonder how much he still has to give.
On the plus side, though, Beckham will reunite with his former Cleveland offensive coordinator Todd Monken, fresh off a stint helping the Georgia Bulldogs win two straight national championships. If Beckham is able to reach even his 2021 level of productivity, PFF notes, he would be the best receiver in a Ravens uniform since Steve Smith Sr. in 2016.
Beckham concedes that it's a long road back after being off the field for so long. "You slowly progress," he said Wednesday. "We all joke about it: You train all offseason, and it doesn’t matter; you come out here and run eight plays in a row, you’re gasping for air. So, it’s definitely a different shape that you have to get into."
Even so, he's already inspiring wide-eye emojis with his one-handed catches:
I can’t stop watching the 2nd catch from Odell Beckham 👀
🎥: odellgalaxy IG pic.twitter.com/mSIulZ8zpV
— The Ravens Realm (@RealmRavens) August 14, 2023
Beyond his immediate future with Baltimore, though, it’s also fair to wonder what might have been. Johnson speculates that Beckham could have signed a $200 million contract, and that’s a little far-fetched given that the largest contract right now is Davante Adams’ $140 million. (Or, more properly, the largest right now is Cooper Kupp’s $75 million guaranteed, since players rarely get anywhere near earning those vast non-guaranteed totals.)
“I don’t know about $200 million. I would have definitely loved to have it,” Beckham said after Ravens practice this week. “But I would have loved to [have] seen what would have happened in my career if I had never been hurt. But, I think God placed this journey for me to be here specifically, to be exactly who I am today. The adversity I’ve been through will allow me to … handle it a little better.”
If nothing else, Beckham has an opportunity few athletes get: a second chance. Injuries like his have ended careers long before his. All you can ask for in the NFL is an opportunity, and Beckham has a hand-delivered, gift-wrapped one right in front of him now.
But even if he doesn’t get anywhere near star level again, even if he can’t help the Ravens return to the playoffs, he’ll always have that catch against Dallas. Athletic brilliance that will be replayed as long as there’s football isn’t a bad way to carve your name into NFL history.