Like most sports the NFL needs more personalities

Posted Jul 23, 2016

On his promotional tour of Europe earlier this month, Odell Beckham Jnr could not have chosen a more apt venue than Germany to have an adoring, excitable, entranced crowd follow him through the streets like a mob enslaved to the tune of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

As he peered at them while standing on the roof of a car, the happy throng chanted “O-B-J! O-B-J! O-B-J!” And the New York Giants wide receiver didn’t seem to mind the attention one bit.

As yet, Beckham has not found worldwide fame on the stratospheric level of his English namesake, who, perhaps, might offer him some friendly advice on how quickly the good side of global recognition can turn bad.

But Brand Beckham (the NFL version) is certainly making an effort to boost his profile off the field to the level his skill on the field has seen him rise in the past two seasons.

Let’s first of all be clear about one thing - Odell Beckham has precious little left to prove in helmet and pads. I think we can all agree that he has proven beyond any doubt that he has the ability to perform the seemingly-impossible, catch the seemingly-uncatchable.

Playing the position he does frequently means a one-on-one match-up with the best cornerbacks in the business. Receivers and corners on that lonely island on the sideline thrive on the danger that comes with being beaten in the full glare of public attention. As a result, many of them tend to have a lot to say while in the heat of battle.

Beckham, it appears, is carrying that persona into life away from the gridiron. His opinion on Josh Norman and his move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins was not a mischievous sideswipe as much as a full-frontal smack in the mouth.

Beckham told GQ magazine that the reason Norman left the Panthers for the Redskins is because they are in the same division as the Giants and therefore Norman would get two chances every season to go up against OBJ and make a name for himself - as if the $75m contract (with $51m of it guaranteed) that the Redskins handed Norman hadn’t done that already.

Beckham, however, wasn’t done with Norman, even saying that he was moving to try to keep himself relevant. Essentially, he was making the point somehow or other that Norman was riding Beckham’s coat tails to the land of fame and fortune.

Beckham said: “If I wasn’t playing him twice a year, maybe people wouldn’t bring it up as much. But now it’ll be a lot more media attention for him, attention that I don’t really look for, attention I don’t really need. The reason that he’s become so relevant is because of me.”

This, of course, is the follow-up to the foul-tempered on-field clash between the pair last December when they did everything they could to get thrown out of the game.

That slug-fest was so violent and filled with cheap shots that it caused the NFL to review rules on personal fouls. It was also the sort of showdown that would have had anyone who played in the 1960s licking their lips and wishing they were young again.

But for one American sporting icon, Beckham is at that dangerous crossroads where public figures lose sight of reality and begin to believe the hype rather than examine the substance.

Charles Barkley - who went by the less-than-unassuming nickname King Charles during his basketball days - was asked about Beckham’s comments.

His response? “Well, that’s just stupid. There’s two ways fame works: You run fame or fame runs you. And it can get out of hand very quickly.

“And I think Odell Beckham is a stud and he’s getting a lot of commercials, but I think he’s starting to get to the point where he’s becoming too famous instead of worrying how to become a great football player.

“I think he needs to be careful. Just lay low and kick butt on the field. Nobody cares about all that extracurricular stuff. And Josh Norman? He earned his money. Congratulations to that man.”

So is Beckham starting to buy into the hype or is he simply following a long NFL tradition of playing mind games with an adversary?

How different is this from Dick Butkus 50 years ago making animal noises at the line of scrimmage and spitting all over the center’s hands before he snapped the ball?

How different is it from tiny defensive back Pat Fischer snapping at receivers and tight ends almost a foot taller than him and telling them how badly he was going to hurt them?

Is it not reminiscent of Joe Namath guaranteeing an 18-point underdog’s Super Bowl win; Joe Theismann playing motormouth wherever he went (until Super Bowl XVIII); or Deion Sanders and Andre Rison chest-puffing their way through the 1990s?

Fischer made famous his technique of owning bigger receivers by getting one of their legs off the ground. But he used to say that the key to his game was distraction and Oakland Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff - no slouch when it came to beating the best defensive backs - confirmed that Fischer was a true pro at it and that he always wanted to know where Fischer was when he lined up.

So is Odell Beckham swallowing his own media clippings or is he brewing up enough distraction to take Josh Norman out of his game? And should we be too bothered which it is?

After all, the NFL is like boxing in many ways. It pits man against man, frequently one-on-one, in a highly-physical confrontation. It generates extraordinary levels of nervous tension and engenders a show-off spirit, a mechanism some players use to handle the pressure.

For all the players these days who talk about putting their pants on one leg at a time and taking each game as it comes, it is almost refreshing to hear someone throw down a gauntlet.

If nothing else, we can look forward to a mouth-watering clash in a couple of months when they meet on September 25 and potential fireworks when they close the season in DC on New Year’s Day in a game that could decide playoff spots and maybe a division title.

I’m not bothered if Beckham has fallen for the fame monster or if he is just getting inside Norman’s head. He has shown a bit of personality, stoked the fire and got me looking forward even more to the start of the season.

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