By Ernie Palladino
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For all his greatness as a wide receiver, Odell Beckham took a step backward as a professional football player on Sunday.

That’s a hard thing to say, considering Beckham’s incredible talent and athleticism.

And yet, with the season on the line against the undefeated Carolina Panthers, Beckham turned into a football outlaw and hurt his team. And perhaps just as significantly, he hurt an already dubious image.

Before the 38-35 loss that just about ended the Giants’ playoff hopes, Beckham was regarded as a passionate, albeit immature, player. What passed for fun in his mind — the look-at-me end zone gyrations after touchdowns and the verbal jousting he did with opposing defenders — had served to inflame opponents’ emotions.

And before Sunday, Beckham answered his critics the way the greats do, by putting up numbers in the stats column and the scoreboard.

Sunday was different. On Sunday, Beckham lost his head, and went after Josh Norman’s.

It happened in the third quarter, amazingly as the Giants were about to mount one of their biggest second-half comebacks in history in another game they’d lose with 0:00 showing on the clock. Graham Gano’s 43-yard field goal would take care of that, likely along with the division hopes Tom Coughlin’s group was trying desperately to revive. So the timing of such an event indicated a selfish thoughtlessness on Beckham’s part.

The NFL may yet find it criminal. As Eli Manning handed off to Shane Vereen, Beckham started on a downfield route against Norman, the shutdown cornerback he had tussled with all game. Beckham had already drawn two unnecessary roughness calls. He had thrown punches. He had come in late on a pile.

This time, he took a swipe at Norman as he flew past him. Then he doubled back, took a run at Norman, and hit him helmet-to-helmet.

Whether Norman did anything to provoke that kind of extreme behavior is neither here nor there. The cornerback had done more than his part in sending what should have been a stellar matchup straight into the sewer. But Beckham turned it malicious and personal.

When walking away would have served him best, Beckham engaged.

The officials could have tossed him out of the game.

Should have.

Coughlin strongly considered pulling him out, at least temporarily, to cool him down.

He didn’t.

“He had to learn,” Coughlin said. “He’s gotta learn at some point how to deal with some things on the field.”

Beckham eventually caught the 14-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 35 with 1:46 to play. But he may not be around to catch even one pass next week in Minnesota if the league honchos decide his three roughness calls and the illegal hit deserve a suspension.

At the least, he’ll probably draw a fine. That’s nothing. Players get fined for a lot of things, and Beckham can afford the $11,000 or so given the first-round contract he signed last year.

But this goes to character, and action better left for a street fight simply brings down a reputation. So, too, does an act that costs a team the potential loss of a healthy, great player.

In terms of football, Beckham’s continued activity this season won’t matter much. The 6-8 Giants can still finish .500, but that’s just window dressing. Washington’s win over Buffalo put them at 7-7, a game up in the NFC East race, with a tiebreaker advantage.

But one must now ask seriously about where Beckham’s head is truly at. Was it the three drops in the first half that frustrated him? Was it something Norman said? Was it the big zero he put up in the catch column in the first half?

If it was, then Beckham has fallen from the passionate to the truly selfish.

The cute stories about his game cleats, the celebrations he added to his run to midfield after his touchdown, the constant jawing with opponents that underlined his competitiveness all fall into the shadows now.

Beckham didn’t just hurt his team Sunday.

He hurt himself.

Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino