OBJ Has All The Talent, But He Has To Prove He Can Do The Thing Without Manning As Much As He Has With Him

By Jason Keidel
» More Columns

We can parse the particulars, and avoid providing yet another autopsy on that 23-0 waxing the Giants received in Arizona on Sunday, the first time the Cardinals have blanked any opponent since Dec. 12, 1992.

As the last moments melt off Eli Manning’s career in New York City, we have been left with a wholly inappropriate eyesore of a season that neither reflects his talent, temerity, nor legacy.

But the problems that have plagued this team all season, especially on Sunday, made me think about someone who hasn’t been on the field.

His name is Odell Beckham Jr. and no matter how hard we try we can’t stop thinking about his dazzling play, turbulent past, and potential for the future.

Why are we so spellbound by Beckham? Is it the wild white mane? Is it because he has the limbs of a football player but features of the lead singer of a rock band? No one can doubt his athletic splendor and his catches that defy physics and physiology.

Larry Fitzgerald

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald takes off against the Giants during the first half at University of Phoenix Stadium on Dec. 24, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

He already has all the bona fides for a pop culture icon. He’s young, handsome, and edgy, and has that typical teen moodiness that has filled at least a few John Hughes films. But if Beckham wants to be a football icon, he needed only to just gaze across the other sideline on Sunday at the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitz continues burn his name deeper into the archives, his bronze bust in Canton long assured.

Beckham has enough gravity-bending catches to make his own demo. He owns the SportsCenter highlight. He’s a star in the media vortex of the world. He makes young men clap and young women cry.

But who is he? Or what is he? Is he Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant? Fitzgerald or Ochocinco? Does he want to stuff the stat sheet or blind us with Super Bowl bling?

Beckham screams, “Look at me!” while Fitzgerald whispers, “Look at we.”

Fitzgerald has now reached his gridiron golden years, those conflicting moments that at once signal the back nine of a career. But also with each catch he leapfrogs some legend, from Brown to Bruce to Moss. (To everyone except the GOAT, the football player nonpareil, Jerry Rice.)

Among mortals, no one plays harder, better, or with more modesty than Fitzgerald. Father Time may be undefeated, but Fitzgerald has taken him to the 12th and 13th rounds. When he loses, it won’t be by knockout, technical or otherwise.

This season has forced a wide lens over Fitzgerald’s career numbers, which have mushroomed into historical orbit. Fitzgerald has 1,226 catches (third all-time), 15,490 yards (third all-time), and 110 touchdown receptions (he will tie Tony Gonzalez with 111, for seventh all-time).

Sunday was a microcosm of Fitzgerald’s understated, stellar career — nine catches, 119 yards, and a touchdown. At 34, geriatric for football players, but downright skeletal for wideouts, Fitzgerald has 101 catches for 1,101 yards. He has caught at least 100 passes in five seasons, three of them in his 30s.

While other wide receivers of his vintage are retired or hanging on to jobs, regressed into role players, or ornamental slot receivers who are hanging on by the threads of their reputation, Fitzgerald is still playing. Not just playing, playing well. Not just playing well, flat-out balling. He’s still strong, blocks with fervor, runs surgical routes, has Spider-Man’s hands, and has never flashed alligator arms on a crossing pattern.

Fitzgerald has also had epic playoff performances, with 10 touchdowns, including a record seven during the 2008 postseason. Beckham had the Party Boat in Miami. Four catches at Lambeau, and 28 career playoff yards. Fitzgerald has been a first-team All-Pro six times, and a second-teamer twice. Beckham has been a first-teamer once, second-teamer thrice.

And while Beckham has known one quarterback, who has won two Super Bowls and will find his way to that mustard-colored jacket in Ohio some day, Fitzgerald has caught passes from a conga line of quarterbacks: an absurd, sprawling list of 14 signal-callers since he entered the league in 2004; A glittering list of luminaries like Josh McCown (yes, that Josh McCown), Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Max Hall, and John Skelton. Fitzgerald had a taste of greatness from Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer, but got way more Shaun King and Jon Navarre than most greats are forced to endure.

Beckham won’t see much, if any, more of Manning. The best QB in Giants history will get the blame and the boot after the season, even if anyone can see this grotesque, 2-13 season was not largely his fault.

So next year Beckham will turn the page and start a new age. Will it be with Sam Darnold? Josh Rosen? Josh Allen? Or Baker Mayfield? Surely the Giants would rather pay relative pennies for a rookie than dump another $20 million on Manning, regardless of what John Mara says. But provided Beckham fully recovers from his broken ankle, the G-men will eventually be forced to break the bank for his services, lest they suffer the same PR storm they got when they benched Manning.

Beckham’s deal ends after 2018. Big Blue has already picked up his fifth-year option for $8.45 million, and so he must decide who he wants to be if his time in New York is to continue past next season. Beckham is maybe the most talented wideout in NFL history, but he has a ways to go to be the best wideout.

If he doesn’t know the difference, he can just ask Larry Fitzgerald.

Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel