Late in the year, SB Nation writer and former NFL defensive lineman Stephen White tweeted that no one knew that Odell Beckham would be this good. A follower of mine responded to this Tweet and told him that I did, referring to my February 4, 2013 post, Six Plays That Make Me a Fan of Odell Beckham’s Game.
Flattered that the follower thought of me, I had to respond to both and plea ignorance like the rest of the football world: While I never budged from Beckham as my No.2 long-term prospect in this loaded wide receiver class, I cannot claim that I saw his rookie year coming.
There are a lot of theories why no one saw Beckham coming. I’m not talking about the missed preseason and much of the regular season–if you think the prediction game for rookies includes the preseason then you’re much heavier into fantasy football than the draft–and that’s okay.
One theory is that Beckham and Eli Manning had an uncommon rapport that Manning recognized after working with Beckham in offseason camps. After all, Manning lobbied hard for Beckham well before the draft and the Giants listened. [Note: Turns out this was a rumor that has been debunked–Manning worked with Beckham, but there were no confirmed reports of this lobbying effort.]
Another thought that is broached about Beckham pins the blame on the limited offensive design and surrounding talent at LSU–the same LSU that helped Beckham display enough to earn a first-round pick. Yeah, I don’t think so.
From the tinfoil hat file is the theory that the Giants’ personnel department cut subliminal shots from Road House into Coughlin’s Beckham cut-ups and he became kinder and gentler with this particular rookie. Hey, the NYPD is using the movie to each cops how to ‘be nice’ according this morning’s tweet from Spencer Hall and Chris Brown.
[As an aside, I love this movie for the mere fact that it inspires Bill Murray to prank call Kelly Lynch every time he sees her in this love scene with Patrick Swayze.]
Manning, LSU, and Road House aside (and don’t think I haven’t dreamed up the idea of a Road House parody involving Baton Rouge, Manning, Coughlin, and Beckham with Bill Murray as the big boss of the town), I have my own pet theory why we didn’t see Odell Beckham coming.
Sport, just like music, theater, film, or spoken word, is a performance medium. Brett Favre’s inspired game against Oakland on Monday Night Football just after his father’s death is an example of a player in the zone in the same way that Joe Montana got the 49ers offense in the zone during the final minutes of the 1989 Super Bowl when he spotted John Candy in the stands.
It’s still a mystery how performers get into a zone and produce inspired work. And Beckham didn’t just have one strong game, he dominated half of a season after missing training camp and most of the fall.
I believe the reason we didn’t see Beckham coming has to do with his mindset. Manning’s confidence and rapport with Beckham early on was a contributing factor but when you watch how confident Beckham was with routes that froze defenders in their shoes and his willingness to even attempt some of the more audacious plays we’ve seen in some time, there’s something deeper happening here.
LSU teammates say Beckham made these plays all the time in practice. It’s why the public is apt to blame LSU for somehow limiting Beckham on the field from producing this in-game magic.
However, practice is not performance. Coaches try like hell to do everything possible to prepare for game situations and simulate in-game performance: little-used plays practiced every week in highly specific situations (Bill Walsh and the Montana to Clark pass in the red zone), pumping in crowd noise, and simulating the special talents of opponents.
It’s all helpful, but it is not the winning recipe. Performance is a light switch in a dark room and every event is a new and different dark room. The most inspired performances happen when the performer opens the door to the room and finds the light immediately whereas inspired moments may come better late than never.
Sometimes the circumstances during the performance change so much that these events thrust the player into a different dark room to look for the switch. It’s part of the mystery of performance that will forever fascinate us.
Beckham’s mindset that allowed him to find the light switch almost every week–and early on–sounds much simpler than it is. He ignored inhibition.
Despite its set alignments, routes, and planning, football is at its core an improvised game. I used to perform as an improviser. I can tell you that the enemy of a strong performance is inhibition.
Regardless whether it’s sport, music, theater, or spoken word, you can feel when you’re in the zone. I remember an afternoon where I took a solo over the Thelonius Monk tune Well You Needn’t. I learned not to display emotion while growing up so back then, I didn’t know how to embrace my quick temper. I usually didn’t even realize I had a quick temper. If something angered me it took until well after the event that pissed me off for me to understand that what I was feeling was anger and not sadness, nerves, or physical illness.
Not a healthy way to live, but we have different early environments in life and this was mine. Anyhow, something happened that day that transcended my normal coping mechanism for dealing with anger and I was so hot that I was out of my own head when I picked up my horn and began playing that afternoon with my band and the first tune was this Monk composition.
I remember for the first time as a musician that everything just flowed from me. There were no walls between me and my instrument or what I thought, felt, and executed on the horn. It flowed through my entire body as if I was a conductor of a single energy or purpose.
At some point, the rest of the quartet actually stopped playing for a chorus because it was listening to me so intently and reacting to what I did that the group became a second audience. It was one of the few times this ever happened for me as a musician. Certainly a lot of this had to do with hours of preparation and focus on technique, musicianship, and theory, but a major component was the fact that I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing.
The anger took me out of my head and I just played. That’s my personal take of being in the zone, but despite a few inspired moments I was never a fine improviser as an aspiring professional. One of my college roommates was already an excellent soloist who was performing as a professional with a variety of known acts well before he turned 30.
I heard Darren perform one night at a concert on campus and noticed how his solo on the opening tune really changed the mood of the room. The band and the audience seemed more loose and engaged after he played and I asked him about it later. I have never forgotten what he told me (and I’m paraphrasing):
The audience wants to see you succeed. They come to your concert to lose themselves in the moment, but there’s usually this invisible barrier that separates everyone–the audience and the musicians. That barrier is everyone’s inhibitions and ego that on the one hand protects you from looking stupid and getting ridiculed, but on the other can keep you out of the moment and enjoying what you feel.
I remind myself that people are here to see me and have fun and it’s my job to bust through that invisible wall and allow them in–help them forget themselves and loosen up. I’ll try to play something that loosens people up–something passionate or funny produces emotions more than thought. I may not be on that night, but put myself in position to do things that will take everyone out of their heads, let the moment take over, and hope that it clicks.
Sometimes it does, the audience and the band all feel it, and it’s great. Often it doesn’t, but the audience still enjoys it and we’re satisfied with how we played. The worst performances I’ve been a part of are when everyone is thinking rather than listening and feeling. The musicians feel uptight, the audience stays uptight, and the you can’t wait for it to end.
Based on it working for me before, I have the confidence to get up there and just so something to get people out of their heads.
I think this is essentially what Odell Beckham was able to do this year. He played out of his mind.
The rapport with Manning was a factor, because it removed a “getting acquainted” layer that often comes with a rookie receiver playing with a new quarterback. The new offense might have also forced Tom Coughlin to take a more patient, hands-off approach that kept his more rigid tendencies in check. And these two factors along with Beckham finding the light switch early, created a loose, aggressive performance environment for the young receiver to thrive.
It’s clear from Beckham’s LSU teammates that he made these amazing plays all the time in practice and while it is convenient to say the problem was Zach Mettenberger and the LSU offense, this analysis doesn’t account for the things that were entirely Beckham’s responsibility–and there were differences in his play in Baton Rouge and New York that had solely to do with his concentration level and willingness to play with abandon.
If you take cliché as gospel, players will tell you that they all play with abandon, but it’s not true. Abandon is the goal.
Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch play with more abandon than any running backs I’ve seen since Barry Sanders. It’s not the quality that makes them all-stars, but it is a quality that makes a difference.
Peterson and Sanders in particular straddled the line of recklessness. Sanders had an alarming number of runs stuffed for losses during his career. Peterson had 20 fumbles in three years. Before you say that team fit and emotions like toughness aren’t a vital part of good player-personnel selection, imagine Adrian Peterson getting away with 20 fumbles during his first three years in the Coughlin regime.
Say all you want about Peterson being the exception to the rule, but David Wilson was a borderline special back Wilson and Coughlin’s personalities, values, talents, and deficiencies didn’t work well. Do you really think Peterson would have been given enough carries under Coughlin? I’m not buying it.
However, Beckham played with abandon and without straying into territory where recklessness turned into egregious errors. This kept him on the field.
Whatever reasons you believe why football collectively didn’t see Odell Beckham coming, there’s a lot more to performance than the eye can track. It’s why scouting is term with multiple meanings. A conversation I had with Scouting Academy founder Dan Hatman began with him sharing that scouts roles depend on the NFL team.
Some are task-oriented qualitative and quantitative data gatherers. Others are tasked with more strategic, higher level thinking with the information they gather and supply.
The closer you were to Beckham, the more likely you were a strategic thinker and less of a data gatherer. However, even as a strategic thinker, you’d have to allow for the likelihood that Beckham–like most good NFL starters–rarely finds the light switch that fast in these darkened rooms every week.
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