By Jamal Murphy
The New York Football Giants moved to an impressive 10-4 record after their win versus the Detroit Lions on Sunday. They now hold the second best record in the NFC with two games to play, after back-to-back wins versus two other NFC contenders.
The Giants have leaned on their defense, particularly of late, but there has been no player more valuable to this team than their mercurial and controversial superstar, Odell Beckham Jr.
He is their leader.
Yes, that sounds strange to hear, say or write, given that much of the talk this year from fans and the media has centered on the “negative” aspects of his on-field exploits, such as his emotional volatility, his affection for a kicker’s net, and, oh yes, his love for dancing.
But, if we’re talking about what really matters in football — players making plays to help their team win ballgames — there is absolutely no question that Beckham is far and away the Giants’ most valuable player.
It’s easy to get caught up in his flash and flare, his explosiveness and pure speed, his Michael Jackson impersonations, and think of him as almost some sort of highly talented sideshow.
To the contrary, he has carried the Giants’ offense and entire team towards what’s looking like the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2011.
It’s not just that Beckham makes unbelievable plays, it’s also when he makes them.
There was the spectacular 61-yard touchdown run on a simple slant pattern that looked like Beckham had been shot out of a cannon and appeared as if he continued to accelerate until reaching the end zone. It was the game-winning score late in the third quarter, giving the Giants a 10-7 win over the then 11-1 Dallas Cowboys two Sundays ago.
Then this past Sunday, there was the game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter against the Lions where Beckham provided the two biggest plays. First, on a crucial third down and 10, Eli Manning connected with Beckham on a beautiful throw and catch near the sideline for a 25-yard gain and a first down.
Later in the drive, Beckham sealed yet another Giants’ victory in typically dramatic fashion, snagging a four-yard touchdown pass with his left hand. That catch was reminiscent of his one-handed “catch heard ‘round the world” versus the Cowboys in his rookie season, and it had reporters asking if Beckham practiced catching solely with his left hand or was simply ambidextrous.
“You practice it. That’s why you practice right-hand layups, you practice left-hand layups,” Beckham responded after the game. “Pretty much all my life I wanted to be left-handed. I brush my teeth with my left hand, shoot basketballs with my left hand.”
Beckham continues to rack up record-setting numbers at the wide receiver position; Sunday, he became the first wide receiver in NFL history to tally 80 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons. But what’s often missed about Beckham’s big performances is how clutch he is and the focus and determination it takes to be as good as he is. It’s not just talent.
Moreover, his ability to step up and make the biggest of plays when it counts the most, makes him a leader of men at the tender age of 24, something that he obviously takes seriously and wants to continue to improve.
“It comes with me being a perfectionist,” Beckham said. “It’s just hard for me to accept ‘good.’ I need to be great, above that, legendary, and it’s got to be that way every single time.”
When I asked him directly about taking on a leadership role with this team, he gave a thoughtful answer that showed he is still evolving in that department.
“I just need to do a better job at controlling myself, knowing that people look at me even when I don’t think they’re looking at me.”
“I can’t lie,” he continued. “I’m a very passionate person, little things irk me, little things bother me. I’m a work in progress.”
Interestingly, as the Giants keep winning and Beckham keeps producing mightily, little things like Beckham’s dancing and emotion bother the fans, media and the Giants’ organization much less.
Right now, Beckham’s focus is leading the Giants into the playoffs.
“It’s what you play for,” he said. “At the end of the day, each and every game you’re going to get paid, no matter what your performance was. But, that’s not okay with me. I feel like I want to play enough legendary Sundays, and the rest is going to take care of itself. I’m not here for anything else but to win games.”
Odell Beckham Jr. is playing like a leader and even talking like a leader. He’s still a work in progress, though.
That’s a scary thought.
Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.