CLEVELAND — On March 12, 2019, Browns fans opened their phones and turned on their TVs to the news of a blockbuster trade in the works. NFL star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was coming to Cleveland.
The potential was tremendous. A receiver with the star power Beckham has coming to Cleveland at a time when the promise of the team's turnaround was in its early stages but still palpable. It seemed almost too good to be true.
And maybe it was—the Browns announced Friday that they were releasing Beckham after several days of dealing with the drama of a social media broadside from Beckham's father.
Beckham's three years in Cleveland didn't bring much. The oft-injured receiver played just 29 games, gaining 1,682 total yards and scoring eight touchdowns. Most of those yards and touchdowns came from his first season with the Browns. He tore his ACL midway through the 2020 season, and the start of this season has been far from productive for Beckham.
Maybe it should have been obvious Beckham's time in Cleveland was coming to an end. The trade rumors always circulated, but it seemed like something that just came with the territory of having a player like Beckham on the roster. But after the 2019 season ended and the general manager who made the trade from Beckham, as well as the coach whose offense saw Beckham's only 1,000+ yard season, were fired, the Browns became a much different organization that brought in the receiver from New York.
Beckham was brought in by then-general manager John Dorsey for then-head coach Freddie Kitchens and remained on the roster after they had packed their things and found their way to different teams.
Gone was the front office that made rash decisions and had trouble keeping their players accountable. Gone was the offense that shied away from being a run-heavy team and relied heavily on "11" personnel and "12" personnel with two or three receivers on a field at a time. Gone were the days of expecting bad situations to only get worse.
Now, with Andrew Berry as general manager and Kevin Stefanski at head coach, the organization has created a new culture, one based on the fundamentals of "smart, tough and accountable" players and staff. The dysfunction has been minimized. Berry and Stefanski showed Friday, at face value, that they can handle a wrench in the plans of a competent organization and get it back in gear. On Sunday, they'll look to prove their calm and cool demeanor and decision-making can translate on the field.
But it wasn't just the culture that changed. Stefanski's arrival in Cleveland also meant a different offensive scheme and a whole new approach to how to win games. Excelling in "13" personnel with three tight ends on the field at a time and much less reliance on wide receivers, as well as implementing a re-dedication to utilizing the strengths of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson and the run game as a way to win, the Browns weren't using Beckham the way he had been used before.
The Browns are at their strongest now, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and Stefanski in charge, when they're spreading the ball around to their offensive weapons (and there's a lot of them) and not focusing on any one player. Unfortunately, Beckham—or at least his dad, considering we have not heard from Beckham at this point—seemed to believe he was not only not a focus, but instead forgotten entirely.
Mayfield himself touched on that point and made clear that if Beckham wanted to be force-fed the ball or be highlighted offensively more than the other weapons, that just wasn't going to happen.
"I mean, there’s been plays and things where he’s not exactly the first read, which we talk about spreading the wealth around because we have a lot of weapons. And there’s been throws that I would love to have back. We talk about the Minnesota game, where it’s minor things. It is what it is, and there’s always things to get corrected," Mayfield said. "Now, am I going to focus only on him and force him the ball? No, because that’s not who I am and that’s not how this offense operates. You saw that last year and that’s how I’m going to handle it."
No one can argue how hard Beckham worked after tearing his ACL and returning to the field. He was on a mission to prove that he is still an elite receiver. He wanted to bounce back and be better than before.
"I've worked extremely hard to not only get back but improve and try and be better than I ever have been so I'm definitely looking forward to it, it's been a long time," Beckham said in September.
The work he put in to be great wasn't being showcased in on-field production. Can you blame Mayfield for not seeing him open more or not making the best throws to him when he did? Sure. Can you blame Beckham for his drops when he did get targeted, or for going off script on his routes at times? Sure. Can you blame Stefanski for not incorporating Beckham into the play calls in a meaningful enough way? Sure. Because at the end of the day, like with so many unfortunate situations, everyone holds a little bit of blame.
This is a no-nonsense organization that is focused on changing the culture and creating an environment that doesn't have the dysfunction of years past. On Friday, Berry said that the social media video Beckham's dad posted was not the only reason the Browns and Beckham parted ways.
"To be honest, this really isn’t about the video. It is about really a series of discussions, really certainly over the last week but even spanning back longer than that. And at times I do think that there is—whether you want to call it a level of frustration—that exists that just really makes it difficult to have a productive reconciliation," Berry said.
Defensive end Myles Garrett confirmed that Beckham was, in fact, frustrated with his production level with the Browns, even though Garrett was surprised that Beckham wanted out of Cleveland.
"He didn't make that known to me. Obviously he was frustrated. We knew he wanted the ball more. Everybody knew he wanted the ball more. That's not mistaken by anybody. But he never said anything about wanting a trade earlier this year, at least not to me. Upper management? I don't know," Garrett said. "I’m on the opposite side of the ball, so I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you what they were going to do or what was going to happen. But the man had one touch last week, and he was disgruntled. I can’t say it was rightfully so, but he’s the No. 1 receiver, I mean, the No. 1 receiver, you have to expect some things are going to come with that. For it to spiral out of control like this, I feel like it shouldn’t have gone this far. But now, I don’t make those decisions.
"At the end of the day, we’ve got to come together as a team and surround ourselves with the people in this building and move forward. At the end of the day, nobody’s going to stop and wait for us to pick up the pieces."
Beckham wanted more than the Browns were giving him, and maybe could give him, without re-configuring the offensive identity entirely. Through the six games he played with the Browns this year, Beckham only totaled 17 receptions, with 34 targets, for 232 yards and no touchdowns to show for it.
Last week against the Steelers, Beckham saw a career-low of one reception for six yards.
Berry and Garrett's comments seemed to hint that Beckham had been unhappy before the Steelers game, but that low level of production seemed to be the pinnacle of the situation—and prompted the online onslaught from Beckham's family and friends.
Now that all is said and done. Beckham is no longer a Cleveland Brown. He'll hit waivers next week, and whether he's claimed or signed after clearing and becoming a free agent, Beckham will likely soon have a new team. And maybe the team he ends up on has an offense where he can shine production-wise. We'll see.
When so many things go wrong in a situation it seems as though maybe it just wasn't meant to be. This is one of those situations.
And at the end of the day, that's okay. Because the Browns will move on and focus on getting their season right and continuing the success they saw last year in the second half of the year. And Beckham will move on and focus on his goal to return to greatness.
All that's left to be said now is simple: Farewell, Odell Beckham Jr.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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