Hall of Famer Bill Cowher isn’t buying arguments about wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s expected divorce from the Browns being the fault of coach Kevin Stefanski or quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“He looks selfish,” Cowher said of Beckham during a phone interview Thursday afternoon with the Beacon Journal.
The Browns have excused Beckham from practices this week, and all signs are pointing to a split between the two sides. The team plans to make the breakup official on Friday by releasing Beckham, ProFootballTalk.com reported late Thursday night.
On the heels of Beckham catching one pass on just one official target this past weekend in a 15-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium, his father, Odell Beckham Sr., shared a video on Instagram Tuesday morning showing plays from Weeks 3-6 on which Mayfield either didn’t throw to OBJ or missed him as a result of off-target passes or miscommunication. Beckham’s dad also agreed with some of the people who dissed Mayfield in the comments on the Instagram post.
Just before noon Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James backed his friend Beckham with a “#FreeOBJ” tweet. But the NFL trade deadline passed at 4 p.m. Tuesday with Beckham still a member of the Browns.
Beckham hasn’t talked to Stefanski or Mayfield since then.
As a CBS Sports NFL analyst, Cowher has monitored the drama from afar.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” said Cowher, a former Browns linebacker and special teams ace who coached the Steelers for 15 years, took them to two Super Bowls and won the title at the end of the 2005 season.
The reigning NFL Coach of the Year, Stefanski spoke to Cowher this past offseason about how to spur the Browns to handle success well after their 2020 playoff run.
Cowher was impressed then and still believes the Browns are in good hands with Stefanski.
“He’s got a vision of what he wants to create long term,” Cowher said. “He’s not going to be derailed.”
Now on a quest to get on track for another postseason race, the Browns (4-4) need to overcome any lingering distractions created by the Beckham saga with a crucial AFC North game against the Cincinnati Bengals (5-3) awaiting them Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“Our season’s kind of on the brink,” left guard Joel Bitonio said Thursday.
The key for Stefanski, Cowher said, is convincing the locker room to “just move on” and focus on the Bengals.
“It’s like anybody else who gets hurt,” Cowher said of Beckham’s disappearing act. “You get an injury, and it’s the next person who steps up. One man’s loss is another person’s opportunity, and that’s what I’d be saying.
“I don’t want selfish players on this team. I know people want the ball. I know people want to be more involved. They want a bigger role. I ask everyone to leave their egos at the door, embrace the role you have and who knows when the next opportunity comes up? Take it and run with it. That’s the message that needs to be repeated time and time again.”
Browns safety John Johnson III said Thursday players are equipped to lock in on the game.
“We find this way to kind of go numb to stuff like this because it’s just a business. That’s just how it works,” he said. “Obviously, there will be a little emotions in it, but I think we’re just trained to just keep moving forward.”
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Moving forward won’t be easy for everyone, though. Plenty of fans and media members argue Stefanski and Mayfield are to blame for OBJ’s separation from the franchise because they didn’t do enough as the offense’s play caller and quarterback to get him the ball more.
“That’s a selfish viewpoint,” Cowher said. “You went to the playoffs [last season]. You’re a running football team. That’s who you are. Is it more important to Odell to catch eight balls than to win a game and catch one? I mean, I’d ask that question. Is it more important to you to catch eight balls in a game and lose or catch one ball to win?
“I had a running football team for a long time. You think [former Steelers receivers] Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward loved it when I shut down and we started running the football in the second half of games and Ben [Roethlisberger is] throwing the ball 24, 25 times a game? You can’t make everybody happy, and you don’t try to make everybody happy. You do what’s in the best interest of the team. Whatever the identity your team takes on, at some point, you’re going to have to maybe transform into that passing team, and it will happen naturally, but don’t force it.”
Cowher lamented Beckham’s lack of patience because he only played 13 games in Stefanski’s offense — six this year and seven in an injury-shortened 2020 season. Cowher also pointed out Mayfield has had an injured left, non-throwing shoulder since Week 2, so Beckham should not have expected the passing game to be at its best.
“You see if you can come to some kind of understanding and just ask him to be patient through the course of this,” Cowher said. “It’s never going to be perfect, but he’s got to be willing to listen. If people get hunkered down and they surround themselves with people that put things into their ears and they draw a line in the sand, at some point you move on.
“We’re in the second year of an offense. I just wish he’d be a little bit more patient and work through these things. If you’re going to have a long-term relationship, it’s like a marriage. You have to work through some of the troubled times, and it’s not going to always be roses. I just think he comes across as being a very self-centered, very selfish individual when he put his own personal interest ahead of the team.”
The last time Beckham addressed Browns beat writers, he spoke of his desire to have the ball, but also about prioritizing team success over individual production. It’s been a theme of several of his interviews since late July.
“I can’t sit here and lie like I don’t want the ball,” Beckham said Oct. 14. “Like I tell you every time I get up here, they don’t pay James Harden for defense. He’s a shooter. I feel like I’m a shooter.
“The ultimate goal is to win the championship, and I feel like I’m in a great situation to do that. And it may not be me [catching the ball]. There’s going to be days where it will be my day.”
Beckham hasn’t talked publicly about the Steelers game, but he did address his lack of opportunities in a 47-42 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 10. He caught two passes on three targets for 20 yards.
“I don’t think there’s any lack of effort for coach and anybody to try and get the ball into my hands,” Beckham said. “It just kind of works out that way. Defenses are paying more attention, and it was one of those games where I got the ball less.”
The loss to the Steelers wasn’t Beckham’s day, either, and it apparently became the last straw from his perspective.
“You have a disgruntled player, and I don’t know exactly what he’s bothered by, whether it’s a one-game lack of targets, whether it’s a buildup or a breakdown in communication he’s had with Baker,” Cowher said. “I don’t know what his troubles are, but I know Kevin Stefanski well enough to know that you can go into his office and you can talk to him. He will listen to you. He may not give you the answers you want, but he’ll listen to you. Baker and him both said the right thing — they’re trying to get [Beckham] more involved.”
Beckham was the most targeted Browns player this season, even though he sat out the first two games as part of his comeback from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his left knee on Oct. 25, 2020, in Cincinnati.
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In six games this season, Beckham has compiled 17 catches on 34 targets for 232 yards without a touchdown. He and Mayfield have never found the strong connection they began chasing in 2019, when former Browns GM John Dorsey acquired Beckham in a trade with the New York Giants.
“I think Baker Mayfield has handled this as well as anybody. He’s said all the right things. He’s not taking it personal. He understands,” Cowher said. “When you’re a quarterback in the National Football League, part of it isn’t just completions on Sunday.
“Part of it is managing what he’s trying to manage right now, which … is trying to keep all your receivers happy and at the same time knowing the coach is going to be calling running plays on 50% of the plays. That’s part of managing a good football team that’s got a lot of high-profile people who want the ball. Now whether or not he has the talent level, what goes on, that’s going to take care of itself. But I think from that [leadership] standpoint, at least it appears to me from the outside looking in, that he’s handled this situation I think appropriately.”
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Cowher said he “absolutely” still sees the Browns as a team capable of turning its season around and making the playoffs.
But it won’t happen if the players become divided in the aftermath of the Beckham circus.
“Kevin will keep the locker room together because he’ll be transparent with the team as he was on Wednesday, when he said [Beckham is] not with this team today,” Cowher said. “You’re not going to sit there and not talk about the elephant in the room. That’s the one thing about Kevin Stefanski. He’s going to call it the way he sees it. You don’t have to like it, but you’ll respect him.
“Do what’s in the best interest of the team and the long-term goals and the culture that you want to create in that team. He’s just over a year in. He’s got a long time to go. I think what we’ve seen from him is a guy who’s willing to listen, he’s flexible, he can relate, but at the same time, there’s certain lines that I don’t think you should allow anyone to cross because no one person is bigger than the team. When you start to allow those things to happen, it just starts to creep into other elements of your organization.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.