Opinion: With AFC playoff race wide open, Browns shouldn't part with Odell Beckham Jr. until 2022

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BEREA, Ohio — As general manager Andrew Berry and the representatives for Odell Beckham Jr. discussed the receiver’s future Wednesday, the best way forward only favors one side.

Beckham should have played his last game for the Browns. But #FreeOBJ shouldn’t happen until 2022.

Giving him the remaining $8.33 million on his salary to stay away from the team is a small price to pay to save the locker room. The Browns have a close-knit team, but continued drama — even as the players try to ignore it — could sabotage the season.

“Our focus needs to be on winning and anything like this, stuff that gets created on the outside drama-wise take away the focus and the attention to detail that we need to have,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said Wednesday.

It would be easy for Browns players to choose sides between Mayfield and Beckham. They see the Monday film — or the video posted by Beckham’s father on Instagram — where Beckham is open. They see Mayfield doing everything in his power to play with a torn labrum and fractured humerus in his left shoulder. They realize Mayfield must cut down on the rollouts and bootlegs, his strengths, to avoid further damage to the shoulder.

But should Mayfield’s performance continue to be average at best, some could become disillusioned and take Beckham’s stance.

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Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sits on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sits on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

With the Browns 4-4, Sunday’s game at Cincinnati is crucial, as are the remaining nine games.

“We have to get a win. Our lives depend on it is the way we look at it,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. “We are desperate, and that is where our focus is.”

The AFC is wide open. The Browns still have a chance to win the division. That’s why they can’t waive Beckham.

If he cleared waivers, which he surely would because of his high salary, he would become a free agent and could sign with any team. Letting him go to secure a deal with the New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers is one thing. Giving him a chance to sign with an AFC opponent would compromise the Browns’ chances of reaching their first Super Bowl.

As farfetched as that sounds, it’s not out of the question.

There's no doubt Beckham would be more motivated catching passes from the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson or even the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.

Some will wonder why the Browns didn’t trade Beckham before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. They surely would have had to pay part, if not all, of Beckham’s salary. Perhaps there were few takers, with only an ESPN report about the Saints’ interest surfacing.

The Browns might have known Beckham would fail his physical. It could have taken time for the Browns’ front office to determine the right way forward and to convince co-owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to pay Beckham not to play, for them or another team. Dee Haslam has been close to Beckham. It’s possible the Haslams didn’t fully comprehend that the season was on the brink.

When he spoke after practice, Mayfield said he was willing to try to make it work with Beckham. But hashing things out with Stefanski, Berry and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt in the room wouldn’t fix much. Mayfield and Beckham need the help of a trained professional to air their feelings and reach a level of empathy. Two larger-than-life personalities investing that time and effort midway through the season seems unlikely.

“I’m prepared to do whatever, and if he’s back, then we’ll work through it and do whatever it takes. I can put my ego and pride to the side to win, because that’s all I care about is winning,” Mayfield said.

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) kneels in the end zone before the game against the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) kneels in the end zone before the game against the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium.

It seemed telling Wednesday that Stefanski said he had not spoken to Beckham in the past 24 hours. In that span, Beckham’s father posted the video and the #FreeOBJ tweet from Beckham’s friend LeBron James hit social media.

Stefanski wouldn’t confirm it, but it seems feasible that Beckham is not answering calls from Stefanski, even though he said as recently as Monday that he needs to get Beckham the ball. The IG video and tweets coming from Beckham’s side seem to make it clear he doesn’t believe Mayfield is capable of that, perhaps even when he’s healthy.

As big of a failure as the Browns’ three seasons with Beckham has been, at least in terms of Beckham’s impact, some of that was due to his three surgeries in the past four years. Only in his three-touchdown game at Dallas in 2020 and his six-catch, 161-yard night (with one TD) at New York against the Jets in 2019 did Beckham show he was still the same game-changing player he was with the Giants.

But the baggage he brought with him from New York was part of it as well.

Beckham did not produce the Browns’ first 100-catch receiving season. Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome (1983, 1984) and tight end Kellen Winslow (2006) still hold the record with 89. In hindsight, it’s a wonder the fireworks one man set off at the news of the deal didn’t fizzle when lit.

Trading for Beckham wasn’t Stefanski’s and Berry’s decision, made instead by former GM John Dorsey. It was a splashy move that provided more headaches than highlights.

With the Berry-Stefanski regime in its second year, how the two handle their first real crisis could define them, at least in the short term. Caving to a player’s demands and cutting Beckham is not a good look.

James’ wish to #FreeOBJ can be fulfilled. But with the Browns’ course for 2021 still uncharted, keeping Beckham away from AFC contenders until free agency begins in March is the best way to avoid rough waters.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns should not release receiver Odell Beckham Jr.