The Browns will play the rest of the season without their top deep threat, one of the NFL’s best playmakers and the weapon who changes defensive coordinators’ game plans.
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending torn left anterior cruciate ligament Sunday in the 37-34 win over the Bengals, is all that and more for the Browns.
“Odell, the energy he brings to practice, the energy he brings to games, no one else is going to be able to bring that type of juice,” coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday after an MRI confirmed the diagnosis.
The Browns are left to pick up the pieces after Beckham went down on their second offensive play as he chased Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips, who had intercepted a deep pass intended for Beckham. He’s expected to have surgery, which hadn’t been scheduled, and will be placed on injured reserve. Recovery time for a torn ACL is usually six-to-nine months.
“We were in there around him during halftime, and it was just hard — hard for him, hard for all of us, hard seeing him in pain and in distress,” said rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who caught the 24-yard winning touchdown with 11 seconds left. “He gave me a handshake and said, ‘Go be great.’ That meant a lot coming from him. That was a real surreal moment.”
The Browns are 5-2, hold the second AFC wild card spot and are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Stefanski acknowledged that will be harder without Beckham but said he won’t lower expectations for the offense, which ranks 10th in the league with 28.6 points a game.
“We hate that part of it, but as an offense and as a team, we do not adjust our expectations,” Stefanski said, mentioning he used the same philosophy when running back Nick Chubb went on IR with a sprained knee. “We want our offense to be able to move the ball down the field and score a bunch of points regardless of who is out there. That is something important to the Cleveland Browns.”
But Stefanski didn’t try to downplay the impact of the “big loss” of Beckham.
“He’s a huge part of what we do, so now we just have to huddle up and find some different ways and find some different people and put them in that role,” Stefanski said. “You never replace a player of Odell’s caliber with one player.
“But it is our job to find the guys that can go compete, that we can go put them in spots where they can succeed. And I think we will be able to do that. That is not easy. Do not want to have to do it. And I am very disappointed for Odell, but that is the nature of this beast.”
Jarvis Landry moves into the No. 1 receiver spot, and Rashard Higgins, KhaDarel Hodge and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones will assume larger roles. Hodge has missed three games on injured reserve with a strained hamstring, but Stefanski said he’s expected back this week as the Browns host the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
“Like you saw yesterday, we still have playmakers and guys that can go out there and play the game, Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Jarvis and all those guys,” cornerback Denzel Ward said. “So all those guys can still play. I am sure the offense is still going to be good.”
Stefanski was asked about adding a receiver through free agency or before the trade deadline Nov. 3.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” he said, adding he likes the group he has.
Beckham, who’ll turn 28 on Nov. 5, finishes with 23 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns. He added 72 yards and a touchdown rushing and completed one pass for 18 yards.
Beckham had predicted great things for himself for 2020 before backing off a bit after the coronavirus pandemic hit. He was healthy again after playing all of 2019 — his first season with the Browns — with a core muscle injury that required surgery in January. He still managed to play all 16 games and compile 74 catches for 1,035 yards and four touchdowns, despite not being 100 percent and struggling to establish chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The torn ACL continues a streak of injury-plagued seasons for Beckham, who was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 with the Giants and made the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons but hasn’t been back. He was limited to four games in 2017 by a broken ankle and 12 games in 2018 with a bruised quadriceps.
People around the NFL sent their well-wishes on social media, including Landry, who’s Beckham’s longtime best friend and took the news particularly hard.
Stefanski was unsure how teams will change their approach to defending the Browns without Beckham and his ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally.
“Our job is to huddle up as an offensive staff and talk about how do we find ways to be explosive in the run and in the pass,” Stefanski said.
He knows his game plan will be different but doesn’t expect the adjustments to be extreme.
“I would not say drastically altered,” he said. “We have to do a good job as a staff understanding the players that we have at our disposal, and what they do well, and make sure that we tailor a game plan to those talents.”
Beckham’s five-year, $90 million contract signed while with the Giants runs through 2023. NFL Network reported almost $13 million of the $15.75 million compensation for 2021 will be guaranteed in March and the Browns can’t cut him because he’ll still be rehabbing.
So Beckham’s career with the Browns will most likely continue. Just not until 2021.