Odell Beckham Jr. and Jalen Ramsey: the most anticipated NFL Week 1 matchup
Which begs the question: Why is the Giants vs. Jags game, with two supernova young talents, not in prime time?
On Sunday, when the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to MetLife Stadium to take on the new-look New York Giants, two of the brightest, most analyzed and polarizing stars in American sport will meet for the first time in their young All-Pro careers: Jalen Ramsey and Odell Beckham Jr. The team-based nature of football makes this individual matchup all the more enticing — a game within a game that will massage, accentuate and embiggen Beckham’s flair for the dramatic and Ramsey’s all-eyes-on-me self-adoration. The possibilities of Beckham vs. Ramsey are without a doubt a huge net positive for the NFL — especially given the league’s current situations.
Just one of these situations is Nike’s big step in the arena — where it’ll hold court as official NFL uniform supplier for the next decade. The even bigger headline? Three revolutionary ads featuring Colin Kaepernick — the last of which aired during Thursday night’s season opener (Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles) and features Serena Williams, LeBron James and Beckham. Kaepernick was announced a few days ago as the face of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign, and so he’s fresh out the frying pan and into the kneeling for justice fire the league has been struggling to manage.
So Kapernick’s Afro will likely be front and center during many televised NFL games as the league stares down the barrel of the Kaepernick collusion case that could get ugly, and more embarrassing. There’s also the new helmet rule: It’s simultaneously loathed and unclear. And what exactly constitutes as a catch is fast becoming the NFL’s version of trying to figure out what Tommy’s job on Martin was — unknown.
Hindsight, especially in the NFL, is so often 20/20. But we don’t have to wait until the future to look back and ask why is a Week 1 matchup, in this season, which featured two supernova young talents, is a 1 p.m. game — and not in prime time?
The New York Giants’ $95 million superstar wideout and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ punishing cornerback are involved in the latest chapter of on-field battles between wide receivers and defensive backs. Some of the modern era’s most intense verbal and physical sparring come from this positional tug of war. It’s what happens when you put two killers on an island — and only one can live there.
Ramsey is already a patron saint of trolling and trash-talking — football’s 50 Cent, if you will. Just ask the Bengals’ A.J. Green about last season’s fight that got both men ejected. Add to that: In his third professional game, Ramsey went bark-for-bark with all-time great verbal sparrer Steve Smith Sr. and called Smith an “old man” in a postgame interview. The bad blood between Beckham and Josh Norman was punctuated by an outright violent clash five days before Christmas 2015. The levels of big-game intensity and mutual disdain between Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree were one of a kind. And Crabtree and Aqib Talib was pure Bully Ball — all the way down to chain-snatching.
Although neither Charles Woodson nor recently retired Darrelle Revis was known as a trash-talker, the future Canton inductees’ tenures played out during the peak performances of Hall of Fame wideouts Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, not to mention Calvin Johnson and Chad Johnson. What the matchups lacked in frequency they overcompensated for in drama and allure.
And let’s not forget the war of words between Ray Buchanan and tight end Shannon Sharpe during Super Bowl XXXIII’s media week. Buchanan said Sharpe looked like famous TV horse Mr. Ed. Sharpe inferred Buchanan was a “cross-dresser.” Unfortunately, the back-and-forth, which made national headlines, was the highlight of a lethargic championship dubbed “the worst ever,” as Sharpe’s Denver Broncos beat Buchanan’s Atlanta Falcons 34-19.
The aforementioned undercards play a collective second-best to the crème de la crème of receiver-cornerback bitter bromances: the spat between former teammates Deion Sanders and Andre Rison. It was as brief as it was vicious. Despite the fact that their first matchup was a 42-3 fade from Sanders and the San Francisco 49ers over Rison’s Falcons, the highly anticipated showdown took place Oct. 16, 1994. Rison was clear about how Sanders’ departure from Atlanta hurt him. “We had got into it a little bit and had some words because I was hurt he was leaving,” Rison said years later. “I thought we were going to go out together.”
It was the verbal taunts beforehand, though, that set the stage (and a blueprint for these kinds of battles moving forward). “If it was possible, I’d love for everybody to get off the field so we can just go at it one-on-one,” Sanders said to reporters on game day before kickoff. “I’m that kinda guy.” To which Rison promptly responded, “I never said anything derogatory towards Deion. If he has a personal vendetta against me or problem with me, to hell with him. If he wanna go one-on-one, we can go one-on-one all god damn day.”
The action on the field not only featured Sanders taking an interception 93 yards to the house, but the two All-Pros also exchanged pleasantries in the second quarter by way of fists and four-letter words. On a simple handoff, Sanders and Rison lined up on an island by the left hashmark. Rison led with a quick strike to Sanders’ face mask at the line of scrimmage. Sanders and Rison exchanged several slap box shots to the head. Announcers praised Deion for his “[Evander] Holyfield left hook.”
If boxing is the sweet science, the relationship between wide receivers and defensive backs is exquisite anarchy. At the heart of the bond is a mix of ego, swagger, flair, individual expression and personalities that inspire both love and hate. Ramsey and Beckham check off all those boxes.
The kind of personal animosity so visible between Sanders and Rison is absent from Ramsey and Beckham, although Ramsey’s summer press run included First Take-like diagnosis of fellow NFL players in GQ. As the concept of tongue-biting is foreign to the Tennessee-born third-year defensive back, when poked about the players he deems “dope” and those he sees as “trash,” Ramsey jumped at the opportunity.
Ramsey’s praise of Beckham was backhanded: He threw Giants quarterback Eli Manning under the bus by saying Manning was only good because of Beckham. And at a July news conference regarding this Week 1 matchup against Beckham, Ramsey was about as diplomatic as he’s been, well, ever. “Let’s get this out of the way right now,” he said. “[Beckham] is a good receiver. We all know that. But you all know me at the same time. Yeah, he’s good, but I’m good, too.”
Beckham and Ramsey are superstars independent of their helmet stickers. The fashion-forward Beckham and stylish Ramsey live very transparently via social media at transitional points in their lives. The record-setting Beckham, by his own admission, experienced a mid-20s life crisis of the kind so many young people are burdened with, regardless of profession or success. The game that made him richer than his wildest dreams and The Catch that spawned the insatiable appetite for all things Beckham can be a heavy cross to carry.
The celebrity friendships and the courtside lifestyle are A-list perks that come with being A-list talent. Beckham is the face of New York sports. But every smart athlete learns sooner rather than later that sports are a business first and enjoyable activity second. “Four or five years ago, when I was in college, I told my coach, I was like, ‘I fear the day they make football not what I love to do anymore, but my job,’ ” he said last summer. “Now it’s starting to slowly become my job.”
Beckham doubled down on that sentiment during his appearance on LeBron James and HBO’s The Shop. “I really feel like a zoo animal,” he said. The frenzy that comes with being the most followed NFL entity, player or team, by a wide margin, comes with a steep price. “You know, you used to take … kids to the zoo and we used to be like, ‘I want to see the lions …’ ” he said. “And you go out there and the lions are all laid out. It’s like, ‘Why aren’t they doing lion stuff?’ I’ve got people who call out, ‘Odell! Dance!’ … That doesn’t feel good.”
To win the retreat / We all in too deep/ Pl-pl-playin’ for keeps / Don’t play us for weak.
— Big Hawk, featured on Travis Scott’s 2018 “Sicko Mode”
Ramsey is a walking Invictus poem — the master of his fate, and the captain of his soul. A Gary Payton-like bravado lives in Ramsey: Not only does his talent allow him to smother defenders, he provides a soundtrack while doing so.
But dice game-level trash talk is only one part of Ramsey’s growing Hall of Fame-level talent. Like safeties Ed Reed in Baltimore and Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh before him, Ramsey’s No. 20 has the potential to become more than simply part of Jaguars lore. His swagger and fearlessness, and even the volatility, can come to define sports culture in a city that lies outside of Florida’s most popping locales. Ramsey’s the type of player built to carry that type of responsibility: He’s the face and mouthpiece of one of the most vaunted defenses in football — a franchise that less than five years ago was seen as Siberia for superstars. And much like Beckham, Ramsey’s meteoric payday is on the horizon.
That’s not the only change. In July, Ramsey’s longtime girlfriend, Ole Miss track star Breanna Tate (younger sister of Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate), gave birth to their daughter, Breelyn. If Ramsey was focused last season, which led to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections and his Jaguars nearly advancing to the Super Bowl, what does it mean for the rest of the NFL now that he’s officially the second-loudest screamer in his own household?
for the sake of balance in the universe, Jalen Ramsey better get torched this season or else he gon be unbearable lmao
— Samurai Apocalypse (@REHAB_) August 30, 2018
On Sunday, though, what if strategy trumps excitement? What if Ramsey doesn’t cover Beckham? What if Beckham doesn’t create another chapter of his legacy at Ramsey’s expense? What if Ramsey never gets to tell Beckham he’s no Antonio Brown in the heat of the moment — because that sounds like a Jalen Ramsey thing to say? What if these two never meet in the center of the ring to trade metaphorical haymakers?
“Receivers are, like, naturally soft,” Ramsey says in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine. “So sensitive.” But it’s both Beckham and Ramsey who are fueled by hearts that they wear on their shoulder pads, both having openly shed tears on the field. This emotion is the magic ingredient in the making of signature one-handed catches and lockdown coverages. There’s always that show. It’s why so many of the greatest receivers and corners are who they are.
But it’s that same emotion the new, mature Beckham vows to keep in check. Ramsey will undoubtedly attempt to bait him, but Beckham doesn’t plan on biting. Key words being plan on. “I’m sure it won’t be as friendly as it was over the offseason,” Beckham told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re both very, very competitive. I know that for sure. It’s going to be a good game.”
“If you want to say he’s the best at his position, I’m the best at my position, so we are going to go at it,” Ramsey promised. “We are going to give the people a show the first game of the season.”
One can only hope the new Mouth of the South is right.