It was Sunday Night Football, November 23, 2014. The Dallas Cowboys came in 7-3, looking to prove themselves as an NFC powerhouse against. The New York Giants were 3-7, a much different outlook than expected a few years after Eli Manning won his second Super Bowl.
But the Giants had hope in the form of receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., a rookie frirst round pick who had accumulated 357 yards in his previous three games. All eyes were on Beckham and that’s when he made what Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver, called at the time, “Maybe the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.”
We all know it. We all remember it. OBJ’s catch against the Cowboys is in many ways more memorable than almost anything that has happened in the Super Bowl over that same period of time. Why? Because great catches are in many ways one of the defining traits of football that have made the sport by far the most popular form of entertainment in the entire industry over the last 20 years.
A combined 22 million people watched the college football national championship this year. The 2022 NBA Finals averaged about 12.5 million people per game. The 2021 World Series averaged 11.75 million.
And college football is no match for the NFL.
For his first three years in the league, OBJ would be one of the most productive stars in the league. But an injury in 2017, when he was still only 25, immediately halted the 100-catch, 1,400-yard, 10-TD player that he was in those early years of his career. OBJ has stayed in the NFL and had his moments of being very good, including helping the Los Angeles Rams win the Super Bowl last season, and he continues to be sought after by teams seeking receiver help after he is fully recovered from ACL surgery.
Maybe there will never be another player who had the same impact on the receiver position that OBJ seemed to have beginning from the moment of that catch.
But why does it seem like the catch that OBJ made eight years ago is on par with some of the routine grabs we’ve been seeing in the NFL lately? I have a theory about that.
First of all, it starts with the finite athletic talent that exists in the world, people who don’t just have unique genetic gifts, but also a spirit of hard work and determination that forces them to push through difficult moments in training day after day. Michael Jordan wasn’t just born Michael Jordan. He became Michael Jordan.
Before anyone is a special athlete, they are a person. Then as that person grows up, they play sports and then they choose the ones that they like.
I believe that because the NFL has become what it has become—the most watchable and entertaining sport in America—many of those special talents are choosing to play football. Patrick Mahomes. Kyler Murray. Russell Wilson. They could have all had professional baseball careers. Murray was a top-10 pick in the MLB draft. But when it became obvious that he could be the top pick in the NFL Draft, Murray decided to forego his opportunities with the Athletics (which could have meant that to this day he would still be toiling in the minor leagues) for a chance in the NFL.
He’s already signed a contract extension making him one of the richest athletes in the country. That will also motivate more young men to choose football over baseball, a sport that does have some massive guaranteed contracts, but doesn’t have the same ratings, attention, and marketing power of the NFL.
If Ken Griffey Jr. were a teenager today, would he be at all motivated to try catching footballs instead of baseballs? Would Barry Bonds try his hand at linebacker? Would a 6’6 right handed pitcher prefer his hand at playing quarterback over the miniscule chances of developing a strong enough change up?
Second, after players choose football, I believe that it comes down to choosing a position. And if there’s one thing we know about modern football, it’s that running backs have fallen from the top of the perch to being arguably the least-desired position in the game.
Maybe 10 years ago, Tyreek Hill would have been a running back. The “desire size” at receiver is no longer the 6’4 or 6’5 monsters hoping to become the next Calvin Johnson. Not even 6 feet is any sort of prerequisite at receiver anymore, especially with the rise of three receiver sets and the increasing value of a great player in the slot.
So I think a lot of talent that would have become running backs is instead forcing position moves to receiver, safety, cornerback, and even linebacker. The top quarterback in college football, Alabama’s Bryce Young, is not at all built like the quarterbacks we are used to. He is 6’ and under 200 lbs and he has one of the greatest arms I’ve ever seen.
It’s possible a lot of players built with a certain type would choose to play cornerback, but usually that is only a fallback if said player has struggled with catching the ball and running routes. Many of the best NFL cornerbacks are just failed wide receivers. However, the ones that do not fail often become starters. And the ones who become stars today, who do you think they often cite as their favorite player?
And what did OBJ do to make himself so famous? Production helps. Personality helps. Even hair helps. But that all pales in comparison to THE CATCH.
So while every football coach in the world will teach you to catch the ball with two hands, there are also those opportunities to make a grab when you only have one free arm. And then times when players do force themselves to make a one-handed grab to end up on SportsCenter, which is where a lot of these guys expect to make their money. Not just by being good, but by being famous.
Dez Bryant is one of many examples of former NFL receivers who remain famous enough to do commercials because we obsessed over his highlight reel grabs—not his statistics.
And those are some of the reasons why I believe that the 2014 catch that made Odell Beckham Jr into “OBJ” for millions of football fans would be merely lost in the news of the week in 2022. These are practically now routine catches for many NFL receivers because a) there is more talent at the position than there ever has been before and b) they’re motivated to “wow” us by making highlight reel grabs like never before.
Where do you think OBJ’s 2014 catch would rank among the top catches of Week 1?
Diontae Johnson Steelers:
Johnson’s one-handed grab over Chidobe Awuzie required both full-extension of his left arm and toe-tapping the sidelines. The catch was ruled incomplete initially until being overturned into a catch.
Hill is going to need to catch a lot of underthrown balls via Tua Tagovailoa this season and this is a perfect example of where his immense talent for adjusting mid-route will come into play.
Claypool called himself one of the top receivers in the NFL coming into the season and catches like this one are a great example of why. Pittsburgh actually has THREE receivers on this list, which is great news for Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett. This grab by Claypool is amazing and I didn’t hear anyone talk about it this weekend.
Bonus Hayden Hurst:
Though it might not be on par with the other catches, need I remind you that now TIGHT ENDS are making catches like this? And not only tight ends, but mid-tier tight ends like Hayden Hurst.
As you can imagine there were a lot of great catches in the preseason and this is a perfect example of how even fringe NFL players are able to do amazing things with the ball in the air.
Erik Ezukanma had no business making this catch. Elite body control and hand-eye coordination to come down with this ball. pic.twitter.com/0DfSGBqgSd— King of Phinland (@KingOfPhinland) August 21, 2022
Josh Palmer showcasing his ball skills. What a catch pic.twitter.com/y1KALlzovx— Billy M (@BillyM_91) August 21, 2022
Where would OBJ’s 2014 catch rank among these? Still number one? Where would you rank Lance McCutcheon here?