During one of the toughest years of Tom Coughlin's decorated coaching career, Odell Beckham Jr. has surfaced as a new kind of conundrum. Coughlin is preaching to his New York Giants that Beckham's actions are unacceptable, yet he didn't pull him off the field for even one play during Sunday's meltdown against the Carolina Panthers. "Unacceptable" minus consequences equals "acceptable," no matter what the coach is saying or how many Super Bowls he has won. So the fact that the NFL took matters out of Coughlin's hands and suspended Beckham for a game actually helps deliver a message Coughlin clearly doesn't want to have to deliver himself.
"This is a young player that's being educated and that, quite frankly, is an excellent football player," Coughlin said Monday. "If we were to have a chance to win the game, I wanted him to be out there. I'll be honest with you."
That's a high level of honesty from a coach who built his early-career reputation on discipline. In a vacuum, it seems obvious to say that the younger Coughlin would have yanked Beckham off the field for his dangerous, out-of-control behavior Sunday, and to wonder whether the fact that he didn't indicates something alarming about his continued ability to coach today's players.
But Coughlin doesn't coach in a vacuum, and one of his coaching strengths is his ability to acknowledge that and adjust accordingly. Beckham is a player unlike any other Coughlin has ever had, and applying the same rules to him that he'd apply to someone else isn't going to work.
"There are qualities that Odell Beckham, this young man, brings to this football team the likes of which I've never seen," Coughlin said. "I will not defend his actions [Sunday], because they were wrong and this particular franchise and organization does not tolerate that. But I will defend the young man and the quality of the person. I will defend him as long as I am able.
"So I told our team that. Our team feels the same way about Odell. Everyone knows that he was wrong and that was out of place. And it is an ongoing process, the education of young players. And this is a very unique and talented young man."
The original intent of this piece was to raise an eyebrow about Coughlin's handling of this situation. The concept was, "Odell Beckham is a player Tom Coughlin needs and a challenge that he doesn't." But my perspective changed after I dug in a little bit and got more information. I found ample evidence to support Coughlin's assertion that the team feels the same way about Beckham as he does. I asked multiple people close to the situation whether, in an honest moment, Coughlin would say Beckham was (A) a huge pain in the rear end, (B) worth the trouble or (C) both. And everyone said it was B.
People who have been inside the locker room and on the practice field, away from media eyes, say Beckham is a hard worker who's never late and helps maintain a positive atmosphere in the building. Friends and teammates say he plays with a chip on his shoulder about opponents, believing they're all out to get him, but that the team enjoys having him around and will continue to stand up for him.
Now, a big part of that is Beckham's incredible ability, and everyone acknowledges that. You can't act like a crazy person and get 15-yard penalties and get away with it if you're not delivering production at the consistently high level Beckham delivers it. The recent case of Damontre Moore, whom the Giants waived on Dec. 11, is proof of that. But Beckham does deliver, and as a result Coughlin is left to manage a situation unlike any he has ever had. His responsibility is to do whatever he can to help the team win while at the same time helping to manage and direct the development of his players.
Beckham's development comes with an interesting, challenging wrinkle in the form of his on-field temper, and Coughlin decided Sunday that the best thing for him and the team was to let him try to play through his outbursts. You can disagree with the decision, and I disagree with it myself. If only for his own safety, I think Beckham should have been taken out of Sunday's game. But the idea that it was the helpless act of an aging coach who can't figure out a way to control his best player seems not to be supported by the facts. Beckham's case is unique, and for his coach not to treat it as such wouldn't send a "strict disciplinarian" message as much as a "stubborn old man" message.
This is a trying year for Coughlin, slugging it out with the least talented Giants roster he has ever had. What Beckham did Sunday obviously made it tougher, as will having to play without him Sunday if his suspension is upheld on appeal. But while getting angry and punitive about it might fit the classic Coughlin narrative better, he has chosen to go a different way with his handling of one of his young superstars. And while it might be more fun to holler about how the NFL world's going to hell when a 69-year-old championship coach is enabling a 23-year-old hothead, Coughlin is right to acknowledge that this case isn't that simple.