Odell Beckham Jr. slid into his chair at the postgame interview table and exhaled.
Beckham was exhausted, and he wasn't afraid to admit it. He had just completed his first game since Oct. 25, 2020, when he suffered a torn ACL that ended his season, and after playing in 52 of the Browns' 81 total offensive snaps Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, his legs had been pushed to their limits.
"It was the first time in a very long time," Beckham said with a chuckle. "I pushed it, but I gave it everything I could for today.
"I just felt like I could never get my legs going, but we came out with the 'W' and that's all that matters."
Beckham's fatigue wasn't evident when he was on the field, though. He led the Browns in their 26-6 Week 3 win over the Bears with five receptions on nine targets for 77 yards and even made a contribution in the run game with a 10-yard, first-down carry.
Beckham was back to running the same sharp, quick routes that have helped him become one of the most nimble wide receivers in the NFL, and his pair of reliable hands helped keep the Browns offense moving as Cleveland cruised to its second win of the season.
"He worked very hard to get back here," coach Kevin Stefanski said. "Any guy who is coming off an injury and coming off of an offseason surgery, it's not easy. He pushed very hard, and I was proud of him out there."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bears in week three
Beckham missed the first two games of the season as he continued to recover from his knee surgery, which typically requires an 11-month recovery. The Browns were always going to be careful with Beckham, who had been running full sprints in practices since minicamp but was held out of games to ensure his knee was fully prepared for the grind of an NFL game.
The Browns announced Friday that Beckham would be back in the lineup, and the timing of his return was significant for the offense after Jarvis Landry was placed on Injured Reserve earlier in the week following a knee injury in Week 2.
As Beckham warmed up on the field Sunday, he wore a Jarvis "Juice" Landry T-shirt and kept his best friend and college teammate from LSU in his thoughts.
"I had the shirt before any incident went down, and I was going to wear it regardless," Beckham said. "It just seemed fitting, just to be able to get a win."
Despite looking fast and finding space in the defense, Beckham said he never quite felt like his same speedy self in his first game back. He even said that his shoulder popped out when he took his first hit of the game, a short pass that fell incomplete but still resulted in Beckham being tackled to the grass.
"Shoulder pops out; put it back in," he said. "Keep playing. It's like a boxer whose legs you cannot get underneath you. You don't have the same balance. It's not a lack of exposure or anything like that. It's just that first game back with energy and emotions running through you. I just couldn't get my legs going."
Even if Beckham didn't feel up to full speed, the Browns were just happy to have him back on the field. Any additional speed he garners with more in-game experience will make the Browns offense even more explosive, and there's no doubt the Browns will plan to use Beckham at the same or even higher frequency now that he's shown he's still capable of juking out defenders and getting open.
"The game reps and all of the extra effort you have – chasing a run play down – whereas in practice, you are not trying to bury your teammate in practice," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "It's just those extra efforts, and we had a lot of plays on offense today. I think we had 20 minutes (of possession) in the first half, so that's a lot for him coming back for the first game.
"You could tell, but he will get quick. He will be fine."
Beckham believes he'll only get stronger, too. His first game back is out of the way, and his future with the Browns offense, which is currently ranked eighth in the NFL after three straight weeks of strong performances, couldn't be much brighter.
"A lot of emotions and a lot of things just running through you as you are back in the stadium," Beckham said. "It's still a dream to play in the NFL and be in this game. It was a lot to take in today."