Rags-to-riches story has Giants' offense on Cruz control By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
The indelible image from the last time the New York Giants and New England Patriots squared off with an NFL title on the line was left by a seldom-used wide receiver who went from obscurity to permanent Super Bowl hero in one life-altering play.
If you thought David Tyree was a great story, folks, wait until you hear that of Victor Cruz.
The second-year receiver's rise from anonymity to record-setting superstar occurred a bit more gradually than Tyree's sudden placement into Giants' lore via his unforgettable "Helmet Catch" that helped Big Blue cut down the seemingly-invincible Patriots in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, but it's a tale no less unlikely or fascinating.
"I wake up every day and just pinch myself and kind of think about how far I have come and all the stuff I have done," Cruz said.
Cruz had already beaten long odds by making New York's roster as a college free agent following an impressive 2010 preseason, but the playmaking 25-year- old defied all logic when he orchestrated the most prolific campaign by a wideout in club history in helping the Giants reach Indianapolis for another championship bout with New England.
It wouldn't be the first time Cruz has been underestimated.
He was one of the star players of a powerhouse program at Paterson Catholic High School, around a 20-minute drive from the Giants' training facilities in Northern New Jersey, yet couldn't draw the attention of major college recruiters despite a 19-touchdown campaign as a senior. Rutgers had mulled offering the then 5-foot-9, 160-pound prospect its final scholarship, but instead decided to give it to Devin McCourty, now a cornerback for the Patriots who ironically may be lining up opposite Cruz in the Super Bowl.
Cruz eventually landed at FCS-level Massachusetts, but made a minimal impact his first two seasons while struggling with both academic and personal issues. He persevered through those tough times to emerge as one of the subdivision's most productive receivers during his final two years with the Minutemen, however, earning a camp invite from the Giants shortly after receiving his degree.
A head-turning performance in the 2010 preseason opener against the rival Jets, in which Cruz scored three touchdowns and racked up 145 yards on six catches, would land the undrafted long shot a spot on the active roster, though both his rookie season and the outset of this one would be spent buried on the depth chart at a position where the Giants were well-stocked with young talent.
Cruz's big break would finally come in this season's second game, when veteran No. 3 receiver Domenik Hixon tore his ACL in a Monday night triumph over St. Louis. And once again, the local boy made good would make the most of the chance.
In his first game as a full-fledged member of the rotation, Cruz hauled in two long touchdown passes from quarterback Eli Manning to help stake New York to a big win at preseason NFC East favorite Philadelphia. He proved it was no fluke with an eight-catch, 161-yard outburst against Seattle two weeks later, and later totaled at least six receptions and 84 yards each time during a terrific six-game stretch from Oct. 30-Dec. 4.
The stylish youngster, who's gained some additional fame for his patented end- zone salsa dances, capped off his unexpectedly superb regular season with a flair as well, amassing 342 yards in huge decisions over the Jets and Dallas that gave the Giants the NFC East crown. His 99-yard score late in the first half versus the Jets may have been the team's most important play of the year, as the Giants were trailing their fellow Met Life Stadium tenants at the time and were faced with a 3rd-and-long situation deep in their own end.
Cruz would finish the schedule with 1,536 receiving yards, the third-highest total in the NFL this season and the most ever by a Giant in a single year, blowing away franchise icon Amani Toomer's mark of 1,343 in 2002.
I didn't anticipate having this kind of season," Cruz admitted. "I just wanted to come in and hopefully do some things well and find my place, and to now have my place in history is crazy."
So has been all the attention. Cruz was reportedly targeted by the producers of "Dancing with the Stars" to appear in the hit show's upcoming season (he turned down the request) and struck up a friendship with rap artist and noted Giants fan 50 Cent, though that newfound celebrity status hasn't kept him from maintaining an active and positive presence in his native Paterson, a city hit hard by high crime and rising employment that could really use a favorite son.
And with his hometown team just one victory away from capturing a world championship, Cruz can close the book on what's been an absolutely amazing chapter with a storybook ending.
But no matter the result of Super Bowl XLVI, he's already come out a winner.
"I'm just a fortunate guy. It's really starting to sink in -- how rare my story is and how far I've come."
Below is a capsule look at the offense of the New York Giants, with regular season statistics in parentheses:
Quarterback: Manning (4933 passing yards, 29 TD, 16 INT) caused a mini- controversy by stating he considered himself on par with New England counterpart Tom Brady prior to the season, then went out and backed up that claim by delivering easily the best year of his highly-scrutinized career. The levelheaded quarterback set a Giants' season record for passing yards while engineering five fourth-quarter comebacks, including one against the Patriots in November that halted New England's 20-game home winning streak in non- playoff tilts. Manning's play hasn't dropped off this postseason either, with the Super Bowl XLII MVP having thrown eight touchdown passes against one interception over New York's three playoff games while twice eclipsing the 300- yard barrier.
Running Backs: The Giants still have the same two backs that split ball- carrying duties during their memorable upset of the Patriots four years back, though the tandem of Ahmad Bradshaw (659 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 11 total TD) and Brandon Jacobs (571 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 8 total TD) both averaged under four yards per attempt during the regular season and the team ranked dead last in rushing offense (89.2 ypg). New York's ground game has been more effective down the stretch, however, with Bradshaw's health having improved after missing part of the year with a cracked bone in his foot. He sat out the Week 10 meeting with New England due to the injury, with Jacobs gaining a solid 72 yards and a touchdown on 18 totes as the lead man.
Wide Receivers: Manning's rise to the elite quarterback ranks was aided by the work of a wideout corps that really came of age in 2011. Cruz (82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TD) was a revelation in his first year as a full-time player and 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks (76 receptions, 1192 yards, 7 TD) turned in a second straight outstanding campaign, with the duo giving New York its first pairing of 1,000-yard receivers in team history. Nicks, who's fully expected to play in the Super Bowl despite spraining his right shoulder in the NFC Championship win over San Francisco, has piled up 335 yards and four touchdowns on 18 receptions in the G-Men's three playoff tests, while fourth-year pro Mario Manningham (39 receptions, 4 TD) has a scoring catch in all three of those games and gives Manning a dangerous No. 3 target that can also stretch the field.
Tight Ends: The Giants were thought to be in dire straits at this position heading into the season following the free-agent defection of Kevin Boss to Oakland, but former practice-squad member Jake Ballard (38 receptions, 4 TD) eased concerns with an unexpectedly solid year. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound undrafted player averaged nearly 16 yards per catch in addition to providing a big body for the running game, and came up with a four-catch, 67-yard effort against New England in November that included the go-ahead touchdown grab in the final seconds. Backup Travis Beckum has made a greater contribution as of late, as his seven receptions in the playoffs were two more than he had during the entire regular season.
Offensive Line: Though three starters from New York's 2007 Super Bowl champion squad remain on the current roster, a combination of age and injuries has taken a toll on what's been the offense's weak link. Left tackle David Diehl and right-sider Kareem McKenzie are both seasoned veterans with considerable big- game experience, but each struggled in protection for much of the year and Manning was sacked six times while facing constant pressure in the Giants' narrow win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship. A season-ending detached retina to the group's best pass blocker, tackle Will Beatty, in November has compounded the problem, with Diehl forced to shift back outside after opening the year at left guard and pedestrian fill-in Kevin Boothe moving into the starting lineup as a result. Center David Baas, a high-profile offseason pickup from San Francisco, also missed considerable time with neck problems in his Giants' debut. The line's stalwart is right guard Chris Snee, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who's sat out just one game over the past seven seasons.