If anyone needed proof that Victor Cruz's out-of-nowhere performance in 2011 wasn't a one-year-wonder deal, he has answered the question decisively. The 25-year-old receiver provided the latest evidence Sunday, catching the winning 77-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning with 1:13 left in the Giants' 27-23 win over the Redskins.
Cruz again showed the Giants that he indeed is the real deal, and that his place among the league's elite receivers is no statistical anomaly. It is a demonstrated reality.
Now it's time for the Giants to reward him for his production and tear up his original rookie contract, the one that makes him the NFL's lowest- paid star. While other receivers of Cruz's caliber have deals averaging upwards of $10 million per season, Cruz remains a bargain-basement special with his $540,000 salary for 2012.
The Giants have hinted that Cruz might get a new deal sometime this year, although nothing appears imminent. He is doing his best not to think about it, even though the financial disparity between his production and his salary is striking.
"I just kind of want to block it out," he told me Monday in the Giants' locker room. "I feel like if I start thinking about it, it will start consuming me, and I don't want it to get that way. I just want to block it out and focus on football, and I think I've been doing a good job of that."
Cruz leads the Giants with 50 catches -- double the total of tight end Martellus Bennett, who is second on the team with 25 -- for 627 yards and seven touchdowns. All the other receivers combined don't have as many TDs (five). Cruz is on a pace to produce 114 catches for 1,433 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last year, he led the team with 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and nine TDs.
And his football awareness has only gotten sharper. On his winning catch, Cruz lined up on the slot to the right of the formation, and as he waited for the snap, he noticed that safety Madieu Williams was lined up slightly to the outside of him. Cornerback Josh Wilson stood across from Cruz, but Williams' positioning provided the key that Cruz and Manning would use to make the play work.
Williams lined up there expecting the Giants to run an "out" route, in which Cruz would run upfield and then cut to the outside. But when he saw Williams shading his coverage to the outside, Cruz knew he would leave the middle of the field open. As he began running upfield, he saw that Williams was not aggressively moving back -- "He was kind of wide and just stayed flat-footed when I was running through," Cruz said -- which told him that there'd be a chance to hit a long play if Manning read the same coverage.
He did. Manning dropped back and fired a long pass to Cruz, who got behind Wilson and Williams and raced in for the touchdown. It was another example of Cruz's game-breaking ability, another example of why it's time for the Giants to give him the deal he deserves.
The timing is tricky because the season isn't even halfway done. But this wouldn't be the first time the team negotiated with a prominent young receiver during a season. In 2010, they were discussing a contract extension with Steve Smith, but disaster befell the former second-round pick when he suffered a knee injury in December. He signed a one-year deal with the Eagles last year and was released. Smith now is with the Rams but isn't the same receiver, physically or financially.
Cruz is mindful of Smith's situation but is doing his best to forget about the money and concentrate on the games. "All I can do is play football," he said. "I'm not in control of any of that stuff."
As long as he keeps making the catches, he'll get the cash. The sooner the better.