Victor Cruz is congratulated by teammate Hakeem Nicks of the...

Victor Cruz is congratulated by teammate Hakeem Nicks of the Giants after Cruz scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of a game against the Washington Redskins. (Oct. 21, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Say what you will about Hakeem Nicks. Speculate how badly he wants to play this season, how injured he really was when he sat out last week, or how much he's focusing on his next contract with, most likely, his next team.

The fact is, the Giants are a better team when he is on the field. That was apparent in the loss to the Cowboys.

So when the wide receiver returned to practice Wednesday after missing most of last week's workouts and the game against Dallas, it helped boost the spirit of a team that is in desperate need of finding something to be thankful for in a football sense.

"He's a guy we need," Victor Cruz said. "We need him to be his normal self in order to win games, in order for our morale to be up and things like that. We're definitely happy to have him back."

Nicks may not be playing up to the standards that were expected of him, and he's still searching for his first touchdown of the season, but when he was on the sideline last Sunday the passing attack fell apart. And just when they were starting to find a rhythm, too. Without Nicks, the Cowboys were able to cover the other two viable options in the passing game, Cruz and Rueben Randle. Cruz was targeted just four times in the game, a season low. He'd been targeted at least 10 times in each of the four previous games.

"I think getting Hakeem back will help get ourselves back on track," Cruz said. "He's another weapon out there for us that we definitely need. With him, myself, Rueben, with all of us on the same page and clicking on all cylinders we're a tough team to beat . . . Having [Nicks] there is just an extra weapon that gives us more ability to do what we need to do on offense to win games."

Nicks' struggles aside, it's been a disappointing season for the Giants' passing game which was expected to be among the most dynamic in the league. Their big plays, once a staple of the offense, have disappeared. They're turned the ball over at a very high rate. Although Nicks' touchdown dry spell is well-documented, Cruz hasn't found the end zone himself since Week 4.

"Obviously you want to have thousands and thousands of passing yards, but you just want to want to be able to win ballgames at the end of the day," Cruz said of forgoing gaudy stats in favor of team goals.

The problem, of course, is that for most of the season they've been doing neither.

"I think you just adjust to what's working for you, what you can accomplish," Eli Manning said of the revamped expectations of the aerial attack. "Obviously [we lost] some offensive linemen, so holding the ball longer for plays to develop down the field becomes tougher. We haven't been doing that as often. You still have to . . . run the offense efficiently."

Nicks may not even be ready to go at full-speed on Sunday against the Redskins. He thought he might have a hernia last week when he had discomfort in his abdomen, but tests were negative. Tom Coughlin said that Nicks' inability to get up to sprinting speed was what kept him out of the Cowboys game.

Before he returned to the practice field Wednesday, Coughlin said he wasn't sure what to expect from Nicks.

"Hopefully we're going to see," he said. "That's why he's going to practice."

It's a step toward making the Giants better. Good enough to beat the Redskins? Who knows. But certainly better than they are without him. "I'm happy to have him back, period," Cruz said. "Everything he brings to us is not just his play on the football field. It's just his energy, his personality. We're happy to have that back on our sideline."

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