Young Cruz having a freaky good season
This is Tom Coughlin's 16th season as an NFL head coach and he's been in and out of the league since 1984. He's seen plenty of players slip through the draft and make an impact on their teams as undrafted free agents. But this year, he's seeing something he's never seen before.
Second-year receiver Victor Cruz, an undrafted player the Giants signed from the University of Massachusetts in the summer of 2010 who spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve, is on pace to have the most prolific single season any Giants receiver has ever had. He has 62 catches for 1,076 yards through the first 12 games and needs only 268 more yards to salsa dance right past Amani Toomer in the record books.
If he averages the 90 or so receiving yards per game he's been posting -- or the 105.9 yards per game in the last 10 after he was a non-factor in the offense the first two weeks of the season -- he'll shatter the single-season mark of 1,343 set in 2002.
He already has five 100-yard games this season, one shy of the franchise record set by Del Shofner in 1963.
So, Tom Coughlin, have you ever seen an undrafted rookie make such a huge impact so quickly in all your years in the coaching business?
"No," he said. "No, I haven't."
It's hard to think of one who has. The Cowboys have a similar undrafted receiver from New Jersey, just like Cruz, in Miles Austin, but he had to wait until his fourth season for a breakout. Cruz essentially is doing all of this as a redshirted rookie.
"I think he still knows he is learning and there are a lot of new things out there, things he can improve on, but he's got a knack for making big plays and stepping up in crunch time," Eli Manning said. But even the quarterback said that if he had to pick someone on the team who would be on the verge of breaking the single-season record for receiving yardage, he would not have picked Cruz.
"He's worked hard and overcome a lot of things," Manning said. "He's a joy to work with and practice with and a joy to have on the field with you because he is a natural playmaker and he does work hard on his craft."
The Giants weren't always as enamored of Cruz. They were pushing for Domenik Hixon or Brandon Stokley to step into the role, but both went down with early injuries. The Giants could have gone with another veteran but instead decided to give Cruz his shot.
"Once [Stokley] went down with the injury, they could have easily gone out and gotten someone else," Cruz said. "But [Coughlin] said he believed in me and was like, 'This is your ball. The ball's in your court. You're either going to take advantage of it and keep the ball rolling, or you're not.' I think I grabbed the bull by the horns and took advantage of it."
And now he's nearing the top of the list. In the coming weeks, he'll likely pass Homer Jones, Shofner, Plaxico Burress and Steve Smith on the single-season list. Eventually, he'll top Toomer.
Cruz laughed at that notion. "That my name is even in that conversation is just crazy," he said.
He's also in the Pro Bowl conversation, as Packers defensive coaches pointed out last week.
"There's no question," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt told reporters. "He's one of the most impressive guys I've broken down this year. Pro Bowl player. I mean, he's the real deal."
Ever wonder what a salsa dance mixed with a hula dance would look like? We soon may find out.
Cruz also has a chance to be part of more Giants history. They've been around since 1925, but the Giants are one of only four franchises in the NFL to never have two receivers with 1,000-yard seasons at the same time. Hakeem Nicks, the receiver who would have been voted Most Likely To Succeed at the start of the season, has 860 yards through 12 games. If Nicks gets there, that would leave only Houston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia as teams without a 1,000-yard duo.
Nicks said he's not keeping track of the yardage, but it's not out of the question that he could catch Cruz. For now, he's enjoying having someone to deflect some defensive attention.
"It's a good thing for the team, not just for me personally but for the team," Nicks said. "You have playmakers on both sides that can come up and make plays during crunch time."
It's been such a dream season for Cruz, he said he's afraid he'll open his eyes one day and discover it was all his imagination.
"But you can't think about it," he said. "You just have to prepare the way you've been preparing every week. The stuff on the field, you have to maintain the same ability. Keep doing what got you here and hopefully I don't wake up . . . ever."