FLOWERY BRANCH — Who is Victor Cruz, you ask?
The Giants weren’t exactly sure about their wide receiver before this season either. However he salsa-danced the Giants into the playoffs and set a franchise record along the way. Cruz will be one player the Falcons must account for Sunday in their opening-round playoff game at MetLife Stadium.
“He’s done some incredible things,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.
Cruz played only three games last season, on special teams, after he signed as an undrafted free agent out of non-football power Massachusetts. His season ended in October with a hamstring injury.
His play in the 2011 preseason caught the eye of Giants coaches. It even made some Falcons defensive backs take notice.
“We were watching this preseason game, this guy just went off for like 200 yards,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “I just remember all of the DBs saying ‘Victor Cruz?’ He just killed all of those guys he was playing against. To watch him come out, you understand it wasn’t a fluke.”
Cruz actually caught six passes for 145 yards against the Jets in that August exhibition game, including touchdowns of 64, 34 and 5 yards. He made the Giants roster and burst on the scene with the departure of Steve Smith and injuries to Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham at different points during this season.
Cruz went on to catch 82 passes, in a season in which he made only seven starts, and set the Giants’ franchise record for receiving yards in a season with 1,536. His total was 422 yards shy of his combined yardage in 31 games at UMass. Cruz ranked third in the NFL behind the Lions’ Calvin Johnson (1,681) and the Patriots’ Wes Welker (1,569). He averaged an NFL-best 18.7 yards per catch for receivers with more than 45 receptions.
“He’s a guy that has a natural feel for the game, how to get open, where defenders are, what the coverage is and what he needs to do to get open,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “That’s the starting point. After that, he’s done a great job of making plays after the catch, making guys miss, breaking some tackles and turning some short gains into some big plays.”
He turned in two of those explosive plays in the Giants’ final two regular-season games. Needing wins over the Jets and Cowboys to win the NFC East and clinch a playoff spot, the Giants went to Cruz, and he answered. Against the Jets he caught a swing pass and raced 99 yards for a touchdown, becoming one of 13 players who share a record that can’t be broken. The normally reserved Coughlin said the sight of Cruz racing down the sideline made him want to do cartwheels.
“Every play, any time I potentially get a chance to get the ball in my hands, I want to make the big play,” Cruz said.
Against the Cowboys, he turned a short pass into a 74-yard touchdown. It was one of nine touchdown receptions, each sparked his salsa-dance end-zone celebration.
“I love it,” Manning said of the dance steps. “That means he’s scoring touchdowns and that’s a good thing for the Giants. ... Hopefully we’ll get a few more in the playoffs.”
Cruz finished with 342 yards on nine catches in the two crucial wins to end the regular season. So far, not a bad season for a player who wasn’t selected among the 255 picks in the 2010 draft.
Now that he is no longer a ‘nobody’ — a term Cruz himself recently used to describe his status before the season — he can expect a lot of attention.
“It takes a year, year and a half, and the following year people start game-planning for you,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “Then, it’s a whole lot different. Next year, he might have a rude awakening. This year, he’s done a really good job of making explosive plays.”