“It’s good to look ahead. It’s good to understand what we’re playing for,” Cruz said. “We have to understand the task at hand and what bridge we have to cross in order to make it to our ultimate goal. San Francisco is that bridge right now.”
Unlike recent Giants teams that staunchly ran the ball, this year’s group reached that bridge relying on the arm of quarterback Eli Manning and the sure-fire hands of a young receiving corps. This time a year ago, Cruz was relatively unknown. His 1,536 receiving yards were the most ever by a Giant in a season, a full 200 yards clear of the next-best total.
And while the NFL world debated whether Manning was “good” or “average,” he quietly showed he can be great. Manning’s 4,933 passing yards mark is the most in the 87-year history of the franchise, ahead of everyone from Phil Simms to Fran Tarkenton to Y.A. Tittle. The next closest is Kerry Collins, who threw for 4,073 yards in 2002. That other Manning, the one in Indianapolis, has never thrown for more than 4,700 in a season.
With injuries crippling the team’s running game, Manning and his receivers had no choice but to step up. The Giants averaged 89.2 yards rushing per game, which was last in the NFL and nearly a 50-yard drop from a season ago when the Giants boasted the league’s sixth-best ground game. The Giants have had just two other seasons in the past 20 years in which they failed to average 100 rushing yards, and this year marked just the second time in the past decade they didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher. Ahmad Bradshaw missed four games and still led the team with 659 rushing yards.
In the meantime, injuries created an opportunity for Cruz. An undrafted rookie out of Massachusetts, he appeared in three games last season before going on injured reserve. He began the 2011 season fourth on the Giants’ depth chart, and though the Giants needed to find a good slot receiver to replace Steve Smith, no one saw Cruz as such a perfect fit.
“Anybody that says they projected that is lying to you,” offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. “No one knew that was going to happen. But he’s played above and beyond what we thought he could do — not that physically he couldn’t, but could he mentally absorb that quickly?”
In fantasy leagues run by CBSSports.com, only 2 percent of fantasy owners had Cruz on their rosters in Week 3; by Week 6, he was on 98 percent of rosters. Yahoo Sports had more than 5 million fantasy participants this season, and Cruz was drafted in fewer than 1 percent of its league; in Week 17, he was a starter in 85 percent.