“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.
Along the way, Cruz compiled a highlight reel longer than a Scorsese film: a 74-yard touchdown in Week 3 at Philadelphia; a 68-yarder two weeks later against Seattle; a 72-yarder at New Orleans in Week 12. He tied a league record with a 99-yard touchdown in Week 16. And in the regular season’s final week, with a bid to the playoffs on the line, Cruz turned in a 74-yard touchdown and finished with a career-high 178 receiving yards.
“He’s a very humble guy,” fellow wide receiver Ramses Barden said. “That’s why so many people around here like him and want to be around him. He’s consistent. He was a good guy before all the attention and he’s still the same way.”
Cruz, 25, became the 21st receiver in NFL history to top 1,500 yards. Just four were younger. Suddenly, he’s a bona fide New York celebrity. The daily newspapers printed instructions on how to salsa dance like Cruz. Gossip columns wrote about the birth of his first child earlier this month. And he even received an invitation to appear on the reality show “Dancing with the Stars,” which he promptly declined.
“Obviously, I took a rather unique path,” Cruz said. “It’s all shaping up to be the way I imagined it, the way I dreamed it up to be.”
Working out of the slot, he’s been a perfect complement to Hakeem Nicks on the outside. This year marked the only time in franchise history that two Giants topped 75 receptions apiece. Nicks was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2009, and he knew Giants Coach Tom Coughlin had a reputation for keeping the ball on the ground. With Bradshaw and the bruising running back Brandon Jacobs, most NFL coaches might do the same. Letting Smith leave via free agency, few saw reason for New York’s wide receivers to be as dominant.
“We know that they put a question mark on us at the beginning of the season, but that’s what guided us forward through it,” Nicks said. “When you doubt us, we look forward to stepping up to the challenge, and I feel like we’ve been doing that all season.”
Nicks has made a huge impact in both of the team's playoff wins. He had 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week against Green Bay, one week after posting 115 yards against Atlanta. When Nicks has a big game, the team’s other receivers become even more motivated.
“When we see one make a play or the other make a play, we want to come out and we want to make some plays, too,” Cruz said.
Cruz and his teammates know the 49ers boast the league’s top-rated defense against the run and only the 16th-best against the pass. Unlike other Giants teams, they don‘t need to rely solely on the ground game, though.
“This year has just been a tremendous ride for me. I don’t want it to end,” Cruz said. “We still have some goals in front of us and we want to complete those.”