The NFL’s top trio of wide receivers came together because of conviction. They’re the result of a sound football plan. The success of the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham shows what’s possible when a general manager actually is capable of evaluating players.
Once again, Giants General Manager Jerry Reese has reaffirmed his status among the game’s best. He assembled the young, hungry, big-play threesome that has helped New York reach the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons. The group could make hits together for a long time.
For the NFC champions, Cruz, Nicks and Manningham provide inspiration through timely touchdowns. It’s what they do. The Giants have one game remaining against the AFC champion New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, Sunday in Indianapolis, and wideout definitely is not one of their concerns.
“We’ve got some great young talent around here,” Nicks told reporters last week while the Giants began preparing for the title game at Lucas Oil Stadium, “and we’re all capable of making plays whenever we have to.”
Heading into the season, Reese was under fire. The New York Jets signed Plaxico Burress, formerly the Giants’ No. 1 wide receiver, following his release from prison. Wideout Steve Smith unexpectedly joined division rival Philadelphia and tight end Kevin Boss bolted for the Oakland Raiders.
Despite intense media and fan criticism, Reese stuck to his plan, expressing confidence the Giants “have some young guys who we expect to step up.” They did.
Quarterback Eli Manning’s favorite targets, each under the age of 26, are game-changers. They have a flair for the dramatic. When the Giants need something extra on offense — an in-game boost or a closing kick — they focus downfield. And, really, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?
Around these parts, we’re not used to seeing dynamic performances from that position (or most on offense, for that matter). For too long now, the Washington Redskins’ offense has been way too vanilla. Redskins fans may not realize it, but there are no rules limiting exciting catch-and run plays.
“We love making big plays,” Manningham said. “Sometimes, we joke around and see who is going to make the first big play. That’s how our receiving corps is. We don’t wait for someone to make a play — we go make it.”
The wideouts played a big part in New York salvaging its season, putting the team in position for a once-improbable Super Bowl appearance.
Remember, at one point, the Giants had lost four in a row to drop to 6-6. Washington even defeated them twice (surprises do happen).
The Giants, however, got a smashing, highly unexpected breakout performance from Cruz, an undrafted second-year player. They received another big year from Nicks, the guy Reese picked to replace Burress, which he has done well. Manningham overcame injuries and put aside his ego when he returned, enabling it to all come together.
“You swallow your pride and know what you’re here for,” Manningham said. “You’re here to win, so as long as you win, you can’t complain.”
The Giants recovered, winning the division title, and completed a three-game NFC playoff sweep in which Cruz, Nicks and Manningham shined.
Nicks got it started, scoring two touchdowns, including a 72-yarder, in the Giants’ opening rout of the Atlanta Falcons. Next, against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Nicks had 165 yards and scored two more touchdowns — including a 37-yarder on a desperation pass from Manning on the final play of the first half — as the Giants stunned the defending Super Bowl champions.
During the NFC championship game, Cruz took the lead, finishing with 10 catches for 142 yards. Manningham, who scored one touchdown in each of the Giants’ playoff wins, also teamed with Manning on a 17-yarder for a go-ahead score midway through the fourth quarter.
Although Cruz moved ahead of Manningham early in the season, “we never categorize him [as being] in the background,” Nicks said of Manningham. “We always look at him as being able to make big plays.”
After spending most of his rookie season on injured reserve, Cruz was the NFL’s biggest surprise by far this season, catching 82 passes for a Giants-record 1,536 yards with nine touchdowns. Nicks overcame nagging injuries in his second consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards receiving, and Manningham had the third-most receptions and tied for third in touchdowns.
Manning and Cruz connected during player-organized workouts throughout the NFL lockout. In Week 3, Cruz had 110 yards and scored two touchdowns — one covered 74 yards — as the Giants won at Philadelphia.
From that point, Manning “was just looking for me, understanding that I can do some really good things to get open,” said Cruz, who had five touchdown receptions of at least 68 yards in the regular season, and tied the NFL record with one of 99.
“And he was just finding me with the ball. I kind of just sensed that he could trust me a little bit more with the ball. He really liked my ability.”
Obviously, having three wideouts with a whole lot of it has made a big difference for the Giants.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.