- Last Updated: 4:48 AM, August 18, 2012
- Posted: 1:04 AM, August 17, 2012
Everyone around him knew, but Victor Cruz refused to breathe a sigh of relief and bask in the glow of his tremendous and wholly unexpected achievement.
Cruz didn’t come out of nowhere two years ago, but it was close to it — Paterson, N.J., University of Massachusetts and off the pile of unwanted toys otherwise known as undrafted rookies — when he erupted onto the stage with a performance that almost always automatically stamps “Approved’’ on a roster passport. He had done the near-impossible, turning a preseason game into an individual showcase. It was, officially, the first-football game played at MetLife Stadium and blood was spilled that mid-August night in 2010, gushing from the lacerated forehead of Eli Manning. It was Cruz, though, who caused the greatest devastation, feasting on a bunch of Jets backups for not one, not two, but three touchdown receptions, which is fantasy football stuff and virtually impossible to accomplish, given the confines of a summertime exhibition game.
It was preseason game No. 1 that year, but the eruption validated what coach Tom Coughlin and everyone else hunkered down at the University at Albany had witnessed, that this kid Cruz was worth keeping around.
“It was just kind of me being a paranoid rookie, paranoid free agent just not knowing if I’d done enough,’’ Cruz recalled yesterday. “Not knowing if they still wanted to see more or wanted to choose another receiver. You just never know.’’
In this case, there was no doubt. Cruz made the team based in large part on that demonstration against the Jets, but his true ascension had to wait another year, with his record-breaking 2011 season. There were big plays galore down the stretch — none bigger than Cruz’s brilliant 99-yard touchdown catch and run, run, run to foil the Jets on a Christmas Eve that presented one team with rubies and the other with coal — as the Giants left behind a 7-7 malaise and hit the accelerator toward another Super Bowl triumph.
If Jets coach Rex Ryan hits his pillow and sees Cruz in his thoughts, you can be sure it’s a nightmare.
“It just so happens I’ve been able to make some pretty good plays in my career and some of the most memorable against the Jets,’’ Cruz said. “It just seems to unfold that way.’’
If it unfolds that way tomorrow night, it will have to unfold quickly. No longer relegated to second-half preseason mop-up duty, Cruz runs with the big boys now and he and Manning and the other starting offensive players will get in their two quarters of work and then take a seat, allowing the Victor Cruz-wannabes an opportunity to strut their stuff. If Cruz wants to score three touchdowns this weekend, he had better do it quickly.
“Last year, I was going in end of the second, third quarter,’’ Cruz said. “This year is more so trying to fine-tune my skills early on and getting some early work with the ones, with Eli.’’
With the ones, with Eli. That’s the company Cruz now keeps and it remains a fascinating transformation. It is entirely possible he is coming off what will stand as the greatest season of his NFL career, as his numbers (82 receptions, a franchise-record 1,536 yards, nine touchdowns) will be difficult to match, given he has gone from “Who’s that?’’ to marked man. The Giants haven’t rushed to sign him to a long-term deal and he heads into this season making the third-year veteran minimum of $540,000, knowing there are millions riding on his ability to prove he’s not a one-shot wonder.
For the 20 or so plays he will be on the field tomorrow, Cruz no doubt will see plenty of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, the Jets’ athletic cornerbacks. During pregame warm-ups, Cruz should actually walk up to Cromartie and thank him for providing subject matter for the first chapter of his recently released memoir, “Victor Cruz: Out of the Blue.’’ In the opening pages, Cruz writes how Cromartie, during last year’s regular-season game, “was telling me that he’s never heard of me, telling me that I wasn’t worthy of lining up across from him.’’
Of course, 99 yards later, everyone knew the name of Victor Cruz, once again courtesy of his favorite punching bag, the Jets.Follow @NYPostsports