It all happened so quickly. Victor Cruz burst onto the scene and, before you knew it, was among the league’s top playmakers. From blowing away Rex Ryan in a preseason game to catching a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, it was a meteoric rise and subsequent fall.
As quickly as many realized Cruz’s brilliance as a jitterbug slot receiver was real, it was gone. With one leap in the corner of the end zone in Philadelphia during the 2014 season, his New York Giants career was torn to shreds.
Cruz, 30, was cut on Monday because, truth be told, the Giants aren’t convinced he can still play at a high level. The days when he was one of the best players on the field are gone.
Cruz had one Pro Bowl season. He had two 1,000-yard seasons. His best year was his breakthrough campaign in 2011, which began with his first career catch and ended with 1,500-plus yards in the regular season, a Super Bowl ring and a trademark salsa in the big game.
Cruz’s star was never brighter than following that magical season, which made him a pitchman, author, fashion aficionado and celebrity. After a solid 2012 and less impressive 2013 ... poof, it was over. He was ruined by a knee injury followed by a calf injury. The best of Victor Cruz, hometown kid done well, was over.
The totality of it is seven seasons with the Giants. Only two of those years were at a Pro Bowl level. Cruz’s career numbers (303 catches, 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns) are comparable to what Odell Beckham Jr. has done in his first three professional seasons. They’re almost identical to those of his former partner in crime Hakeem Nicks (318 catches, 4,676 yards and 27 touchdowns) and pale in comparison to what Amani Toomer produced.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter. With the perfect mix of timing, personality and performance, Cruz managed to become and remain a Giants legend despite such a limited (three years at the most) window of success.
“Victor is one of the great stories of the National Football League,” general manager Jerry Reese said in a statement after Cruz's release. “He came in here and earned everything that he’s gotten. It has been amazing to see him grow from an undrafted free agent to a Pro Bowl player and one of our go-to guys during the Super Bowl XLVI run. He will always be one of the great Giants.”
A lot of it has to do with the story of Victor Cruz, which has at this point been told 10,000 times over. He’s a local kid (from Paterson, New Jersey) who almost flunked out of UMass. He came to the Giants as an unknown undrafted free agent and was a long shot to make the roster.
He immediately caught the attention of the Giants and their fans. And then Rex Ryan.
“I don’t know who No. 3 is, but holy sh--,” Ryan said after Cruz torched the New York Jets for six catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns in his first preseason game.
That was 2010, his rookie year. During the season, Cruz rarely saw the field. It was 2011 when he exploded for 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns.
But it was more than his production that made him an ideal candidate for superstardom.
It was ... everything.
The memorable plays
It wasn’t just what Cruz did. It was how and when he did it. Perhaps the biggest play of the 2011 season (and Cruz’s career) was a 99-yard touchdown, with the Giants trailing the Jets on Christmas Eve. It put the Giants in the lead and propelled them into a Super Bowl run.
Just over a month later, Cruz was dancing in the end zone at the Super Bowl, capping a season filled with big plays. Cruz had a mind-boggling 25 receptions of 20-plus yards that year. He never topped 12 in any other season.
But his flair for the jaw-dropper (see his jump cut vs. the Texans in 2014) or the dramatic (see his game-winning touchdown in Week 1 this past season after missing most of the previous two years) defines Cruz. There always seemed to be something special with that smile, the way he handled himself and the way he made everyone seem as if they were his closest friend. It left indelible memories with the fan base, teammates and the entire organization.
Nobody did it with a smile on his face quite like Cruz.
The personality and being a Jersey kid
Some players just resonate with the fans and the city.
“Cruuuuuuz,” Giants fans chanted after almost every catch.
He had his own chant. He had his own dance. He had his own first-down celebration and unique style.
Cruz came along in the right place at the right time. He has a made-for-TV smile that rarely escapes his face and seemingly welcomes the camera. He has the ability to play to all ages, races, colors and genders. He’s chic, stylish and cool. He has the salsa and he’s from Paterson.
“Paterson with one T,” they like to say. If you’re from there or from New Jersey, you know that.
That matters to many Giants fans. Cruz was an underdog. Their underdog.
Cruz’s fans knew that. They knew where he came from, how he reached the top and did it all while remaining one of them. This may be his most distinctive talent.
All these factors made Cruz a fan favorite, and will help keep him a fan favorite. As he leaves following a seven-year run during which he averaged fewer than four touchdowns per season, Cruz remains a legend beyond what Nicks, Toomer or Plaxico Burress could ever achieve. That alone proves he really was something special.