A year ago, as the New York Giants opened their offseason program, star wide receiver Victor Cruz was not present. Cruz and the Giants were working on a long-term contract extension, which they eventually would complete, and Cruz made the decision to stay away from the voluntary portion of the offseason program as long as the deal was not yet done.
This was Cruz's perfect right, as it is the right of every player this time of year not to participate in the voluntary workouts. The criticism of players for their personal decisions not to attend the portions of the offseason programs that aren't required of them is one of my least favorite things about the NFL. "Voluntary" means voluntary, and when coaches and writers and fans get on guys for taking the time off that's available to them, I think that's just plain lousy.
But it happened to Cruz, as everyone from Tom Coughlin right on down to the fan base made it clear they were upset with Cruz for not attending non-mandatory practices. There was concern expressed about his absence's potential effect on the season and what it said about Cruz as a person, a player and a teammate.
Well, the season was a wreck all the way around, and it's hard to say anything that happened in April or May was the reason. But here's what Cruz's absence from voluntary work a year ago said about him as a person, a player and a teammate: absolutely nothing.
As the Giants' mess of a 2013 season unfolded, Cruz was one of the few consistent positives. Yes, I am well aware he didn't catch a touchdown pass after September. But he was playing in an offense that was, in the words of the team's owner, broken. The line couldn't protect the quarterback; the quarterback couldn't stop throwing it to the other team; the running game didn't exist; and the top outside receiver didn't want to play. Once defenses realized Hakeem Nicks no longer cared about trying to get open, they double-teamed Cruz and took the Giants' passing offense's one remaining threat out of the game.
Cruz's reaction to this terrible situation was to continue to play hard, fight his way open whenever possible and work to improve the parts of his game that needed work. For example, Cruz was a liability as a downfield blocker in his first two seasons in the league but a vastly improved one in 2013. He went to his coaches in training camp and told them he wanted to improve that critical and often overlooked aspect, and he did it, earning praise from the coaching staff and teammates behind the scenes. He worked hard in practice, even helping mentor backup slot receiver Jerrel Jernigan and helping develop him behind the scenes to the point that Jernigan was effective in place of an injured Cruz in December.
The injury is the only thing that kept Cruz from a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season, and it came on an effort play as Cruz was leaping to catch a pass in the third quarter of a hideous 23-0 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Not only was Cruz still trying to make something of a lost game and a lost season, there were times when it looked as though he was the only one who was.
Why bring this up now? Because it hasn't been brought up very much. And if Cruz had gotten his big contract and then loafed through the Giants' season -- especially after they started 0-6 -- that would have been brought up a heck of a lot, and in very damning ways. Cruz went the other way, though. He went through the negotiation dance this time last year and ended up getting his money, and he reacted by working even harder and trying to get better so that everyone could see he deserved it.
It bears mentioning that a player whose priorities and focus were being questioned this time last year ended up being one of the best and most reliable players on the team. Of all the things that happened last year, signing Cruz to a long-term contract appears to have been one of the few the Giants absolutely got right.