EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J -- Victor Cruz is one of the last professional athletes in this market any critic would want to slash and gash. He is accountable to his team, he is accessible to fans and reporters, and, better yet, he is local.
The pride of Paterson, New Jersey, gets it. Cruz didn't lose his way on the high-speed freeway from undrafted scrub to Super Bowl champ and crossover celebrity, and he proved it two years ago in the way he responded to a family in dire need, the Pintos of Newtown, Connecticut, who buried their murdered son in the colors of his favorite New York Giant, white jersey No. 80.
An ambassador of the Giants' brand and the kind of uplifting figure the NFL could use now more than ever, Cruz has done his franchise proud. At a time in sports when stars try to make themselves untouchable, retreating from a media climate (social and otherwise) defined by 24/7 surveillance, Cruz remains touchable. He stands at his locker in good times and in bad.
So it was no surprise Sunday that the most recognizable receiver on an 0-2 football team turned and faced a circle of inquiring minds and, without blinking, fielded all questions fired like tight spirals at his chest.
On cue, Cruz took full responsibility for a couple of fourth-quarter drops, including one on third down that helped turn what looked like a necessary home victory over the Arizona Cardinals into a Week 2 disaster that could destroy the season.
Cruz showed a hint of defiance just once, when asked about the fellow locals in the stands booing him for the first time.
"I could care less," the receiver said.
He meant he couldn't care less, of course, and hey, the guy didn't overcome his physical limitations and make himself a big-time NFL player without a healthy dose of passion and pride. Either way, the truth hurts a lot more than the booing did.
The truth? Victor Cruz is really letting down his team.
Sure, the Giants were going to lose the opener in Detroit even if Cruz didn't drop those two late passes, and even if he didn't fail to compete for the ball on Eli Manning's second interception. But when he campaigned for more touches afterward, dragging Rueben Randle into it for cover, Cruz made a rare public mistake and neglected this simple fact:
If you're going to lobby for more opportunities, it would be helpful if you actually held on to the passes already being thrown your way.
Beyond that, it would also be helpful if you pitched (or caught, in this case) a perfect game the next time out. And for the better part of this home opener, Cruz was on his way to doing just that.
He was making tough catches in the heart of the field, even drawing a pass interference call in the end zone to set up the 1-yard Manning touchdown pass to Daniel Fells that gave the Giants a 14-10 lead. Cruz was gesturing dramatically toward the Jersey crowd, connecting with his people, and the fans responded in their familiar way.
They weren't booing, they were only saying Cruuuuuuz.
But something unfunny happened on the way to a 1-1 record and some overdue certification of Ben McAdoo's West Coast offense. Up 14-13 with 10½ minutes left, Manning lofted a third-and-6 pass over a defender and into the extended hands of Cruz. It wasn't Manning-to-Manningham in the Super Bowl, but it was a pretty pass in a pretty big spot all the same.
Cruz allowed the ball to bounce off his fingers and into a surreal sequence of events. From there, Tom Coughlin said, "it was a nightmare." Coughlin isn't normally one to use words like "nightmare," yet he's gone to that well two weeks in a row.
On the very next play, a hobbled Steve Weatherford hit a line-drive punt to Ted Ginn Jr., who gathered it and raced 71 yards for a touchdown ... right by a hobbled Steve Weatherford. Quintin Demps fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, and soon enough one of the few Giants who has looked like a real player so far, Rashad Jennings, proved that the ground can indeed cause a fumble in ending what might've been a game-tying drive.
In between, Cruz dropped another pass, heard the boos, and failed to make what would've been a great catch on a high Manning throw (and still heard the boos).
The quarterback heard them, too. Larry Donnell, undrafted tight end, entered this season with three career catches to his name and yet suddenly Manning was looking to him as if he were Tony Gonzalez in his prime.
If the quarterback had lost faith in his No. 1 target, he had his reasons.
"They're difficult catches," Cruz said of the balls he didn't, you know, catch. "Any time you're running full speed trying to get away from defenders, and Eli's putting it in a place where only you can catch it, it's something where I'm pretty well extended. The degree of difficulty is definitely high, but ... those are balls I've caught before and balls I've got to continue to catch in order for us to move the chains and ... be prosperous."
A team captain and member of Coughlin's leadership council, Cruz wasn't hiding behind this or that. He even took the fall for Manning's early interception, though that wasn't necessary. He'd made enough errors on his own to start accepting responsibility for other people's flaws.
"I own up to my mistakes," Cruz said, "and all the things that I've done wrong. ... Any drop hurts, especially in that juncture of the game because you know you can be the catalyst to bring this team up, to bring the energy level up.
"I put the pressure on myself to make those catches, and I have to convert that one."
Cruz set up the Giants' first touchdown too, not just their second and last, and still he ended up as the face of this 25-14 loss and an 0-2 record that already feels like last year's 0-6.
It didn't matter. The Giants made a substantial investment -- $43 million over five years -- in a receiver who should put up Wes Welker-like numbers in McAdoo's system, a receiver who needs to deliver in an offense devoid of explosive playmakers.
A receiver who has to make that play on third-and-6.
"He's an outstanding football player," Coughlin said of Cruz. "When the ball came his way, he made some outstanding catches. Unfortunately, when we needed that third down before the punt, we didn't get the catch."
The Giants didn't get the W, either. Victor Cruz is a leading candidate to be part of the solution, if there is one to be had. But right now, only this much is clear:
Cruz is definitely part of the problem.