It would have been easy for Giants receiver Victor Cruz to fall into the same trap that a lot of young athletes do when they go from anonymity to stardom seemingly overnight.
Undrafted in 2010, the University of Massachusetts product barely made the Giants out of camp in 2011 as the fourth receiver. Then he exploded for 82 catches, 1,536 yards, and 9 touchdowns in the regular season. Cruz had another 21 catches in the postseason, including a touchdown against the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
There were salsa dances and a Pro Bowl berth. Cruz was spotted at the Grammys, the ESPYs, Fashion Week, on late-night talk shows. He loaded up on commercials, magazine shoots, endorsement deals, and even found time to write a book about his rise from the tough streets of Paterson, N.J.
But ask anybody around the Giants about the way Cruz has handled his business, and nobody doubts him even for a second.
“I’ve been impressed with Victor,” said quarterback Eli Manning. “From day one, when we started back for workouts, he’s had great energy, great enthusiasm, working hard, knowing he has to get better. And he’s done that.”
Cruz took two big family vacations to avoid being run ragged in the offseason, and he also signed with a marketing firm to compartmentalize his off-field dealings.
“That’s one aspect of my life,” he said. “I try to separate the two. I have to come in and still be a football player and an athlete, and that’s what got me to this point marketing-wise. And I understand that once the season comes around, I have to kind of separate the two and put football first, and then once those opportunities come, I can handle them as they come.
“Myself and my team have done a good job of kind of balancing the two things out.”
Cruz hasn’t even made an issue out of his contract, which will pay him $540,000 before he is scheduled to become a restricted free agent after this season.
“I’ve just never been a guy to worry about contracts and stuff like that,” Cruz said. “I’ve always played this game for the love of it and I just wanted to keep it that way.
“I wanted to make sure I was still getting better as an athlete, as a football player, and I wanted to move forward from there, and I felt like talking about contracts and stuff was just going to be a distraction for my team and I didn’t want that.”
What does it say to the Giants that Cruz hasn’t made an issue of his contract?
“I think that he loves football,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. “That’s his commitment level and that’s where his head is at. With that type of approach, you can be very successful in this league, and that’s what we’re hoping for this year for him.”
As good as he was last season — and he has quickly become one of the top slot receivers in the league — Cruz knows he can be better in a few areas.
“Just mentally,” he said. “There were points throughout games last year when I would kind of have mental lapses, whether it was blocking assignments, passing route-running assignments, or whatever the case was, I just wanted to make sure each and every play I would focus and I was ready to go.”
Manning has seen Cruz’s efforts show up on the field.
“He’s improved, grown up, just working on his craft and his skills and how to get open, and learning more about defenses and different moves he can give,” Manning said. “So he has a great attitude, his effort is unbelievable. Those are guys you like to have on your team because of the way they work, and that is contagious around other players, too.”
Cruz, 25, may be a burgeoning star, but he will not forget his UMass roots.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “I met a lot of great friends there, taught me a lot of lessons about school, remaining humble in times of setbacks and stuff like that.
“It really taught me to cherish these moments that I have in front of me today. It was just an awesome experience to even go through that.”
So, yes, Cruz has achieved great heights. And you’ll still see him break out the salsa after touchdowns this season. Just don’t expect him to be a sideshow. In an interview during a recent exhibition game, a sideline reporter asked Cruz to salsa. He politely declined.
No matter what happens off the field, Cruz wants to be known as a football player first.
“I’m kind of over the salsa dancing in public,” he said. “I understand that I don’t just want to be going around, dancing for every interview and every time there’s a mike in my face. So it was more just separating the two and stuff like that.
“But I’m here, I’m a player and I’m an individual, and I want to continue the same way I have been doing.”
League has the leverage
We started the week with the NFL telling teams that replacement officials would be used for the entire slate of Week 1 games.
That was just a negotiating ploy.
A few weeks ago, the NFL told teams that it could not agree with the NFL Players Association on the modifications to the trade deadline nor the new in-season injured reserve spot, so that wouldn’t be happening.
Guess what? It got done after the NFLPA agreed to drop the rule that requires a player to not be in pads for the first three days after he signs with a new team. That really caused a lot of problems for teams dealing with injuries during training camp.
In the same manner, the NFL flexed its muscles with the officials.
It appeared to work. The sides convened for three days worth of talks late in the week and appeared to be moving toward an agreement.
According to an NFL source, commissioner Roger Goodell was prepared to up the offer to the referees in order to get them back in time for the start of the season. Basically, both sides had agreed on the increase in money needed for a deal, but they have to negotiate how and when to spend it.
But then the NFL Referees Association did an about-face, and any progress that had appeared to have been made was gone.
“Commissioner Goodell and other NFL staff members concluded three days of talks [Saturday] with representatives of the NFLRA without reaching an agreement,” an NFL spokesperson said. “No further talks are scheduled. We are proceeding with the replacement officials.”
Said NFLRA negotiator Mike Arnold, “We remain willing to negotiate with the NFL in order to reach a fair agreement.”
The NFL definitely wants a deal before the season kicks off Wednesday night. That Cowboys-Giants game is a huge showcase for the league and it would be a worldwide embarrassment if the replacement officials really screw it up.
But the regular officials have to know that the NFL is serious about moving ahead with the replacements. This is a league that used replacement players before. Do the officials really think the NFL would bat an eye at using replacement referees?
The NFL knows, as with the player lockout, all will be forgotten by the public once the referee lockout is over.
So the referees either have to cave now, or be prepared to sit out until 2013. Not having real officials is a concern for the league only if it’s for the entire season. Otherwise, the NFL knows it will continue on, one way or another. It always does.
PUSH FROM ABOVE
Owner puts heat on Reid
Eagles coach Andy Reid and his agent, Bob LaMonte, tried to exert a little pressure on team owner Jeffrey Lurie a few weeks ago when LaMonte told reporters that Lurie has repeatedly told Reid that he would be the coach as long as Lurie owned the team.
Lurie quickly shot down that statement.
And then Lurie, a West Newton native, put Reid squarely on the hot seat during his annual state-of-the-team press conference this past week.
“I expect a substantially improved team,” Lurie said. “We all thought we were a lot better than 8-8 [in 2011], and we weren’t. Your record tells you what you were.
“I’m not going to make blanket statements. I really wanted to try to explain to you that 8-8 was unacceptable. Yeah, I guess if two-thirds of the team is not playing [because of injury], there are always exceptions. That was a really unacceptable outcome. I just want to reiterate that.”
So, basically, if Reid doesn’t do better than 8-8, he will be gone after the season.
Reid brushed off the comments in his typical fashion.
“We surely would not be satisfied with 8-8,” Reid said. “We’re striving for better than that. I think that’s the important thing.
“I understand the business. I completely understand, and I have a great relationship with Jeffrey. We go play. I don’t worry about all of that stuff. I worry about each game.”
Reid’s contract runs out after the 2013 season. No coach can effectively lead a team if he’s in limbo. Lurie also made it clear that there will not be a contract extension for Reid during the season. Lurie wants to see how everything plays out.
He also said that Reid’s personal situation — his son, Garrett, was found dead during training camp — is separate from the on-field production.
“I think he will always have our support,” Lurie said. “Everybody in this community, Andy will always have our sympathy and support. But this is a business. You are there to win and win big, and you have to separate the two. All of the analysis will be on Andy Reid the coach.”
There was some concern that the Eagles could go the way the Dodgers did under Frank McCourt when Lurie and his wife, Christina, were divorced recently. But the two quickly came to an agreement that keeps Jeffrey Lurie in charge of the organization.
“There is no change whatsoever in the operation of the Eagles,” he said. “I’ve structured this franchise around having complete control, 100 percent voting, and total, final decision making. That continues.”
Ins and outs of the IR rule
There is a lot of confusion among fans about the new in-season injured reserve rule, especially how it could pertain to Patriots running back Jeff Demps. To be eligible, the player had to be on the 53-man roster at the Friday night roster cutdown through at least 4 p.m. Tuesday. Demps, who suffered a knee injury against the Giants, was officially placed on injured reserve at the cutdown, according to a league source. That makes him ineligible. It wasn’t quite clear from the Patriots’ press release exactly what Demps’s status was. The wording was ambiguous, so there was a chance that Demps was still on the 53-man roster and the team was merely stating its intention to move him to injured reserve. Demps was placed on injured reserve. His season is over. However, a player like tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is eligible. A player designated for return is eligible to be activated from injured reserve eight weeks after he is placed on it. A player can begin practicing six weeks after being put on IR, and can practice for a maximum of 21 days before activation.
1. The NFL preseason has to be changed. It’s a complete insult to fans. I do not have a problem with the two exhibitions/18 regular-season games approach if roster spots and another bye week are added. Combine those with the easy training camp, and the player safety issue is mitigated in my opinion.
2. A high-level NFL source said owners would be willing to split the lost revenue with the players if they wanted to go to two exhibitions/16 regular-season games. Doubt that will ever happen.
3. Don’t understand the criticism of the Dolphins for the intimacy of “Hard Knocks” with the Chad Ochocinco release/Vontae Davis trade. This is how the NFL really works. The more fans realize how cut-throat it is, the better. If you want fantasy world, drop by Disney.
4. Let’s just say a fair amount of people in the agent community were not thrilled with the Patriots’ decision Friday to practice players in full pads that they knew they would be cutting in just a few hours. The team was in a tough spot. Part of the blame should be placed on the cutdown-day shift. It used to be on Saturday, but with the opening game moved up a day to Wednesday because of the Democratic National Convention, the deadline was a day earlier and later in the day.
5. I’m sure Bill Belichick had valid reasons for not doing it, but he should have found a way to release center Dan Koppen earlier than cutdown day. The writing was on the wall and he should have been given the best opportunity to find his next team, if there is one.
Cutdown day was not kind to many locals. The biggest name was nine-year veteran end Jacques Cesaire of Westminster, cut by the Chargers. “It’s always a business first,” said Cesaire. “All the vets told me that when I first came here. Whatever happens, happens.” Cesaire, 32, has 220 tackles and 12.5 sacks in 125 career games (66 starts) . . . The Eagles released UMass fullback Emil Igwenagu (Boylston) after he lost out to Stanley Havili, but quickly signed Igwenagu to the practice squad . . . Former Merrimack linebacker Shawn Loiseau (Shrewsbury) seemed to have one of the best shots to stick out among the local undrafted players, but he was released by the Texans despite a strong showing Thursday against the Vikings. It does not appear that he will be on their practice squad either, which is a surprise . . . Vikings running back Jordan Todman (Dartmouth) opened a lot of eyes with a 76-yard touchdown run against the Texans, but it was not enough for him to make the roster. Todman, who had 114 yards on 10 carries after battling a sprained ankle most of camp, was signed to the practice squad . . . The Packers released tackle Shea Allard (Wareham) and it didn’t appear initally that he would land on the practice squad, although the team does like him . . . Other local players let go in the final round of cuts: Holy Cross defensive back Chandler Fenner (Chiefs), Harvard tackle Kevin Murphy (Vikings), and UMass receiver Julian Talley (Giants). New Hampshire outside linebacker Brian McNally (Redskins) was waived with an injury settlement . . . Josh Samuda (UMass) made the Dolphins as the backup center, and they thought so much of him they traded veteran Ryan Cook to the Cowboys.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.