It’s been five years since Victor Cruz retired from football and seven years since he played his last game for the New York Giants. In all that time, he hasn’t lost one ounce of confidence in his old team.
It’s just that this year, the rest of the NFL world seems to share his optimism.
Though Cruz admitted he picks the Giants to win the Super Bowl “every year,” he’s particularly confident in this year’s team. The Giants are coming off a 9-7-1 season and the franchise’s first playoff win since Cruz helped them win Super Bowl XLVI in 2012.
“I think in order for you to have a Super Bowl caliber team, you have to have veteran guys and you have to have young guys who can go get it,” Cruz said in a phone call with Big Blue View. “I think we have that. Now it’s just a matter of guys gelling and figuring out their roles as the season progresses.”
Cruz is most proud of how the Giants’ receivers room progressed over the offseason after being one of the weakest links of the team the past few years. The Giants added tight end Darren Waller via trade and drafted Jalin Hyatt in the third round in an attempt to beef up their passing attack.
Cruz, of course, set a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards in 2011. Odell Beckham Jr. is the only other 1,000-yard receiver the Giants have had since Cruz.
“That receiving corps has come a long way from the last few years where I felt like I might have to suit up again and get back out there and play because they had no one else,” Cruz said. “But now we’ve got guys that are deep, that can hold each other accountable, play well, and a lot of guys that Daniel Jones can count on.”
Hyatt is the addition that has stood out the most to Cruz following an impressive training camp and preseason. Cruz knows something about that — he capitalized on an outstanding preseason to make the Giants’ roster as an an undrafted free agent and eventually reach stardom in his second year. Could Hyatt be the next one to outplay his draft status early on?
“Jalin Hyatt has been a guy that in his first year, he’s shown flashes,” Cruz said. “Flashes of that speed, his ability to get downfield, his ability to make catches. Watching him in preseason and practices, he doesn't even look like a rookie half the time. He looks like he’s been there for years.”
The wide receiver room is also special to Cruz because it houses his lone remaining Giants teammate: Sterling Shepard, who is preparing for his eighth season in New York. Cruz has built new friendships within the team — he mentioned Tyrod Taylor and Saquon Barkley specifically — but Shepard is the only one he’s actually taken the field with. Shepard was a rookie during Cruz’s final Giants season in 2016.
Leg injuries have marred Shepard’s last few seasons, just as they did the end of Cruz’s career.
“We keep in contact all the time,” Cruz said. “We golf from time to time. Talk the game, talk ball, everything. Parenting, a lot of different things. I’ve been in his shoes. I understand where he is at this point in his career, and I wish him nothing but the best.”
All that roster turnover means multiple coaching staffs have come and gone since Cruz was playing under head coach Tom Coughlin. Now, it appears the Giants have finally found a longterm heir in offensive guru Brian Daboll, who won Coach of the Year in his first season.
Though Cruz took objection to the notion that today’s Giants are more offense-focused than those that won Super Bowl XLVI — pointing out that both he and Hakeem Nicks had more than 1,000 receiving yards that year — he did note some other differences between Daboll and Coughlin.
“I think Daboll’s great. I think he provides a good energy for that team,” Cruz said. “I think he understands the players. I think he’s a bit more of a players’ coach than Coach Coughlin was, so I think he understands how to get the best out of his guys and keep everybody in it throughout the year.
“Because it’s a long season — there’s gonna be ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and you just gotta kinda keep with it. And I think Daboll’s the perfect guy to understand exactly what those kids need out there on the football field, and how to get his veterans on board and keep them on board as well.”
Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen have at least partially staked their reputation to Daniel Jones, who signed a four-year contract extension over the offseason. Cruz was quick to give his endorsement to Jones as well as someone who can cement his status as Eli Manning’s successor.
“I think he’s proven and done enough to prove that he’s the guy there,” Cruz said. “The only thing he kinda needed was a pass-catcher he can rely on to A) stretch the field and B) be a safety valve for him when things go rough, and I think they gave him that this year … You’re starting to see him really lead this team from the front with his actions.”
Cruz spoke with Big Blue View during a fundraiser he led with PepsiCo in Newark, N.J., near his hometown of Paterson. During the “Back to School PEP Rally,” Cruz delivered school supplies to 240 underserved students at the Luis Munoz Marin School for Social Justice, part of 2,000 students who will be benefitted by PepsiCo events this summer.
What stood out the most: Cruz referred to the Giants as “we” at almost every opportunity and spoke of each current player as if they were a teammate of his. It’s clear a piece of his heart still lies in East Rutherford.
“I think if anybody knows the Giants, we love to just operate under the radar and then people will talk about us when they need to,” Cruz said. “So I think they’re relishing that and this team kind of embodies that, and they take the energy of Daniel Jones, an under the radar kind of guy. So I think the team is kinda following suit.”