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Thursday, December 19, 2013
Cruz situation illustrates Nicks' biggest fear

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Hakeem Nicks
Hakeem Nicks is in the final season of his five-year rookie contract.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- And there you have it. With word that New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz had to have knee surgery Thursday and is out for the final two games of the season, you have a perfect illustration of why fellow wide receiver Hakeem Nicks wouldn't, couldn't or shouldn't have taken any risks with his health this season.

Cruz has his money. He got his guaranteed contract from the Giants last offseason. He has no fears about losing out on a lifetime of security if he injures himself going sky-high to try to make a catch in a meaningless game and landing on his head with a defender draped all over him. Sure, he'd have rather finished the season, reached 1,000 receiving yards for the third year in a row and gone into the offseason healthy. But he'll be back with the Giants this offseason and ready to go next year, with no concerns about what the future holds for him or his family.

And I'm not saying Nicks wouldn't have made the same play Sunday if given the chance. But I am saying he hasn't been making those plays this year when given the chance. He has not appeared to be playing his hardest for much of this season. The pending free agent has made repeated references to "my situation" when discussing care he's taking with his body on and off the field. Some weeks ago, on the advice of his agent, he had an abdominal injury examined to make sure it wasn't a hernia and had to miss practice. Coach Tom Coughlin was upset about that, and Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride have appeared increasingly annoyed when discussing Nicks in recent weeks.

Gilbride said "it's a two-way street" recently when asked about getting Nicks more involved in the offense. Coughlin said after Sunday's game that the Giants count on their best players to win their matchups and fight for the ball, and he was speaking after a game in which four Eli Manning passes intended for Nicks had been intercepted by the Seahawks.

So you add it all up, because it seems as though the Giants have, and it looks as though Nicks went into this season very concerned about preserving his health in the final year of his contract. He has more or less admitted as much, and as the season has gone on and the Giants remained unable to get their offense going to meaningfully enter the playoff race, there has been little to motivate Nicks to change that plan. For whatever reason, he does not look like the same player he used to be. Not as aggressive. Not as explosive. Not as able to win those fights for the ball against defenders. Not ever able to separate from them. When the coverage is soft, as it was in San Diego, he can rack up catches and yards. When things are tough, as they were against the Seahawks' physical secondary, he's a non-factor.

And it could be that he's playing hurt. But he says he's not and he's not missing practice time, and so we're to assume he's healthy, which he surely wants teams to believe as he's about to hit free agency. It could also be that his legs are shot from years' worth of injuries, but that's not something to which he'll admit either. What he will say -- at least hint at -- is that the looming free agency and the next contract have been on his mind. And if that's the case, then it's not hard to connect the dots and figure out that his greatest fear is exactly what happened to Cruz. If Nicks had injured his knee in a Week 15 game with the team going nowhere and killed his chances at a free-agent payday, he'd have felt like a fool.

This is not to defend this point of view. I think people should try hard at their jobs. I think players should give a full and honest effort in every game for which fans pay admission. But that's easy for me to say, since my livelihood doesn't depend on finding some way to get my body through 16 NFL games without injuring some part of it. Nicks' does. And while it may not be right or defensible, the system under which these players play makes them feel as though the priorities Nicks appears to have set are the right ones. The care an NFL player must take not to get injured, if that is in fact his season's goal, doesn't leave room for much else in the effort department. Even if Nicks feels he's giving his best effort every week, there's a chance that, subconsciously, the concern over his health won't allow it.

So when Victor Cruz injures his knee in the third-to-last game with nothing whatsoever on the line for the team ... well, that makes you realize what someone like Hakeem Nicks has been so worried about. And it may explain a lot of what we have -- and haven't -- seen from Nicks in 2013.