EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tell me you saw Victor Cruz coming, and I'll call you a liar to your face. Sure you might have thought he'd turn into a good receiver with Eli Manning throwing him the ball in a pass-happy New York Giants offense. But no way did you see 82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. No one did. Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin didn't dream those numbers for Cruz in their wildest, most hopeful dreams.
But what they did see was talent, and a chance to develop that talent. And that is what the Giants do. They stay the course. In an era that demands instant gratification, instant success, the Giants preach and exercise patience as the best way to get better. Cruz's breakout season began last summer, when he showed up for every lockout workout Manning called and worked with his quarterback on every detail he could process. It crescendoed with a 99-yard touchdown catch in Week 16 and a 74-yard touchdown catch in Week 17 against the Cowboys -- two huge plays that keyed two huge victories and a surprise division title. The fact that an undrafted second-year wide receiver who didn't catch a pass last season was so central to that effort is nothing short of vindication for a franchise determined to do things its own way.
"It's about having a very good organization -- an organization that believes in their guys," veteran left tackle David Diehl said. "If you're here, you're a Giant. You're here because they want you here. And everybody here is going to work to make sure you become as good as you can possibly be."
This was the offseason, remember, in which the Eagles loaded up and the Giants did nothing. Philadelphia's free-agent frenzy was the story of the league in August, and it pushed the Eagles to the top of the preseason prediction lists for the NFC East. The Giants did nearly nothing, and in fact lost players to free agency. They let a couple of prime Manning targets walk out the door and declined to replace them, and they got roasted for it, here and in many other places. They did not know that guys like Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul were going to blow the NFL's doors off in 2011, but they knew they had those players, didn't have the ones who left or got hurt, and that the best chance they had to make something of the season was to work as hard as possible with the guys on the roster.
"A realistic goal for me was just to get a catch in a real game that mattered, in a real game that counted," Cruz said, looking back over his season to the expectations with which it began. "Due to some injuries, I was able to come in and play a significant role. It's been an amazing ride. It's been a roller coaster for me. But I'm excited that we're here, we won our division and we're going to the playoffs."
The Giants needed some external things to happen to make this possible. They needed the Eagles and Cowboys to blow a bunch of fourth-quarter leads, helping make this the first full season in history in which the NFC East could be won with fewer than 10 victories. But at the end of a season that could easily have slipped away while they were losing four straight to some of the league's best teams, the Giants stiffened up.
"It's one thing to be regarded for your toughness," Coughlin said. "But also to play tough in important and big games. I like that our guys rallied around and did that."
Few did it better than Cruz, who had five touchdown catches this season longer than 65 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he had three catches this season on which he gained at least 60 yards after the catch, including Sunday night's big touchdown. He's a quarterback's dream -- a receiver you can trust not only to catch the ball in a big spot but to make the absolute most of it once he does.
"He just keeps doing it, and thank god he does," Coughlin said. "I'm cheering for him, doing cartwheels on the sidelines as he's running by. Just a heck of a game and a heck of a season by the kid."
Cruz is the emblem of what the Giants have just pulled off -- a player who has developed quickly and brilliantly thanks to the coaching and the environment provided by one of the league's proudest and most stable franchises. They could have traded Osi Umenyiora out of spite when he threw his tantrum, called the general manager a liar and sat out training-camp practices. They didn't, and there was Umenyiora, wrecking things for the Cowboys on Sunday night in the biggest game of the season. They lost left tackle Will Beatty in the second half of the season, center David Baas for crucial games, and they were able to patch it together by moving Diehl back out to tackle and getting big performances from guys like Kevin Boothe and Mitch Petrus. Steve Smith and Kevin Boss leave? Mario Manningham struggles? No problem, because Cruz turned out to be a superstar. Umenyiora and Justin Tuck struggled with injuries all year, but Pierre-Paul made up for it by becoming one of the most fearsome pass-rushers in the league.
"You know coming in that there are going to be injuries, that things are going to happen to make it tough on you," Diehl said. "But when you play here, you really believe everybody on that roster has a chance to make a play that helps you win a game. Or in this case, a division."
Yeah, nobody saw Victor Cruz coming. Not even the Giants -- not to this extent. But that's not the point. The Giants exist and sustain themselves on the belief that someone is coming -- that someone is going to step forward and perform in a way that leads them to great things. They're willing to believe it can be someone different every week, but the point is that they always believe they have enough in their own locker room to get it done. This year, they turned out to be right.