- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just as he refuses to panic when the walls of his pocket start to crumble, Eli Manning will not get forced into a turnover when hit with the news media's version of an all-out blitz.
Manning is a stay-on-message quarterback eight days a week. He proved it again on a hot summer afternoon at the New York Giants' camp, where reporters kept asking him why he wasn't campaigning for the return of Plaxico Burress, and where Manning kept saying it wasn't his place to tell management which free agents to sign.
Manning was saying this just as Big Ben Roethlisberger was keeping a lunch date with Burress, trying to recruit him back to Pittsburgh, and just as the New York Jets were preparing to pounce with their $3 million guarantee -- about the only guarantee Rex Ryan has actually honored as their coach.
Burress caught Manning's winning Super Bowl pass, took painkilling shots in his knee to play against those 18-0 New England Patriots and helped make Manning a $100 million man by providing a 6-foot-5 target built to bail out a quarterback in distress. But during Burress' post-prison visit to his old team, Manning didn't even bother to step out of a meeting to say hello, or goodbye.
"I think we have the manpower to be an explosive offense," Manning said the next day, and even his teammates didn't believe that.
"We have a lot of receivers who can make big plays," Manning insisted, and nobody believed that, either.
But five months later, it appears Manning made the Giants' most significant personnel move of 2011. By not issuing the kind of public or private plea for Plax that might have compelled general manager Jerry Reese to match or top the Jets' bid -- the Giants merely offered a $1 million nonguaranteed wage, and $3 million in nonguaranteed bonuses and incentives -- Manning inspired Victor Cruz to become an irreplaceable Giant on the march to the NFC East title.
"It meant a lot," Cruz said Wednesday of Manning's choice to support his current receivers by not supporting a reunion with Burress. "Any time your quarterback, your Super Bowl-winning quarterback, understands that he's got some talent here and we don't need to search out and reach out for other people, it was a great feeling for us as a receiving corps."
At the start of camp, even with Kevin Boss and Steve Smith unsigned and headed other places, Cruz was a receiver who easily could have been forgotten in a mad push for Plax. Hakeem Nicks already had a 1,000-yard season behind him, and Mario Manningham finished 2010 with nine touchdowns.
Cruz? He was the undrafted unknown who lit up the Jets in the preseason, earned a congratulatory tweet from LeBron James and then committed the NFL's answer to a mortal sin: He got hurt.
On the rebound from his hamstring injury, Cruz impressed Manning in their Hoboken High workouts during the lockout, this as Burress was finishing up his prison term for accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub. "I knew that he had a good feel," Manning said of Cruz, "a good understanding for what was going on. Just a smart guy."
Nicks found his way to the Hoboken sessions, too, and Manning decided these were the guys he wanted to go with. His nonendorsement of Burress became an endorsement of the receivers already under contract, including Cruz, the zillion-to-one shot who needed his quarterback's faith more than the rest.
"Especially coming off an injury," Cruz said, "and not really being out there and needing another year to prove myself. It really meant a lot to me that Eli was in my corner and that he really believed in my talent. It gave me a tremendous confidence boost."
Cruz honored Manning's trust in a stunning way, setting a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards, killing the Jets and Dallas Cowboys with monster catch-and-run scores, and even summoning the memory of Manning-to-Tyree this past Sunday night by somehow bringing down Eli's game-preserving, division-securing heave.
"A lot of times you learn the most about your receivers in game-time situations," Manning said. "You can see practice, you can get better, you can work on technique and those things. But all of a sudden you see someone's true colors in crunch time, in the game when they've got to make plays, they've got to make the tough catch, they're going to get hit.
"All of a sudden something you practice all week, the defense does something different. How do [the receivers] react and adjust? And I think that's where Victor's done a great job and is growing up and has a great feel for what he's going to do."
This all started in Philadelphia, Week 3. The 6-foot Cruz entered that game with a lousy two catches for a lousy 17 yards. Truth was, he looked very much like an undrafted free agent, a little too small and a little too slow for the big leagues.
With Manningham out and Domenik Hixon gone for the season, the Giants' GM, Reese, told Cruz, "It's your time to shine. ... If you're going to do anything, it's time to do it now."
Cruz did his first salsa dance in the end zone that day, leaving Nnamdi Asomugha and Kurt Coleman to collide in his dust as he raced to a 74-yard touchdown. Cruz later fought Asomugha and Jarrad Page on a jump ball that Manning actually regretted throwing ... until his man came down with it for six points.
"That day was amazing, man, like we were on the same page," Cruz said. "Everything was clicking ... and that was really the start of our communication and really understanding what we can do well together. It was the start of something really special."
Cruz became a big star in the big city. The MetLife fans saluted him by calling out his name, Cruuuuuuuuz, and the Garden fans cheered when he did his salsa dance during a Knicks game.
Meanwhile, Burress failed to reach the playoffs and will go down as something of a one-and-done bust for the Jets, who almost certainly won't re-sign him. Plax gave the Jets 924 fewer yards and 37 fewer catches than Cruz gave the Giants, and 580 fewer yards and 31 fewer catches than Nicks gave the Giants.
Was Manning a prophet? A quarterback burning to defy those who said he hadn't been the same player without Plax? A leader who didn't want to give a troublemaker another chance to blow up another season?
It doesn't matter. What does matter is this:
Eli Manning made it clear in the summer that neither the franchise nor the franchise player needed Plaxico Burress, and Sunday's playoff game with Atlanta proves he was right.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
Eli Manning didn't lobby for Plax, which proved to be the right call.