Cruz named 2011's Most Improved Player

Posted Jan. 17, 2012 @ 12:29 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

You know you've made it big when "Dancing With the Stars" comes calling.

Not long ago, Giants WR Victor Cruz was best-known for a three-TD preseason game in 2010, after which the Jets' Rex Ryan infamously said — caught by HBO's "Hard Knocks" microphones, "I don't know who the (heck) No. 3 is, but holy (crap)!"

The uniform has gone up from camp-invite status to legitimate WR digits — he's No. 80 in your program now — and the fame has followed proportionally.

"I understood that I was going to have my opportunity and when my name was called upon I had to succeed," Cruz told PFW.

Armed with his patented salsa dance that's inspired by his grandmother, Cruz has become one of the great feel-good stories of the season, going from three reception-less games as an undrafted rookie in '10 to a Giants-record 1,536 receiving yards and nine touchdowns — each spiked with the salsa flair at the end.

Hence the "DWTS" call to have Cruz join the show. This is territory reserved for Kardashians and Osmonds in popular culture and for football legends named Rice, Emmitt and Hines.

Cruz passed; maybe Tom Coughlin got in his ear. Whatever the story, Cruz hasn't let sudden fame — or anything else — slow him down. Some say he has surpassed Hakeem Nicks as Eli Manning's favorite target. It's a big reason why Cruz was voted the 2011 PFW/PFWA Most Improved Player.

"I don't think anybody really saw it coming," Manning said. "A guy who had a good preseason game last year versus the Jets, and then after that, he wasn't around. He was on I.R."

Cruz made a similar statistical jump from nowhere, although on a far smaller stage — between his sophomore and junior years at the University of Massachusetts.

UMass QB Liam Coen, Cruz's roommate at the time, had seen the talent. All the Minutemen had, but Cruz had been held back by the death of his father as a freshman and academic problems the following year.

Cruz caught only one pass as a sophomore before busting out with a 1,064-yard season, highlighted by a 262-yard, two-TD game against James Madison.

"What's amazing is that he took a slant for 69 yards in that game," Coen told PFW, "and was caught from behind. Otherwise, he would have had a third TD.

"I watch him now in the NFL — like that (74-yard) TD against the Cowboys, where he ran right by Terence Newman. I said to myself, 'Man, he has gotten faster in the NFL! Who does that?' "

The Giants weren't sure Cruz would. They signed Brandon Stokley to play the slot, but Cruz fended him off. His breakout happened in Week Three, when he caught two TDs (with 110 yards) vs. the Eagles, when the dance was born. Two weeks later, he went off again — eight catches, 161 yards and a 68-yard TD — but a crucial drop and a fumble in the fourth quarter allowed the Seahawks to upset the Giants.

After some inconsistencies, Cruz hasn't looked back. He averaged 113.8 yards in the final 10 games after the bye, many of those yards coming after making the first defender miss. He was able to flash his now-famous dance six more times as the Giants won the NFC East.

Only four NFL teams contacted Cruz after he went undrafted. Now he has the eyes of the nation watching every hip shake he throws out there on the field.

 

ALL-TIME WINNERS

Most Improved Player of the Year

2011   WR Victor Cruz / N.Y.G.
2010   RB Arian Foster / Hou.
2009   WR Miles Austin / Dall.
2008   RB Deangelo Williams / Car.
2007   QB Derek Anderson / Clev.
2006   RB Frank Gore / S.F.
2005   DE Osi Umenyiora / N.Y.G.
2004   QB Drew Brees / S.D.
2003   QB Jon Kitna / Cin.
2002   QB Chad Pennington / N.Y.J.
2001   QB Kordell Stewart / Pitt.
2000   QB Jeff Garcia / S.F.