By Ernie Palladino
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If the Giants owe it to themselves to clinch a playoff berth in Philadelphia on Thursday night, they owe it to Victor Cruz just as much.
If this season is indeed the end of the charismatic wide receiver’s career in blue, it would only be fitting if they assure its extension in the very stadium where Cruz’ career began its downhill slide. It was in the end zone at Lincoln Financial Field in 2014 where he leaped for Eli Manning’s throw, only to crumble at the end line, his patellar tendon torn.
The story of his comeback is no secret, of course. Eighteen months of surgery, rehab, and setbacks. A solid start to his return season. A 30th birthday. And now, relegation to second-class status behind the younger bodies of Sterling Shepard, Roger Lewis, Jr., and of course the team’s offensive MVP, Odell Beckham, Jr.
He goes into the game having caught just five passes in the last seven games — one each against the Eagles, Bears, Browns, Cowboys, and Lions. An ankle injury kept him out against Cincinnati on Nov. 14, but he was healthy and active three weeks later for the trip to Pittsburgh. Cruz took less than half the Giants’ offensive snaps that game, and Manning didn’t even look at him.
That was humiliating for him.
He caught a touchdown pass in the opener in Dallas. Since then, nothing.
But now comes the opportunity for the Giants to do right by a man who brought excitement to the passing game years before Beckham was even a first-round glimmer in Jerry Reese’s eye. If 2016 is indeed the last Giants fans will see of Cruz, and if Ben McAdoo and Manning want to make a potential exit all the less painful for all involved, they’ll throw him about 10 passes.
And it would be nice if one or two of them found the end zone.
Of course, the arc of the gameplan will determine that. For all the sentimentality that gets wrapped into the salsa-ing folk hero, the object is to qualify for the postseason. And the sooner the better.
The last thing they want to do is leave an element of doubt for the finale in Washington. As history indicates, weird things can happen after lost opportunities. Given how the Giants have regarded the act of scoring points with the excitement of a 10-year-old facing a tetanus shot, Cruz could well be the last thing on their minds.
Despite a 114-yard rushing effort against the Lions last week, there’s no guarantee the ground game has returned for good. And given the fact that the offense remains a big nothing unless Beckham scores at least once, Manning will still direct a major share of targets his way.
A low-scoring game will leave Cruz out of the mix.
A shootout — improbable considering how the defense is peaking at just the right time — might involve everybody but Cruz.
And if the Giants do win, it’s likely Cruz will take on the same role he has the last half of the season.
Still, it would be fitting for the former Latin sensation to have one, last big game on Thursday night, just to raise memories of a happier past. One last hurrah for a former star whose $5.712 million of 2017 salary cap space might better be used on a veteran offensive lineman.
Clinching the playoff berth comes first. But giving the beloved receiver one last measure of glory along with it would top the cake.
One last high note, with Victor Cruz dancing on a field where he experienced the saddest point of his career.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino