By Jason Keidel
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When Brandon Marshall left the Jets for the Giants, he didn’t simply swap MetLife locker rooms. He fled a perennial losing club and toxic locker for a wholly more stable franchise, used to playing in the playoffs. No doubt Marshall took this into account. For all his athletic splendor and production, Marshall has never played in a single playoff game.
It seems that Victor Cruz, sadly, has done the reverse.
Once a stellar wideout for Big Blue, Cruz scored touchdowns with flair and created a national salsa dance craze. It became almost as trendy to mimic his harmonious hips as it was to cross the goal line.
It’s a good thing Cruz already got his Super Bowl ring, because he isn’t getting one in Chicago, where he signed a one-year deal (worth up to $4 million with incentives) to play for the Bears. To say the Bears are a few players from a Super Bowl is being gracious. They just signed a backup — Mike Glennon — to be their starter, then moved heaven and earth to draft another quarterback — Mitchell Trubisky — to challenge him for the job.
Perhaps there weren’t that many suitors for an aging wide receiver with a recent, sprawling history of injuries. Instead of lining up at any moment next to two Pro Bowl receivers in New Jersey, Cruz will be pining for playing time with Cam Meredith, James White and Markus Wheaton.
If this is it for Cruz — and it seems it is — then it’s a solemn ending to a splendid career. And a rather unexpected one, as well. Cruz was born and raised 15 minutes from MetLife Stadium, yet it may as well have been a galaxy away. Giants fans are well versed on the winding road Cruz took to stardom, from his turbulent childhood in the streets of Paterson to his bumpy college career to his American Idol moment at MetLife.
Ironically, Cruz’s breakout moment was a preseason game against the Jets. Cruz was so lightly regarded, he was assigned jersey No. 3, hardly a staple of a Pro Bowl wideout. We all remember that midfield handshake between Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan, who chuckled while marveling at the unknown speedster who just scored several touchdowns on Ryan’s defense.
Cruz again shocked the Jets on Christmas Eve, 2011, when he took a 10-yard pass from Eli Manning, then spun, juked and darted down the right sideline for a 99-yard touchdown.
Just like Cruz, the Giants that year were rather unimpressive early, finishing the season 9-7. Then, as they did four years earlier, went on another epic roll to win Super Bowl XLVI. Though Manning was the only player from that offense to reach the Pro Bowl, Cruz was quite worthy, finishing the regular season with 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine TDs. Cruz would play in the Pro Bowl the following year, though 2011 was arguably his best season.
Then it all fell apart. Off the field, there was an inelegant cellphone/text matter, which should have remained between he and his wife, but didn’t. More problematic were his growing litany of injuries, starting with his knees, then a nagging calf issue that just never seemed to heal. By the time Cruz was well enough to play, he was suddenly on the wrong side of 30, and there was some new kid on the block named Odell Beckham Jr.
Now Cruz will spend his twilight in the Windy City, which doesn’t have much bluster these days. The Bears finished 3-13 last year, didn’t win a single road game and scored just 279 points. (Only the Rams, Browns and Jets were more inept on offense.) Cruz enters this crucible not only as a new guy, but he will catch passes from someone who’s never taken a snap in a Bears uniform before 2017.
It’s a sadly predictable ending for the aging NFL player, yet incongruous for someone who surprised us for so long. A shame Cruz doesn’t get to finish his career flanked by big-time players, like Marshall and Beckham.
It’s a shame he can’t catch one more touchdown pass from Manning and dance his way into the night.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel