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Victor Cruz wants a raise – and deserves one

New York Giants Victor Cruz gestures after catching a pass for a first down against the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter during their NFL NFC Divisional playoff football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin, January 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Victor Cruz is right: The man deserves a pay raise.

After hauling in 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, the Giants’ receiver told PFT Live on Thursday that he deserves “to be paid more money at this point.”

“I think I was paid, you know, relative to where I came in this year and, you know, I came in as a free agent so that’s the salary I was on, so I don’t feel like I was underpaid,” Cruz said. “I mean, I feel like after my performance this year, you know, I feel like I deserve to be paid more money at this point. But that’s something I’ll let my agents and those people take care of and I’ll just go out there and play the game.”

Some may point to his four-catch, 25-yard performance in the Super Bowl as reason why the Giants should wait until Cruz becomes a restricted free agent in 2013 to pay him. But this is yet another case when stats don’t tell the entire story.

Bill Belichick thought so highly of Cruz that he felt the need to double team him in the slot and jam him at the line of scrimmage on the outside. That’s why Cruz barely made a blip on the radar screen during the Super Bowl. The Patriots actually game planned to take him out of the game, which speaks volumes to Cruz’s worth in the Giants’ underrated passing game.

If the Giants were smart they would give him a modest pay raise during the offseason and tell Cruz that if he can match the success he had in 2011, the two sides can talk about a long-term deal when he becomes a restricted free agent in 2013. Cruz doesn’t seem like someone who is going to take the diva route, so it’s doubtful that paying him now would backfire on the Giants. (Again, I’m talking about a modest pay bump – not a $40 million contract.)

Too many times teams will overpay for free agents and rookies that have never played a down for their city, but bulk when it comes to giving their own guys new deals. That’s entirely backwards when you think about it. Teams should strive to acquire talent and then keep those players around when they succeed.

Nobody in that New York front office is a dummy so I expect the Giants’ staff to be proactive when it comes to Cruz’s situation.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Super Bowl XLVI: Three keys to victory for the Patriots

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady points on the line of scrimmage before a play against the Baltimore Ravens during their NFL AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

On Wednesday I discussed the three keys to victory for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. On Thursday, it’s the Patriots’ turn.

1. Brady has to be Brady.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about whether or not New England’s defense will continue to play well. But the fact of the matter is that when Brady isn’t throwing for 400-plus yards and turning in one of those Tom Brady-type performances, the Patriots have looked very beatable this season. The week before the Pats lost to the Giants during the regular season, they lost to the Steelers 25-17 in Pittsburgh. In that game, Brady completed 24-of-35 passes, threw for two touchdowns and compiled a passer rating of 101.8. But he threw for just 198 yards as the Steelers kept everything in front of them and made more plays in the end. A week later Brady threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns but he also tossed two interceptions in a 24-20 loss to the Giants. Now, it’s not far to pin either of those losses solely on Brady and I’m not. But my point is that when he’s not Superman flying around in his red cape, the Pats look rather ordinary. Thus, this is Brady’s game to lose. He turned in a very lackluster performance two weeks ago in the AFC championship game versus the Ravens and privately promised owner Bob Kraft that he would play better in the Super Bowl. He better, because while the Patriots rely on him too much, if he isn’t Tom Brady then there’s a good chance that the G-Men will once again get the best of New England.

2. Pass protect or fall.
While they did allow two sacks, the Patriots’ offensive line actually did a very good job keeping the Giants’ front four in check when these two teams met during the regular season. (Jason Pierre-Paul had one sack but the other came from outside linebacker Michael Boley.) The Giants are most effective when they can generate pressure from the interior of their defensive line. When they get a push from up the middle, they don’t allow the quarterback to step up in the pocket and thus avoid pressure coming from the outside. The biggest concern for the Patriots is center Dan Connolly, who has struggled in pass protection all season. If he can’t raise the level of his play then the Patriots could have a mess on their hands when it comes to keeping Tom Brady upright. The other concern is Sebastian Vollmer, who was arguably the Pats’ best offensive lineman in that Week 9 loss to the Giants. Sidelined since Week 12 with back and ankle injuries, Vollmer is expected to be active this Sunday but how effective will he be? And will he start or will he serve in more of a swing role? New England can’t juggle its offensive line throughout the game and expect perfect results – especially inside a dome where noise could be a factor. That said, the Patriots have a top-10 line when it comes to pass protection so if Connolly can hold his own with Logan Mankins and Brian Waters in the middle, then New England might be able to neutralize New York’s fierce pass rush. Or at least they better play well or else the Pats’ offense could struggle all game.

3. The Pats must be solid on the back end.
For all intents and purposes, Kyle Arrington, James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung struggled in coverage two weeks ago versus the Ravens. And while Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are certainly respectable receivers, they don’t bring the same skill set to the field as Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. The thing that New England’s defense does best is stop the run. But the Giants aren’t coming into this game thinking that if they can just get Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw going that they’ll win. No, they’re going to throw the ball in the climate-friendly dome that the Colts call a home because that’s what they do best and that’s where they can take advantage of potentially mismatches. Thus, if the Patriots don’t play well on the backend then they’re going to be in trouble. Nicks and Cruz are serious vertical threats on the outside but Mario Manningham is also a danger to work the seam. Thus, all three levels have to be good in pass coverage on Sunday or else the Pats could be victimized through the air. Their pass rush has been inconsistent this season and if they can’t generate pressure then it’ll be up to Chung and Co. to step up. Granted, guys like Devin McCourty and Sterling Moore have played well throughout the season. But to borrow that old phrase: You’re only as strong as your weakest link. New England’s defense has steadily improved from the second half of the season up to this point. Now it’s time for them to put together their best performance of the year.

Super Bowl XLVI: Three keys to victory for the Giants

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws against the New England Patriots third quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on November 6, 2011. The Giants defeated the Patriots 24-20. UPI/Matthew Healey

On Thursday I’ll discuss the three keys for the Patriots to win Super Bowl XLVI but today, let’s take a look at the Giants.

1. Pressure Brady with their four down linemen.
If I’ve written it once I’ve written it one hundred times: The key to beating any elite quarterback whether it’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, is to pressure him with your four down linemen. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady’s completion percentage this season when blitzed is 62.6. That number rises to 67.3 percent when he isn’t blitzed and 70.6 when he receives no pressure at all. But when he’s under pressure, his completion percentage falls to 48.6 and his QB rating falls to 88.8 (compared to 110.1 when he’s not under pressure and 115.3 when he’s blitzed). Blitzing can be an effective tool for any defense, but top quarterbacks will burn teams that rely on the blitz as their sole means of creating pressure. That’s one of the reasons why the Giants have had success against Brady in the last two meetings between these two teams. New York uses four defensive ends in passing situations, which is an advantage that no other team in the league possesses. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (9 sacks in just nine games) and Dave Tollefson (five sacks) can line up at the same time because Pierre-Paul and Tuck have the ability to play inside. The Giants also have the option of playing a combination of three of those ends with Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks), who is a highly versatile role player. So while other keys will certainly factor into a New York victory on Sunday, perhaps nothing is more vital than the Giants’ ability to rush Brady with their four down linemen and drop everyone else back into coverage. New York’s defense was built to do one thing: Get after the quarterback. If the Giants don’t pressure Brady on Sunday, they’ll have a hell of a time beating the Patriots again.

2. Manning needs to avoid turnovers.
When it comes to the Giants, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to one stat: Turnovers, or more specifically, Eli Manning’s turnovers. When Manning didn’t turn the ball over this season, the Giants were 6-0. When he turned the ball over only once during a game, the Giants were 5-2. When he turned the ball over two or more times, the Giants were 0-5. Simply put, the Giants don’t lose when Eli protects the football. When he doesn’t, it’s hard for this team to carry him when he’s making mistake after mistake. (This is one of the many reasons why I keep saying that without Eli’s play this season, the Giants wouldn’t have even made the playoffs.) Sunday will be no different. If Manning makes good decisions and doesn’t give Brady and Co. opportunities to score with a short field (or, conversely, take away potential points for the Giants), New York has an outstanding chance of winning. When Eli is on point he can be as good as anyone in the league from an efficiency standpoint. When he starts turning the ball over it’s as if his entire game falls apart. He’s more careless, he starts throwing off his back foot and his pocket presence flies out the window. The Redskins’ 23-10 victory over the Giants in Week 15 of the regular season is a perfect example of how quickly things can go south for New York if Eli struggles.

3. Attack, attack, attack.
Kevin Gilbride deserves a lot of credit for developing the most underrated passing attack in the league. People love to wax poetically about New Orleans, New England and Green Bay’s passing games but what about New York’s? Thanks to Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham’s, I would put the Giants’ passing attack up against any other team’s in the league outside of maybe the aforementioned Saints, Patriots and Packers. That said, it wasn’t too long ago that New York fans were screaming for Gilbride’s head because the offensive coordinator was being too conservative when it came to his play calling and his approach inside the red zone. When the Giants would get inside the 20, Gilbride would often take his foot off the gas and New York’s offense would get bogged down. Thus, it’s important for Gilbride to continue to attack through the air. The Patriots have a slew of young defensive backs playing in their first Super Bowl, including a safety in Patrick Chung that struggled in pass coverage last week versus Baltimore. Although New England has played much better defensively over the past couple of weeks, the Giants have a huge edge when it comes to their receivers being matched up against the Patriots’ defensive backs. Now isn’t the time for Gilbride to rest on his laurels and hold his passing game back. New England’s front seven is good against the run, so the Giants need to dance with the date that brought them.

Super Bowl XLVI Giants vs. Patriots: Five Questions

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (L) scrambles for a first down against the New York Giants in the first half of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

With kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI rapidly approaching, what are some of the bigger questions surrounding Sunday’s title game?

1. Can Brady shake out of his Giant funk?
There are just some teams that Tom Brady doesn’t play well against. Entering this year’s AFC championship game, Brady’s completion percentage in five career outings against the Ravens was 55.9, which was his lowest against any team in the league. So it wasn’t any wonder while he compiled a 57.5 QB rating in a lackluster 239-yard, two-interception performance versus Baltimore two Sundays ago. Now he faces a New York team that, again, for whatever reason, he’s had trouble beating. From a passer-rating standpoint, Brady had his worst performance of the season in a Week 9 home loss to the Giants. His quarterback rating of 75.4 in the 24-20 loss was only slightly worse than his 82.5 rating in Super Bowl XLII back in 2008. Save for his 356-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Giants in Week 17 of the ’07 regular season, Brady has struggled to beat this New York team. Following his poor performance, he reportedly told owner Robert Kraft in the locker room following the AFC title game that he would play better in Super Bowl XLVI. For a quarterback that has largely been viewed as cool, calm and collected, it’s not a stretch to think that Brady is feeling the pressure of potentially losing yet another game to the Giants.

2. Can the Patriots slow the Giants’ pass rush?
These two teams have met three times since December of 2007 and during that span the Giants have sacked Brady a total of eight times (including five times in their Super Bowl victory in February of ’08). New York uses four defensive ends in passing situations, which is something no other team can boast. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Justin Tuck (5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (9 sacks in just nine games) and Dave Tollefson (five sacks) can line up at the same time because Pierre-Paul and Tuck have the ability to play inside. The Giants also have the option of playing a combination of three of those ends with Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks), who is a highly versatile role player. It’s no coincidence that Brady struggled in New England’s 24-20 home loss to New York in Week 9 considering that was one of the games Umenyiora was healthy for. When the Giants can dress all five of their pass rushers they’re a completely different defense – a defense that the Patriots and their usually solid group of pass blockers has had trouble with in the past two meetings with New York.

3. Can the Pats’ defense slow down all of the Giants’ weapons?
The Giants’ offense doesn’t receive nearly enough attention for how explosive it is. In a lot of ways, that’s a direction reflection of how some view Eli Manning, who also doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves for being a quarterback that can put pressure on a defense with his playmaking ability. For all of the attention that the Giants’ pass rush has received lately, without Manning’s outstanding play the Giants wouldn’t have won nine games this season. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs, upset the Packers at Lambeau, or have an opportunity to make it two-for-two against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Granted, Manning has had help. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have been outstanding for a New York passing attack that stacks up to any offense in the league outside of maybe New Orleans, New England and Green Bay. Mario Manningham is also a weapon in the vertical game because he can attack a defense along the seam, which is important seeing as how New York doesn’t have a Jimmy Graham-type at tight end. Throw in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs (who both have awoken from their season-long slumber) and yes, the Giants offense is that good. That said, New England’s red-zone defense has allowed just two touchdowns in seven opportunities throughout the playoffs, as Denver went 1-of-3 inside the 20 in the Divisional round and Baltimore went 1-of-4 in the AFC title game. Statically speaking the Patriots weren’t very good defensively this season. But they’re starting to come together on that side of the ball so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Giants’ O vs. Patriots D matchup come Sunday.

4. Will Belichick continue to make sound second-half adjustments?
Baltimore has been the only team in the past seven weeks that has matched New England after halftime. The Ravens and Patriots each scored 10 points apiece in the second half of last Sunday’s AFC championship game, but other than that New England has killed teams in the final two quarters. The Pats have allowed an average of 5.7 second-half points in their last six games, which is an indication that Bill Belichick and his coaching staff are making sound in-game and halftime adjustments. In fact, New England has outscored opponents 111-34 in the second half over their past six games so it’ll be interesting to see how Sunday’s game plays out. If the Giants build a first-half lead, can they sustain it?

5. How effective will the “Gronk” be?
At this point the question isn’t whether Rob Gronkowsi will play but rather how effective will he be. This isn’t the same situation as last year with Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, who never really had a realistic shot of playing in the Super Bowl after suffering a high ankle sprain in the AFC championship game, because Gronk is going to play. But remember two years ago when Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney tore a ligament in his right ankle late in the AFC title game versus the Jets, played in the Super Bowl but was largely ineffective? Will Gronk be the same player he was for the Pats during the regular season or will he serve as merely a decoy in passing situations? We already know that Gronkowski will likely need his left ankle scoped following Sunday’s game so it’s not unrealistic to believe he could be severely limited. Granted, the Pats do have Aaron Hernandez, who not unlike Gronkowski is a weapon from the slot or tight end position. But the “Gronk” was nearly unstoppable this season and is a major mismatch against defensive backs and linebackers. The Patriots need him to be as healthy as possible if their offense is going to fire on all cylinders.

Reactions from NFL Championship Sunday: Giants, Patriots set up Super Bowl rematch

For the second time in four years the New York Giants and New England Patriots will meet in the Super Bowl after the two teams won their respective conferences on Sunday. Here are some quick-hit reactions from both games.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dives in for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter during the NFL AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Patriots 23, Ravens 20

- I feel for Billy Cundiff, I really do. He’s a professional kicker and professional kickers need to make 32-yard field goals when the snap and hold are perfect. It doesn’t matter what the stakes were or the fact that the Ravens blew opportunities during the game that could have saved him the horror of costing his team a chance to play in the Super Bowl. He’s a kicker and he should have made the kick, period. That said, he’s also a human being and there’s nothing anyone could say to make him feel worse than he already does. It sucks for him and it sucks for his teammates, who killed themselves for 18 weeks just to see their Super Bowl hopes dashed in a blink of an eye. Eighteen weeks have hard work flushed away on one bad kick…

- …of course, had Lee Evans bothered to hang onto the ball two plays before, Cundiff would have been spared all of this misery. Cundiff will absorb most of the fans’ barbs this week but the fact of the matter is that his kick would have only tied the game. Evans had a chance to potentially win the game for the Ravens had he hung onto a beautifully thrown pass by Joe Flacco on a second-and-1 from the New England 14. The damn thing was in his hands as he was about to stick his second foot into the ground and he had it knocked away by safety Sterling Moore. If Evans hangs onto the ball we’re talking about a Ravens-Giants rematch instead of Patriots-Giants II.

- Some Baltimore fans are complaining that John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron mismanaged the time when the Ravens drove the ball down to the New England 14-yard-line with less than two minutes remaining in the game. I get that. The Ravens had a second-and-1 from the 14, and a third-and-one from the 14. They could have handed the ball to Rice on either down and have him pick up the first, which would have given the Ravens a fresh set downs with two timeouts remaining. But just last week Cameron watched as Rice was stuffed at the goal line versus Houston so maybe he didn’t want to re-live the moment by playing into New England’s hands. The Patriots’ front seven did a great job bottling up Rice all day so ask yourself this: Was it the play calls or the execution that was the problem? Again, if Evans hangs onto the ball on second down then the Ravens are probably heading to Indianapolis. We fans are great at second guessing coordinators but in this case, Cameron gave his team a chance to win and the players just failed to execute.

- The numbers don’t paint a very pretty picture for the New England defense this season but the fact remains that Bill Belichick’s D is playing its best football over the past few weeks. Vince Wilfork was a freaking beast today and allowed Rice very little running room, while the rest of his front seven ‘mates also played extremely well. The secondary still has leaks but this isn’t the same defense that struggled so mightily earlier in the season.

- Have the Patriots ever won an AFC championship game when Tom Brady didn’t play well? If they have, I certainly don’t remember when. While everyone was questioning Flacco’s confidence heading into today, it was Brady who was the lackluster quarterback. Following Brandon Spike’s interception of Flacco mid-way through the fourth quarter, Brady gave the Ravens new life on the very next play by throwing into triple-coverage and getting picked off himself. Granted, the two interceptions he threw were both incredible plays but Baltimore defenders but Brady was off the entire game. In some respects, I don’t even know how the Patriots won. They’re heading back to the Super Bowl so that’s all that matters in the end, but this was not a very compelling performance by New England. That said, even though the Ravens continue to be a thorn in Brady’s side, his fourth-down touchdown leap proved to be the game-winning score for the Pats. And that was one hell of a gusty leap.

- Apparently Rob Gronkowski left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot, although he says his left ankle is “fine.” Good thing the media now has two weeks to talk about his injury every hour like they did with Pittsburgh offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey leading up to last year’s Super Bowl. Because that wasn’t nauseating or anything.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter during the NFL NFC Championship game in San Francisco, California, January 22, 2012. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Giants 20, 49ers 17

- Kyle Williams wasn’t even supposed to be returning punts for the 49ers: that job belonged to Ted Ginn Jr., but he was inactive today with a knee injury. So it’s only fitting that Williams muffed two punts that indirectly propelled the Giants to their second Super Bowl appearance in four years. Just like Billy Cundiff, I feel for Williams. It’s not like the kid woke up this morning and said, “Yeah, this is a good day to cost my team an opportunity to play in the Super Bowl.” It was just a really bad day for the former Arizona State product. Granted, the conditions weren’t ideal for any ball carrier but Williams shouldn’t have been close to the bouncing ball that hit his knee and his fumble that set up Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal was caused in part because he was carrying the ball away from his body. Making matters worse, he didn’t record a single catch so it might be a long offseason for Williams, who nearly lost a fumble on a poor pitch earlier in the game, too.

- Just like Cundiff, Williams will draw most of the ire from fans and the media this week. But the blame cannot be laid at his feet alone. Did Williams put the Niners in bad position with his two muffed punts? No question. His turnovers led to 10 New York points, which proved to be the difference in the game. You can’t ignore that. But let me throw out some numbers: 1-of-13. That was San Francisco’s third-down efficiency today. They converted one third down on 13 attempts, which is absolutely horrendous. Here are some more numbers: 12-of-26. Alex Smith completed just 12 passes and only three of which came on the 49ers’ final two drives when they had an opportunity to win the game. Williams cost his team dearly but rarely does a football game come down to one or two plays.

- There were many factors that played into the outcome of this game but to me, the play of the quarterbacks was the difference. Alex Smith made two great throws to Vernon Davis that resulted in 14 points, but he was at the root of San Francisco’s ineptitude on offense. He often looked for the rush instead of anticipating it, his pocket presence was non-existent on some drives, and he often held onto the ball too long. When the 49ers had an opportunity at the end of the fourth quarter to put a drive together and potentially win the game with a field goal, Smith threw three straight incomplete passes and only 14 seconds came off the clock. He looked like a quarterback who couldn’t wait to get off the field on the 49ers’ lone possession in overtime, too. Take away Davis’ 112 receiving yards and the Niners did nothing on the outsides today. Don’t get me wrong, without Alex Smith’s play in the fourth quarter lat week, the 49ers aren’t playing in the NFC title game. But it’ll be interesting to see if San Francisco wants to invest making him their franchise quarterback when he still has a lot of the same issues that have haunted him throughout his career.

- On the flip side, Eli Manning got his ass handed to him repeatedly by a very good San Francisco defense and he continued to make plays to give his team a chance to win in the end. This Giants team was severely banged up at the beginning of the year and everyone essentially wrote them off when they lost to the Redskins in Week 1. And when they lost to the Redskins again late in the season, nobody expected the G-Men to even make the playoffs. But just like Eli did today in ‘Frisco, the Giants just kept hanging in there and now they’re heading back to the Super Bowl. Were the Giants a work of art offensively today? No, but let’s give San Francisco’s defense their due. They weren’t going to allow Manning to come in and do whatever he wanted on their home turf, and they certainly didn’t. At the end of the game Eli looked like someone who had been run over by a sewage truck. Justin Smith used his body as a rag doll on several occasions and yet there was Manning, peeling himself off the turf play after play. Criticize this guy all you want for not having Tom Brady’s bravado or his brother’s passing records but don’t say he’s not a winner. Manning proved to a national audience today what he’s proven to Giants fans all year: That without him, the G-Men don’t even win nine games this season, nevertheless have a chance to win their second Super Bowl in four years.

- Victor Cruz caught 10 passes for 142 yards today, all of which came in the first half. That is not a misprint.

- Considering the Giants have beaten the Patriots the last two times these two teams have met, I would love to see the media have some balls and talk about whether or not New England can beat New York, instead of the other way around. The Patriots are already listed as 3.5-point favorites and you know the media is just chomping at the bit to talk about Brady and Belichick. But seriously, let’s see if the national media has any marbles and spends the next two weeks discussing whether or not the Pats can get the best of the Giants.

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