Off-season Giants: Jerry Reese and the front office can do no wrong, even if you happen to be negotiating with them

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Victor Cruz, making light of the Jets. (nfl.com)
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A weekly column about what the Giants and Jets are doing when they're not playing football.

Victor Cruz made a lot of Giants fans happy this past week. After saying earlier in the offseason that he felt he should be paid more, the overnight-sensation salsero assuaged their fears by promising not to hold out from training camp to demand a new contract. In fact, he said the word “holdout” is “not in my vocabulary. I don’t even know what that means.”

This is good news for the Giants, of course: Cruz will be in training camp, and the juggernaut Giants passing attack—Eli Manning just passed for the sixth-most yards in the history of the N.F.L. last year—should continue to excel.

But what about for Cruz, who seemingly just cost himself the only leverage he had to get the money that he deserves? After all, his comments earlier this offseason—“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”—were right on target.

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Assuming nothing changes, Cruz will play next year under the contract he signed as an undrafted free agent, under which he will earn $490,000. That’s a pittance compared to his contribution on the field, which, last year, amounted to 1,536 yards, which was the most yards ever by a Giants wide receiver and the third-most in the N.F.L. (By comparison, Calvin Johnson, who led the N.F.L. with just 112 more yards than Cruz, signed a contract extension for around $80 million in guaranteed money.)

When Cruz made his initial statement—in response to reporter Mike Florio’s question, it should be noted—he had just received the Vizio Top Value Performer Award, which goes to the N.F.L. player who has the most production for the least amount of money. For the organization, that’s a good thing. For the player—whose earning power is short and mutable—it’s a dubious honor, amounting to a missed opportunity for income.

There’s a recent precedent among outstanding young Giants receivers to rise to surprising heights and then fall before it’s time to collect a big paycheck. Steve Smith, who led the league and set a franchise record with 107 receptions in 2009, reportedly turned down a five-year, $35 million extension offer with the Giants in the hopes of a bigger payday. The next season, he suffered a serious knee injury, and hasn’t returned to his previous form. Smith recently signed a $1 million deal with the lowly St. Louis Rams.

So why did Cruz rule out a holdout?

Part of it is that Cruz stands to gain financially from his image in the coming months and years, and much of his marketing appeal resides in his underdog, rags-to-riches life story and his normal-guy, just-happy-to-be-here demeanor. Surely, a holdout would undermine his image and compromise sales of his memoir, which will likely be released around the time of training camp. And were a holdout to drag out, it might even jeopardize Cruz’s role in the offense, rendering his breakout 2011 a one-hit-wonder.

Cruz’s girlfriend, the mother of his child, is a public-relations professional, and the two of them are careful stewards of his image. Cruz turned down an offer to appear on “Dancing with the Stars” this offseason, feeling it would look like too much, too soon, and would make him vulnerable to future criticism about being a flash in the pan.

But he has his long-term sights set on being a transcendent cultural star. Right after the Super Bowl, he found himself at the Grammys, doing his patented salsa dance. He signed an endorsement deal with IMG Worldwide to maximize future marketing opportunities. (Forbes speculates that Frito Lay’s salsa products and X-Box Dance Central could be “intriguing fits for Cruz.”) He has said his dream is to be in a Nike commercial, and was the Giants representative at this week’s Nike N.F.L. uniform unveiling. His number 80 jersey was the Giants’ second-highest selling last year to Eli Manning’s, and he’s currently in the final eight in fan voting to appear on the cover of Madden 12.

As for football, Cruz is a restricted free agent after this year and stands to get a big raise if he keeps up last year’s production. Mike Wallace, currently a restricted free agent on Pittsburgh to whom Cruz would be comparable if he maintains his level of play, will likely get a contract worth around $10 million per year. It’s possible that Cruz won’t ask for a raise this year, hope to have a big 2012, and then see how much he can get as a free agent.

The other possibility—and, to my mind, what Giants’ fans should be hoping for—is that he and the Giants are currently working out a long-term extension behind the scenes. If the Giants were to extend Cruz’s contract now, they could drastically bump his pay for this coming year while likely saving themselves a lot of money in the future. It’s the type of deal that has become commonplace in baseball with young players whose short-term earning potential is limited because they haven’t accrued enough years to become free agents: Pay the player more money than necessary in the present to yield huge savings in the future if the player meets expectations.

The win-win here is that the player gains financial security while the team saves money. The downside for the team is that they’re taking the chance that they player will keep performing. The downside for the player is that if he performs as everyone expects, he'll find himself underpaid relative to what he would have earned had he turned down the contract extension and become a free agent.

A cautionary tale for players is the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora, who signed a seven-year extension in 2005 for $41 million, which seemed like a lot at the time. But as the salary structure has changed, Umenyiora has come to feel that he is severaly underpaid relative to his ability. He has consequently had near-constant flare-ups with management over the past several years, and offered Cruz the following advice: Sign a shorter contract.

Giants general manager Jerry Reese, in the one time he was publically questioned about Cruz back in February, said it was too early to address the matter. But when the Giants opted not to bring back free-agent receiver Mario Manningham this offseason, the general assumption was that it signaled a plan to invest in Cruz and fellow star receiver Hakeem Nicks for the long term. (Nicks is signed through 2013.)

The Giants would be wise to make the first of these investments this offseason. Cruz was no fluke, and if he does what the Giants hope and has a similar season in 2012 as 2011, failing to lock him up will wind up costing the Giants a lot of money and salary-cap space.

ONE OF THE NICE THINGS ABOUT BEING PART of the front office of a Super Bowl-winning team is the all-encompassing confidence it engenders in you among fans.

Once again, general manager Jerry Reese has done relatively little during the offseason. Last year, the Giants’ inactivity was cause for widespread panic, particularly in light of the series of splashy moves by the rival Eagles which convinced Giants fans that Reese was conceding the division for the next several years. This year, the Giants’ have looked at their rivals' scrambling from a position of detached superiority.

The reaction to the one consequential move Reese did make speaks of this fan confidence in Reese’s if-it-ain't-broke approach. Reese signed the Cowboys' underachieving, controversy-courting malcontent Martellus Bennett to a small one-year, $1.25 million deal. If, say, the Washington Redskins had signed Bennett, a former second-rounder, it would have been viewed as a futile, falling attempt to acquire a name that once meant something but now doesn’t. But it’s the Giants, and the Giants have a sound system in place, and the Giants have a winning mentality, and the Giants don’t tolerate bad apples, and the Giants know what they’re doing, and consequently the signing of Bennett has been well received as a worthwhile bet on a player with talent. (It’s also telling that the Giants opted for Bennett while declining to pursue their former tight end, Kevin Boss, who was recently cut by the Raiders.)

Last week, Jason Witten, Dallas’s star tight end whose presence, Giants fans hope, has kept Bennett from blossoming in a bigger role for the past four years, said some encouraging things about his ex-teammate:

He fits that offense in a lot of ways. I think his confidence was probably shaken a little bit in Dallas. Few plays, his numbers were limited, so I’m sure that’s a part of it.

He’s a good blocker, he’s a good underneath route runner, and he’s big so he can catch the ball. I think, more than anything, getting his confidence back and getting a fresh start will do a lot for his career. Definitely a lot of upside.

More good news when it comes to Giants’ tight ends: Travis Beckum, who late last year began to showcase the potential as a receiver that made him a third-round draft choice in 2009, tweeted that he might be healthy for the start of the season. This might be a bit of a stretch—ACL injuries typically take 9-12 months to heal fully—but hey, each ACL heals differently.

Another tight end whose name has been bandied about in Giants circles is Stanford University tight end Coby Fleener, who is by far the most common Giants selection in the 50,000 mock drafts on the internet. Mike Pope, the team’s tight ends coach, attended his workout at Stanford.

AFTER A SEASON THAT VINIDICATED THE GIANTS' steady old-schoolness and resistance to change for the sake of change, it’s not surprising that when the N.F.L. switched uniform manufacturers from Nike to Reebok, the Giants’ uniform was kept pretty much intact. (Then again, nearly every team’s was, with the eye-offending exception of the Seattle Seahawks, who continue to drift farther and farther away from their Steve Largent-era uniform glory days.)

There are some small changes in the fabrics: water-resistant pants, hip-padding near the belt area, mesh side panels on the jerseys, and a v-neck color with an off-putting pattern among them. There’s also the Nike swoosh, which for some reason screams “Corporate logo” much more than the former Reebok logo did.

The one semi-consequential change for the Giants is that they will wear what used to be their “Away” pants for both home and road games, thus dispensing with having two different sets of pants. In this informative video on the new uniforms, Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba cryptically adds that using the away pants full-time is “in preparation for the 2013 season. That’s all I can elaborate on, but throughout the year hopefully we’ll have some updates for you.”

Superstitious Giants fans can only hope this doesn’t signal a return to the “Dreaded Red” alternate jerseys they wore from 2004 to 2007, to a 1-3 record.

A little-known fact is that blame for those red jerseys belongs to Ernie Accorsi, the Giants former General Manager. Giants have have Accorsi to thank for a lot of things – he drafted Eli Manning, Osi Umenyiora, Corey Webster, Justin Tuck, and other key players from the 2007 and 2011 championship runs – but he was dead wrong on the red jerseys for Big Blue.

From Tom Callahan’s 2007 book on Accorsi, The GM: The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmares that Go With It:

In 1951, the Philadelphia Eagles established a regular training ground at the Hershey stadium, and that first summer, the New York Giants won a game there, 21-6, wearing striking red jerseys that stuck with Ernie. Someday he would retrieve those red jerseys from antiquity and dress the Giants in them once a year.

DEFENSIVE END DAVE TOLLEFSON, REMEMBERED MOSTLY for the profane pep talks his mother famously subjected him to before every game, to the delight of his teammates, signed with the Oakland Raiders Friday night on a two-year deal worth up to $3 million.

Tollefson was a popular backup player who adequately spelled bigger names like Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul for a series here or there during games. He set a career-high this year with five sacks, which he punctuated with a trademark pirouetting kick in the style of Patrick Swayze in Road House.

Before each game, Tollefson’s mother, who raised him and his siblings alone in a hardscrabble part of Northern California, would call and rip into him with a sweaty tirade, challenging him to perform with fearlessness and masculinity. It became a tradition in the Giants locker room for teammates to gather round and pump themselves up, or just marvel at what they were hearing.

MEMORIES OF A CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON CAN TAKE ON A LIFE of their own. Some, with the help of N.F.L. Films, become more glorious. But some get tarnished.

Your Super Bowl hero will perhaps turn out to hold unappealing political views, or shoot himself in the leg in a nightclub. Time passes, and shit happens.

Which brings us to Andre Brown, the Giants’ running back who has amassed two carries in his professional career missed all of 2011 while on injured reserve. Nonetheless, Brown will always have a place in Giants lore as the creator of the catchy “I got a ring!” chant, first unveiled on the team flight home from the Super Bowl, and then perfected at City Hall.

Sadly, Brown was suspended for four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. It’s tempting to judge Andre Brown, but say what you want about the man: The guy’s got a ring.