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Live from East Rutherford: Giants’ Cruz making strides in return

Victor Cruz has seen most of 2014 and 2015 wiped out by injuries to one of his knees, and then a calf. Now he is ready to return to the field and be a major factor in the Giants offense.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Even though Friday morning’s camp-opening workout was billed as his first full practice in almost a year, Victor Cruz knew better. There were no 7-on-7 or team drills in Friday’s 80-minute indoor session, providing him no opportunity to go up against the defense and test himself as he comes back from almost two years of injury and inactivity. 

Then came Saturday. The sun was out, the heat was in full force, and the Giants were back outside, in front of a throng of their screaming fans. And Cruz, who has become something of a sentimental story that so many can root for, finally had a full-scale workout to endure and measure himself by.

“Yeah, 100 percent, going out there today and going against the defense a little bit and having the fans there watching, it was definitely the real day one,’’ Cruz told me about an hour after practice, sitting in the office of one of the Giants public relations officials. “It felt good, man. I got through it, didn’t feel have any setbacks, didn’t feel any pain, and now I just build on that.’’

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This is a new and interesting Giants team in 2016, with rookie head coach Ben McAdoo large and in charge. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off Cruz for long portions of Saturday’s practice, watching for any sign of the electrifying play-maker who has seen most of 2014 and 2015 wiped out by injuries to one of his knees, and then a calf.

What Cruz is trying to do is a pretty rare thing, given how long his career has been on hold. There are comebacks, and then there’s what No. 80 is attempting, and it seems like forever since we’ve seen him doing the Salsa in the Giants end zone. When Cruz was first hurt, rupturing a patella tendon in October 2015, Odell-mania hadn’t even really been fully launched yet in New York. Now he’s just trying scratch his way back to a secure roster spot, hoping to recreate some of the magic of when he was the Giants’ young receiving sensation. 

“It feels like a long time since I’ve been out there, especially because of the setbacks,’’ Cruz said. “Because last year I was healthy, and I practiced, and then came more setbacks (with his calf injury). I’ve had this emotional rollercoaster ride. It’s been a long time, but that first preseason game is around the corner, and it’s a blessing just to be out here and playing this game after everything I’ve been through.’’

Cruz’s perspective, despite his injuries, is intact. He and I both recently attended the New York premier of Gleason, the moving documentary film chronicling ex-Saints player Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS, and I asked what it felt like to watch it, as an active player who is still putting his body on the line for the game of football?

“It hit me hard, man, because you think you go through ups and downs,’’ Cruz said. “You think you’ve got it rough. But when you see something like that, you don’t want to complain about anything ever again. You realize people are going through a lot worse than what you’re going through. So you can’t complain or say something negative about your issues, when this guy is going through the most gut-wrenching thing you can probably go through.’’

Cruz’s rags-to-riches NFL story has always been a good one, and a lot of us are keeping fingers crossed that it has a happy ending, and his comeback takes off.

“That’s the plan,” he said, smiling. “That’s always been the plan. And I think it’ll happen. I’ve come so far and this organization has put their faith and trust in me for so many years. Something good has to come from it. I’m just enjoying these moments, and I don’t even mind training camp now.’’

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• Of all the NFL franchises Eli Apple could have been drafted into, of course it had to be the Giants—home of the most famous Eli in NFL history—who took the Ohio State cornerback, transforming New York into a two-Eli team.

And, yes, there has been some confusion already. An “Eli’’ question to McAdoo elicited a quick “Which Eli?’’ on Saturday, and the rookie himself got duped by thinking it was his turn at a team ritual when in actuality it was Eli Manning’s turn.

“Like on the practice field, whenever the coach tells us to break it down, he yells Eli, and I’m thinking it’s me, so I go up there thinking I’m breaking the team down,” Apple said. “But it’s Eli Manning, and I’m like, ‘Aww, man.’ It’s going to take a couple practices. Hopefully they come up with a nickname for me so everything else is easier.’’

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Apple didn’t for a second think Manning would get the nickname for clarity sake. “Of course it will be me, as it should be,’’ he said. “But I knew what was ahead as soon as I got drafted. That’s what I thought about on draft night.’’

• On a sweltering hot and humid Saturday morning, McAdoo, curiously enough, was dressed as if it was late October or early November, with baggy long pants and a pullover coaching jacket in addition to a layering shirt. He looked as if he had to be dissolving in the heat with all that on, but apparently that’s the way he likes it.

“I like to sweat when I’m out there,” he said. “I think you think clearly when you have a chance to sweat. Otherwise you feel bottled up. So you get out there, you get a couple layers on, and you get some sweat worked up, and you think clearly. It keeps my mind clear. I’ve got some demons in me. I’ve got to sweat ‘em out, and it helps me manage my thoughts.’’

I think he was kidding about the demons. But I guess time will tell.

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• One of the small ways McAdoo is making it clear that this is his team, and that the 12-year Tom Coughlin coaching era is over, is that he schedules several “TV timeouts” during his practices. But that’s not the best part. During the interludes, there is piped in music featuring some current or vintage TV theme songs.

My personal favorite on Saturday was the theme song from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I also heard Game of Thrones and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.


“I like all the HBO stuff,” McAdoo told me. “But we’ll do Family Feud, and Seinfield’s always a popular choice.’’

Makes sense to me. NFL games have TV timeouts. Loads of them. So why shouldn’t practice?

• I don’t get the sense that newly-minted Giants free-agent signee Olivier Vernon is going to gets stage fright playing in the big city. The former Dolphins defensive end knows the spotlight is going to come his way because of the monster contract that came his way in March. But he doesn’t sound obsessed with trying to live up to the mega-deal. That’s almost always the right approach in these type of situations. There’s enough pressure just to stay on the field in the NFL week in and week out.

“I mean, really, the defensive end position doesn’t change just because you go to a different team,’’ Vernon said. “You just have different teammates, different scenery and a different playbook. But playing defensive end stays the same. This is going on my fifth year, so I’m pretty sure I know what’s got to get done. I guess  just you’ve got to wait and see if I can get it done. Just wait and see.’’

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5 Questions with Giants G.M. Jerry Reese:

Q: The track record in the NFL isn’t great for teams that went out and made as big as splash as the Giants did on defense this spring. What tells you New York will be the exception to that rather than the rule?

JR: We’ve seen teams do that, get well really quickly in free agency. You can fill some holes pretty quickly. And really, this was the first time since I’ve been GM that we really had some money to spend. You never know if it’s going to be an over-shop or not, but we felt like these guys are quality football players, and young guys on the verge of being stars in this league. It’s about getting the right guys. There may be some growing pains, but we had to help our defense. Our defense obviously wasn’t what we wanted last year.

Q: The Giants have been the most injured team in the league for three years running. Are you optimistic the changes Ben McAdoo has made will turn that trend around? 

JR: We’ve tried different things, but I think we’ve been unlucky to a degree. When one of your best players is in a fireworks accident (Jason Pierre-Paul), there’s no GM book for that. But we are taking a different approach. We spent a quarter-million dollars re-doing our weight room, and we got a new strength and conditioning coach (Aaron Wellman). Hopefully this approach will get us through our injury bug and we’ll keep our players out there. The whole thing is let’s build these guys up, let’s don’t come right out of the shoot and have a two and a half-hour practice out there and have guys in the training room with soft-tissue (injuries).”

Q: Any potential downsides to an easy-does-it approach in camp?

JR: What you have to be careful of is, you can’t be too easy on these guys. One thing I told Ben you’ve got to be careful of is, these guys have got to come out of training camp and have some callouses on them. It’s important. I said we’re concerned about injuries but you can’t worry about injuries. You’ve got to have some toughness out here, because if you don’t win the physical battle, you can forget it in this league.”

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Q: Do you think Victor Cruz going to be able to make it all the way back?

JR: “We’re hopeful, and I believe if anybody can come back from basically a couple years off it’s him. I had a really good talk with him because when we re-did his  contract some. I said: ‘Victor, you know what, you’ve got to come back with that walk-on mentality. When you first got here, man, you had that whole walk-on mentality, and I said you’ve got to get that back. You’ve got to act like you’ve never played here. You got to make the team. And I think if you do, if you come back with that kind of mentality, everything will work out for you.’ “He absolutely gets that. He was like ‘Mr. Reese, you know I can appreciate you saying that. I can hear what you’re saying.’ I hope he can stay out there because that’ll give us a hell of combination if we can keep him healthy.”

Q: Some would say it’s a big year for Jerry Reese, too. To that, you say?

JR: “Every year is a big year for Jerry Reese. It comes with the territory. I love this franchise and this will be my 10th season as the GM. The first nine years were okay, but we definitely could have done better. It means a lot to me to help get this franchise back on track, and I feel like we’ve made some moves and there’s a lot of positive energy around here. Ben has come in here and I think he’s doing a nice job of getting the positive energy we need, so I look forward to the challenge, and I’m driven by the challenge of helping the franchise get back to where it should be.”

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Biggest Turnaround: The Giants’ practice habits

As Reese alluded to above, McAdoo has changed the way the team is working early in camp, in attempt to get the Giants’ past their ridiculous run of injury woes. New York won’t don full pads until their fifth day of camp, on Tuesday, and that comes only after an off day Monday. The first two days of workouts lasted 80 minutes (indoors) and 100 minutes. Clearly the goal is good health at the Giants’ Quest Diagnostics Training Center team complex.

It’s kind of new-school thinking that stands in somewhat stark contrast of Coughlin’s rather old-school methods. McAdoo is holding shorter meetings geared to holding the attention span of millennials, and while he’s asking his players to keep the tempo up in practice, he also has plenty of stretching built into the schedule. So far the early returns seem positive.

“I don’t know if it’s new school, but it’s our school,’’ McAdoo said. “We’re going to take a different course to get there, but we’re still going to have a physical camp. When we put the pads on, it’s going to be physical and we’re going to hit and be a heavy-handed football team. You’re going to feel us when we strike you. But it’s my responsibility to keep player safety in mind first and foremost. The game has changed. It doesn’t look the same. But the teams that are standing in the end are still the physical football teams.”

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Drawing Some Buzz: Sterling Shepard

The sturdily-built second-round receiver from Oklahoma has already impressed the Giants with his route-running, his maturity level, and the way he competes on every snap. With that name, he sounds more like a FOX anchor man to me, but he looks like he could provide some early impact in the New York receiving game.

“He seems like a young pro,” McAdoo said. “He seems like a young man who’s committed to his craft and being a pro is important to him, and that’s what you’re looking for with young players.”

McAdoo said the Giants won’t hesitate to ask plenty from rookies Apple and Shepard. “I trust them right now,’’ he said. “We’re not going to be afraid to play young players.”