In a game which featured six field goal attempts, three lost fumbles, a blocked punt, a safety and a high snap that resulted in an end-zone dog pile and six Pittsburgh points, the New York Giants' 18-13 win over the Steelers fully embodied preseason football.
Just 14 days removed from their opening training camp practice, there wasn't much to call pretty about the Giants' five-point victory on Saturday night.
After failing to gain a single yard and settling on a Josh Brown field goal on a drive which started on the Steelers' five-yard line, the Giants regained possession with the score tied at 3-3 and 4:12 remaining in the first quarter. New York's starting offense was taking the field for what would prove to be their final run of the night.
Six plays into the drive, on a 3rd-and-4, Manning took a shotgun snap, stepped up in the pocket and fired a bomb down the center of the field. Cruz, who released from the slot, was there, behind Pittsburgh's defense to complete the connection.
Both of the Steelers' starting safeties, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, were in position to take Cruz down inside the 15-yard line, but a nifty sidestep allowed him to shake free and jog his way in for a score.
The play gave New York a 10-3 lead, but, more importantly, it also provided fans with some much needed reassurance. In a span of nine seconds, Cruz proved that criticism, fame and, most recently, money have had no effect on the young receiver's one-of-a-kind playmaking abilities.
Although he spent much of the offseason away from team facilities, Cruz will be around for the long haul—an ever-trusty shoulder for Manning to lean on.
Six years, $45.879 million. The league's highest-paid slot receiver signed a deal in early July that could be unique in recent Giants' history. When has Manning ever had that much time to build a connection with a favorite target?
There was Plaxico Burress, who agreed to a six-year, $25 million contract back in 2005. A self-inflicted gunshot wound and subsequent jail sentence limited Burress to just three-and-a-half flashy seasons. The most productive pass-catcher in Giants history, Amani Toomer, shared the field with Manning for five years, but Toomer enjoyed each of his five 1,000-yard seasons before Manning ever threw an NFL pass.
Other fruitful targets, such as Jeremy Shockey, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Jake Ballard, Domenik Hixon and Martellus Bennett, have come and gone as fleeting members of Manning's offensive arsenal.
Former first-rounder Hakeem Nicks has one eye on the 2013 season and the other on his upcoming unrestricted free agency. It's too soon to tell where rising star Rueben Randle will be when his contract is up in 2016.
Opportunities like the one laid before Manning and Cruz are few and far between. A chemistry forged on a high school football field in Hoboken, N.J., between a trumpeted quarterback and an overlooked receiver has yielded one of the franchise's most jaw-dropping connections. To think, the past two record-setting, 80-reception years could only be a preview of what's to come.
If Cruz plays out the terms of his deal—and Manning sticks around to see it (he'll be a venerable 38 years old)—he will have accrued eight seasons as a major contributor. The best years may be the ones immediately to come, as both Giants are firmly rooted in the prime of their careers.
As Cruz crossed the goal line on Saturday night, he flipped the ball to the side, looked up to the stands and performed a few steps of his trademark salsa celebration. He then shrugged it off as if to say, "Been there, done that," which he had been almost three years ago to the date when he exploded against the New York Jets in 2010, donning a No. 3 jersey in front of several thousand clueless fans.
Cruz knows what it takes to make a championship run, and he understands that a touchdown in the opening preseason game is just a drop in the bucket.