IRVING, Texas – The very last thing the Dallas Cowboys want to see in their home stadium this Sunday is salsa dancing.
But in order to avoid it they will have to contain arguably the most dangerous receiver in the NFL. Victor Cruz, who caps off every touchdown with his signature dance, may seem like he was born for the spotlight, but the young star emerged out of obscurity before reaching his current level of fame. In fact, his story is not unlike the rise to success that Miles Austin has reached in Dallas.
Cruz attended the University of Massachusetts, but despite a solid college career, few NFL scouts had their eyes on Minutemen wide receivers and so Cruz went undrafted in 2010. However, the Giants decided to give him a shot and a solid preseason earned him a spot on the regular season roster. With a head injury costing him most of his rookie season, he did not record a single catch.
Still a relative unknown, Cruz came into the 2011 campaign projected to be the fourth receiver for the Giants. But injuries forced him into a larger role in the team's third game against Philadelphia. In that contest, Cruz not only showed he could catch the ball, but his impressive speed allowed him to do a whole lot with it afterward. Against the Eagles Cruz had three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Just months later, Cruz had become a household name, breaking the Giants' single-season receiving yardage record, tying the NFL record for longest touchdown and winning a Super Bowl. Few fans have forgotten what he did to Dallas in the season finale last year, the Cowboys being kept from the playoffs when Cruz recorded 178 yards and a touchdown.
However, the Cowboys are not new to the idea of an undrafted receiver coming out of nowhere to make a splash in the NFL. Austin attended the rarely followed Monmouth State and went undrafted in 2006. His rookie season he was primarily used as a returner for kickoffs and was given few opportunities in the rotation of wide receivers.
But in 2009, the departure of Terrell Owens allowed for Austin to make a name for himself. In his first career start against the Kansas City Chiefs, Austin broke the Cowboys' record for most receiving yards in a single game with 250. Prior to 2010, Austin signed a six-year deal with Dallas.
Four wide receivers were taken in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, but the Cowboys and Giants have been able to rely heavily on receivers who were passed over by every other team in the league numerous times. Head coach Jason Garrett talked about the importance of judging players based on what they can do, not from what school they attended.
"That's why you have to evaluate players based on what you see, not where you drafted them or where they came from or how much money they make," Garrett said. "We really like to pride ourselves as an organization, certainly as a coaching staff, on doing that to the best of our abilities."
Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin agreed that the evaluation of undrafted players has to do with much more than luck.
"Well there's no doubt it's great scouting," Coughlin said. "It's being able to evaluate and put a rank on people where even if they're not drafted, they don't get buried. As we operate here, we try to take the best players on our board and bring them in after the draft as college free agents. Fortunately for us, one of them was Victor Cruz."
In their first two seasons as starters, Austin and Cruz both put up over 2,000 yards receiving combined. There's something to be said about both organizations' eye for talent, but it takes more than great scouting and coaching to get those types of results. The player himself has to have an incredible work ethic just to be given a chance.
As a current undrafted rookie wide receiver with the Cowboys, SMU product Cole Beasley talked about how receivers like Austin and Cruz inspire him to have high expectations for himself.
"It shows that you've got to keep working hard everyday because you don't know when you're ever going to get your shot," Beasley said. "Miles is that type of guy and I'm sure Victor Cruz is too, so I'm just going to work hard everyday. When you get your shot you have to take advantage of it."
Austin's rise to get to where he is now is not lost on Garrett either.
"A number of times I've said to him, 'This isn't Monmouth vs. Sacred Heart,'" Garrett said. "It's a good reminder of where he came from and all the work he's done to get here."
Beasley admitted that upon joining the Cowboys, it didn't take him long to seek out Austin and ask him for advice.
"I talked to him about that a little bit when I first got here," Beasley said. "As a young guy, you don't get many reps, so I talked to him about how to deal with that. He said really you just have to put in the extra time and put in the extra work, pay attention to everything that's being said, even when they're not talking to you."
Beasley went to the right person for advice. For a few years, Austin has been the poster child for teams trying to find talented wide receivers who went undrafted. However, Cruz looks to be stealing that title from him.
While Austin's story is undoubtedly impressive, Cruz was able to emerge on the scene even faster, and since his emergence, Cruz has actually been the more productive receiver.
After his enormous breakout year, Cruz has not slowed down this season. He currently leads the NFC in receiving yards with 627 and he is tied for most receiving touchdowns in the NFL with seven. His speed after the catch allows Cruz to be a big-play threat at any time. Last week, Cruz caught a 77-yard touchdown pass with under a minute left in the game to take the lead against the Washington Redskins.
Austin has caught exactly half as many passes as Cruz this season, but his numbers are nothing to scoff at. With 428 yards and four touchdowns, he has been a reliable target for Tony Romo. In the Cowboys and Giants' first meeting of the season, Austin actually outperformed Cruz with 73 yards and a touchdown, while Cruz was held to 58 yards in the game.
Austin and Cruz will be looking to elevate their respective teams to a crucial win this Sunday. And while each of them now cherish the spotlight, that may be because both of them took such an unusual path to get to it.