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"A great scouting department."
That's how New York Giants receiver Ramses Barden, who caught nine passes for 138 yards on Thursday night, explained how his team kept coming up with feel-good stories like undrafted receiver Victor Cruz. Rarely has this been more evident than in the Giants' 36-7 thrashing of the Carolina Panthers. Receiver Hakeem Nicks was out of the game with a foot injury, so as Carolina's coverage switched to Cruz, it was Barden who came up big in his first career start.
"The mantra of the whole week was 'the next man up,'" Barden said. He was a third-round draft pick out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 2009 NFL draft, and was expected to replace Plaxico Burress with his size and playmaking ability, but it hadn't panned out to date.
"Ramses Barden has played well every time he's played," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "He has just been injured. That's all."
Since he took over for Ernie Accorsi in 2007, Reese has proven himself as one of the better NFL executives when it comes to picking off real talent in the late rounds and off the street.
Running back Andre Brown, taken in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL draft out of North Carolina State, was an even more compelling reclamation project. Brown rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns, and seemed to have Carolina's passive run defense on a string all night. Not bad for a guy who had bounced around the NFL in the last couple of years -- Brown had been released eight different times by five different teams, including both teams playing in this game, after tearing his Achilles' tendon in his rookie training camp. He beat out D.J. Ware to make the final cuts, rushed for 71 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, and really tore it loose while replacing Ahmad Bradshaw, who was out with a neck injury.
Adding to the drama for Brown was the fact that when he entered the Panthers' Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the memory of one of those eight cuts came home to him in a big way.
"Walking into this stadium … and we drove by the spot where I had to park my car and go up there and take that walk up to the office," he said. "It really humbled me. And [it] made sure that everything is not guaranteed."
What is guaranteed is that even when Bradshaw comes back to the lineup, Brown will have earned playing time, perhaps in a tandem backfield. Rookie first-round pick David Wilson has been in Tom Coughlin's doghouse since an early fumble in the season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and the Giants like what they see in Brown.
"Andre Brown had an injury when he was a rookie and bounced around a bit and circled back to us," Reese said. "We always liked him. We thought he was Derrick Ward-like but faster."
Eli Manning, who was a veritable sharpshooter all night, told his team before the game that it is opportunities like these which gave the unheralded a chance to shine. He noted that Barden ran the wrong way on the first play of the game, a 12-yard completion to Cruz, but after that, Barden took off. He was targeted 10 times, more than any other Giants receiver, and helped Manning put up a stat like that was tough to beat -- 27 completions in 35 attempts for 288 yards and a touchdown. It was old-school Giants football at its best.
Part of the Giants' success with under-the-radar players is their ability to be patient with talented prospects who may not get the hang of things right away.
"I have seen a lot of guys after their third year enter their fourth year and turn it on," Reese said. "[Receiver] Amani Toomer comes to mind. His first three years, he was trying to get it, trying to get it. In his fourth year, he was lights out. He was one of the all-time great receivers. It is not always a three-year rule with guys."
On the other side of the ball, second-year Panthers quarterback Cam Newton struggled throughout the game.