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Plaxico Burress: Revolt, Redemption & Raising Expectations

A lot was made this off-season in relation to the Jets deciding to sign Plaxico and let Braylon walk the tight rope of Free Agency. Until Braylon signed his deal with San Francisco the thought was that the decision was made on financial terms. We had the choice to lock up one receiver and we chose Santonio over Braylon. Coming into 2011, Plaxico hadn’t touched a football field since 2008; he was 33 going on 34 and had character issues.  After a slow start in which he caught 3 passes in 4 games, the hindsight crew were out in force suggesting the signing seemed to have been a mistake.

However sitting solidly at 4-3 after the bye; looking to the Plaxico statistic line would suggest that he is starting to come into his own. He is starting to pick up the play-book, he is starting to form chemistry with Mark Sanchez, however more importantly the Jets are adapting to his style and starting to realise how to utilise him to their advantage. 18 receptions, 243 yards for 5 TD’s at a clip of 13.5 a go. It’s not a finished deal but it’s a great start.

To talk about Plaxico would be impossible to do without mentioning the incident, and for the time being I’m not talking about his Superbowl winning catch against our friendly foes from New England to win the Superbowl for our stadium buddies. Plaxico had a 2008 to forget. On two occasions police were called to his residence to answer a domestic disturbance call and on both occasions temporary restraining orders were issues, on both occasions they were later dismissed. We know that Plaxico was sentenced to two years in prison for accidentally shooting himself in the thigh at a Manhattan nightclub with an unlicensed fire arm, and consequently not reporting it to the necessary authorities. However by all accounts the time in the pen helped Plaxico sort his life out, he took an anger management course which I believe he completed and was released early due to good behaviour.

Plaxico loves to play football however his work ethic (point 1) and commitment (Point 2) have been questioned throughout his career. He is no stranger to having people question his ability to be on the field, or to make plays once he was on there.  1997 Burress was in Lansing as a bright eyed freshman looking to make a name for himself. Unfortunately due to academic reasons he was forced to sit out the entire season proving points one and two. He went on to post a record career with the Spartans and despite missing a pre-draft meeting; the Steelers chose to take him with the 8th overall selection of the 2000 NFL Draft.

He was a unmistakable talent however if you read any pre-draft reports leading up to the draft you will see that his reputation as a ‘bad boy’ was already solidified, he was considered a risk. Somewhat immature, somewhat lazy but a talent that could light up the field in every single way. He was almost guaranteed to go to the Steelers, they needed him and people believed he needed the disciplined Bill Cowher regime.  The offensive coordinator at the time was Kevin Gilbride, a proponent of the run and shoot offence and often remembered as Buddy Ryan’s punching bag.  Although only playing under Gilbride for one season, Plaxico would reunite with Kevin in New York for a championship; although on this occasion Gilbride was quarterbacks coach and not offensive coordinator.

Although Plaxico got off to a slow start with 273 yards and no touchdown catches his rookie season, he broke out the following year to the tune of 1008 yards and 6 touchdowns. By the end of the 2002 season he had solidified himself as one of the premier receivers in the league with a 1325 yard season with 7 more touchdowns to his name.  His early NFL career however was still marred by talk of commitment and knowledge of the playbook.  His attitude to improvement, his desire to become one of the best. However that all changed when his mother Vicki passed away at the age of 49 in 2002 with Burress’s career still on the fence. It seems this moment made Burress realise the side he wanted to fall on, speaking in 2002 Burress commented:

"That's one of the things that changed my whole approach to life, period," he says. "You never know when your last day is going to be. When I go to practice, I say, 'What is my mind-set? Do I want to get through practice and go home, or do I want to get better at one particular thing? To say I always had that, no, I can't say that. But I can say that now about myself. I go out and try to be the best player I can be."

For 6 years after this, Burress proved himself to be one of the most dangerous targets in the NFL bringing in 10 touchdowns in 2006 and 12 touchdowns in 2007. He did this battling groin and ankle injuries respectively. He caught a Superbowl winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning after predicting the Giants would defeat the Patriots in Superbowl XLII. It seems immediately after that moment the world of Plaxico began to unravel again. He threatened to not show to camp, when he did show he refused to practise. He was suspended and although his payment of $3.25 million was not a bad earning to be making, perhaps he was justified in seeking a higher wage.

He signed a new contact however 2008 was the year that Plaxico tumbled to the wrong side after falling onto the right side, climbing back up and after teetering for some time. Fast forward to July 31st 2011 and Plaxico is back in the NFL, humbled, life experienced and hungry to be back to doing what he loves. A week later he was practising and giving an interview on his comfort level with the offence

"The schemes are pretty much the same as back when I was running on the other side. It’s just picking up the terminology. I’ve seen all the defenses, I understand the coverages. It’s just about me getting comfortable with Mark and where he wants me to be. I’ll tell him when I get to that spot, just turn it loose. It may take a little bit of time. I expect that and I think he does too. I think we’re both going to be patient and I think the coaches understand that also. But we’re going to work hard at it every day and I’m out busting my tail to be in those places where he wants me to be"

If you have seen any of the interviews with Plaxico since his return to the NFL with the Jets you will see that this is not the same man who was last seen in 2008. He now openly speaks about his experience realizing that the shooting incident did not just change his life, but that of his families. He spends time speaking to the youth in New York about the dangers of possession of weapons. He spends time with the coaches going over the offence. In interviews he is humble and assuring, mature and undemanding

He hasn’t been a model human being, he has been through tests of character, tests of his physical ability, but he is still here. At 34 he is still in the NFL, he is still catching touchdowns. Yes he does get frustrated on the field as all athletes do when the team isn’t performing and he is not being given the chance to change that. Brian Schottenheimer needs to get him involved early. I’m not going to question my receivers where in the heat of the battle, they want the football coming their way.

When he speaks post and pre game, he understands his role, he understands that he has to earn the trust of the coaches and the playing staff. He understands that he needs to stay patient and keep working on his chemistry. He’s no longer the star he’s the ageing actor trying to make his return to broadway. Now the Jets are starting to play to his strengths, expand his playing time, and If they continue to target him like they have been doing recently, it may be time for this man’s encore before the curtain falls on what has been a tumultuous, sometimes inspiring, sometimes confusing career.