By Len Pasquarelli
Senior NFL Writer
The Sports Xchange
For most of his NFL career, having gaudily averaged a touchdown every 9.2 catches, Plaxico Burress was noted as a guy who regularly got the ball in the end zone.
But after 20 months in the slammer for charges related to his self-inflicted gunshot wound in November of 2008, and having been away from the NFL entirely for the past two seasons, the prodigal wide receiver has gone from goal-line target to punch line.
Heard the one about how Burress is fortunate that no one in the NFL uses the "Pistol" formation so prevalent now with college spread offenses, or that he is lucky the "run-and-shoot" is no longer in vogue in the league? How about the warning that Burress should avoid franchises that favor the shotgun? Heck, last week, "Pardon the Interruption" host Michael Wilbon suggested that if the free agent Burress signs with the Philadelphia Eagles, as has been rumored, it could elicit "jail bird" jokes. And guest host Bill Simmons, noting the presence of confessed felon Michael Vick on the Philadelphia roster already, countered that the connection of the quarterback and the receiver might be dubbed "con air."
On the other hand, Burress' performance for the most part has been of little comic relief to opposition secondaries. In nine seasons with Pittsburgh (2000-2004) and the New York Giants (2005-2008), the former Michigan State star and first-round draft pick has averaged 68.8 receptions in the years in which he started a dozen games or more. He has averaged 15.5 yards per catch during his career and has five seasons of six or more touchdown grabs. And while Burress has never appeared in a Pro Bowl game, he authored the winning touchdown catch in the Giants' Super Bowl XLII upset of New England.
Released today from the Oneida Correctional Facility, where he spent the past 20 months after being convicted of felony gun possession charges for shooting himself in his right thigh in '08, the presumptive resumption of Burress' football career begs this question: How productive can Burress be after two years removed from the league, especially in a year with no offseason workouts?
"He's got a lot of (stuff) to overcome," said one NFC personnel director from a franchise that has already determined that it will not pursue Burress in free agency. "That resume definitely has some holes."
Although he is a free agent, club executives have been very reluctant to address for attribution their possible interest in Burress, in part because everyone is running scared right now of lockout guidelines. But a quick survey of teams indicated that, while most franchises will pass, there figures to be a few serious suitors.
Ol' buddy Gary Myers of The New York Daily News reported last week that the Eagles might be the "first in line" for Burress' services. But guessing from the reactions around the league, the queue-up will be a limited one, with roughly 3-4 teams in the hunt.
To his credit, Burress will immediately head to his home in Florida upon his release, where former prisoner No. 09R3260 will not only meet with his parole officer but also begin training, supposedly diligently, in the sweltering heat for an NFL comeback. Friends who have either visited or spoken with Burress emphasized the right leg wound will not be a factor for his football future. Of seemingly more concern to league scouts is Burress' general conditioning and his ability to regain NFL-type shape in what figures to be a truncated camp situation.
One columnist recently noted that Burress will be forced to make the transition "from lockup to lockout," and that will be a component teams interested in him will doubtless take into account. After all, doing aerobics work in a jail cell, or perhaps running pass routes in The Yard, personnel executives accurately point out, doesn't figure to be even as taxing as a no-contact seven-on-seven drill.
Then there is the matter of Burress' age: He will be 34 in a little more than two months. Of the 31 wide receivers with 60 or more catches in 2010, only six were 30 or older, and just two were older than 34. If it takes Burress a year to readjust to the NFL, as it did Vick after a two-season hiatus, he will be 35 entering the 2012 season. There is concern about whether Burress' wheels can measure up to the legs that the reports of his attraction to Philadelphia executives have grown in the past week.
The veteran wide receiver, though, has some things in his favor.
Never a real burner -- and a guy who at his best was regarded as a long-strider with great reach, muscle and size (6-feet-5, 230 pounds) -- Burress might be effective even if he has lost a tick off his 40-yard time. Burress was never really a disciplined route-runner, and was used primarily vertically up the boundary and on fades in the end zone, so precision in his patterns might not be quite as critical. And his importance in the "red zone," with more than half his career touchdowns (28 of 55) having come from the 20-yard line and in as earlier noted by The Sports Xchange, could be attractive to teams.
And, of course, there is also the matter of agent Drew Rosenhaus, a consummate dealmaker, who has been able to sell even his tainted clients to teams.
The caricature-like Rosenhaus, whose contracts often appear better when he touts them than they do when parsed, got pariah wide receiver Terrell Owens a contract with a $2 million base salary (and an additional $667,000 in incentives) last season when it looked like no one wanted him. In typical huckster fashion, Rosenhaus noted over the weekend that "many" teams figure to be interested in Burress. But there is this: Rosenhaus also represents Eagles' star wideout DeSean Jackson, who is seeking a new and pricier contract, and he might not want to do anything to take away catches from his younger, more potentially lucrative client.
Pride almost certainly will drive Burress, who figures to exit jail with a chip on his shoulder, to train hard in attempting to regain his shape. It will be interesting to see if that same pride can be subjugated when it comes time to sign a contract that likely will have only a modest base salary, and will include heavy incentives.
The agent factor should also not be ignored with the Eagles and representative Joel Segal. The agent represents Philadelphia second-year wide receiver Riley Cooper, a youngster Eagles coaches like, and who possesses similar size to Burress, perhaps the same kind of "red zone" skills. Segal also represents Vick, but declined comment when asked about the relationship between the quarterback and the wideout. Vick is said to have talked with Burress when the latter was in prison, and both men hail from the Tidewater area.
An Eagles source, however, told The Sports Xchange that Vick has "not really (lobbied) all that hard" for the club to add Burress, despite some reports to the contrary. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week that most of the discussions connecting the Vick-Burress dots have originated with the wide receiver's camp, and not Eagles coaches or officials.
Certainly, Philadelphia would seem a possible landing spot, because the Eagles have not boasted a strong "red zone" offense the last several years. Still, even though the team ranked just 15th in "red zone" touchdown conversion in 2010, at 52.5 percent, the Eagles made strides last season. In his second season in the NFL, Jeremy Maclin, the starter opposite Jackson, posted seven of his 10 touchdown grabs in the "red zone." Veteran slot receiver Jason Avant, despite just one touchdown on a career-best 51 catches, has "red zone" potential. Ditto Cooper, a fifth-round pick in 2010. Tight end Brent Celek is a solid short-range target. And the Eagles have the great X-factor in Vick, who ran for nine "red zone" touchdowns in 2010.
Again, if off-the-record comments are an indication, teams will not hustle to add Burress to their rosters. Certainly without ascertaining how much rust he has accumulated in a jail cell.
All that said, Burress figures to be on somebody's team when the 2011 campaign begins. The questions surround what team will sign him, at what price, and what's the wide receiver got left after his two-year-plus hiatus?
"Those are the million-dollar questions," acknowledged the NFC personnel man.
Here's another, equally pertinent one, it seems: Will Burress, who likely will have been away from the NFL for 33 months when he next suits up for a regular-season game, be a joke or might he actually have the last laugh on the skeptics?
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.