The No. 80 jersey Plaxico Burress walked away from eight years ago still fits.
It’s everything else that’s changed for the former – and suddenly current – Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver.
The talented but immature kid who bolted as a free agent for the New York Giants in 2005 is 35, his resume complete with a Super Bowl ring and a 20-month jail stint stemming from a gun charge.
Burress returned to the team that drafted him a dozen years ago on Wednesday hungry, humble and eager to prove there’s still some life left in a career that’s never quite lived up to his own outsized expectations.
“I can’t say I was ever going to come back to Pittsburgh ... but literally and physically the opportunity to finish what you started, how many guys get that?” Burress said 24 hours after the Steelers signed him to bolster an injury depleted receiving corps.
Despite not taking a live snap in more than 10 months, Burress thinks he can play as early as Sunday when the Steelers (6-4) travel to Cleveland (2-8).
“I don’t see why not.” Burress said.
Neither does the guy who will throw him the ball.
“He’s played, he’s won in this league,” said quarterback Charlie Batch, who will start in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger. “The speed of the game is not going to be new to him. When you say the play, he can line up and go and make the play without thinking about it.”
Not thinking, however, is something that dogged Burress even before accidentally shooting himself in a New York club four years ago.
During his five seasons in Pittsburgh there were times when the smallness of the city got to him and his mental lapses on the field annoyed the coaching staff.
Those days, he insists, are over.
“I’m an old man,” Burress said. “I have a wife, a family. I’m in just a total different direction. I’m happy to be out here playing football. My wife is excited. My son is excited.”
And Burress is excited to be back in a uniform, regardless of the color. He spent the past three months watching the NFL go on without him after the New York Jets declined to re-sign him following a productive, and quiet, return to the league last fall.
Burress isn’t sure why the phone stopped ringing. His numbers in New York – 45 receptions for 612 yards and eight touchdowns – were solid. While he’ll never be the downfield threat he was in his prime, he understands 6-foot-5 receivers are hard to come by.
So Burress kept working out in South Florida, believing there was enough left in his ridiculously long legs to fend off retirement. He was standing in the airport in Austin, Texas preparing to head home when the call from Pittsburgh came.
A day later, he was working out for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The one-year contract was signed within a couple hours and by Wednesday afternoon he was on the practice field playing catch with teammates Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders and trading jokes with nose tackle Casey Hampton.
“I think he’s just been misunderstood,” said Hampton, one of a handful of Steelers still around from Burress’ first stint with the team. “If you know him, he’s always been a good guy and a good teammate.”
And hopefully an effective one, too. The passing game has flourished under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, though the one thing the Steelers have lacked is a receiver with Burress’ size to create mismatches in the end zone. Jerricho Cotchery is the next tallest receiver on the roster at 6-1, and he’s out indefinitely with fractured ribs.
Batch expects to spend a couple days experimenting with Burress to see where he fits in. Even if the Steelers can’t quite figure it out in the span of a week, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We don’t know how we’re going to use him, so how can somebody else know how to go out and defend him?” Batch said. “He is such a threat. He has his height. He’s capable of making big plays.”
Burress isn’t quite ready to go that far. When asked if he can play on every down if necessary, he shrugged his shoulders and said simply, “we’ll have to see.”
Even if he’s just a situational option, however, Burress thinks he can cause problems even if the ball doesn’t come anywhere near him.
“I’m learning where I need to be and adding a different wrinkle to this offense,” he said. “Maybe I can draw some double coverage and open some guys up.”
Whether he’s a long-term option or simply a short-term fix is still unknown. Wallace is in the final year of his contract but Sanders has developed into a reliable second option behind Antonio Brown when healthy.
There’s too much going on for Burress to give much thought to the future. Or the past for that matter. He understands his highly publicized missteps will follow him until he retires. He can live with it so long as it means he gets to keep playing.
“If you’re worried about what’s going on behind you, you can’t pay attention to what’s going on in front of you,” he said. “I’m just going to keep moving forward. Obviously I’ve been through some things but at the same time I’m still here.”
Notes: Steelers rookie right guard David DeCastro practiced for the first time on Wednesday since injuring his right knee in a preseason game against Buffalo on Aug. 25. The earliest DeCastro could return is against San Diego on Dec. 9 ... Roethlisberger did not practice on Wednesday, but he also walked through the locker room without a sling over his injured right arm ... Leftwich, Cotchery, safety Troy Polamalu (calf), tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle) and DE Ziggy Hood (back) also did not practice.
The No. 80 jersey Plaxico Burress walked away from eight years ago still fits.
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