Monday, August 1, 2011
Updated: August 2, 3:17 AM ET
Plaxico Burress at Jets practice
By Rich Cimini
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets coach Rex Ryan never had a conversation with Plaxico Burress before signing him, but he watched old game tape and asked around.
When he bumped into Santonio Holmes Saturday at the Jets' facility, Ryan asked him to share his thoughts on Burress. Holmes gave a thumbs-up -- or, to be specific, a wrist-up.
Holmes raised his right hand and showed Ryan his bracelet, which said: "Free Plax AKA Black." He has been wearing it since Burress was in prison, serving 20 months for weapon possession. Holmes proceeded to give a glowing report, placing a call later that night to Burress to talk up the Jets.
"I felt good about it after talking to 'Tone," Ryan said Monday on the first full day of training camp.
Things move fast in free agency and, two days after Holmes' endorsement and recruiting pitch, Burress was on a football field for the first time since November 2008. He's not allowed to practice until Thursday, per the post-lockout rules for former free agents, but Burress was thrilled to be back in a football environment.
Wearing green Jets shorts, a gray T-shirt and a Jets visor, Burress watched from the sideline during a morning walk-through, chatting with Holmes and quarterback Mark Sanchez during breaks. It was another step in a long journey, a long way from the night he accidentally shot himself in the leg at a Manhattan nightclub.
After the walk-through, a confident Burress predicted, "When I step on the field Thursday and Friday, it'll look like I'm 25."
After being released from prison, Burress worked out near his home in South Florida with several NFL quarterbacks including Matthew Stafford, Brady Quinn, Drew Stanton and Byron Leftwich. He worked on his route running and pass catching, and that experience gives him the confidence he can be a star wide receiver in the NFL again.
The Jets plan to take it slowly with Burress, knowing they have five weeks to prepare him for the regular-season opener. He turns 34 in two weeks.
Curiously, the Jets guaranteed a $3 million salary without talking to him or watching him in a workout. Ryan admitted it was a leap of faith, but he believes Burress will help the team.
"When I saw him on tape, (I was like), 'Oh, my goodness, let's go get this guy,'" Ryan said.
General manager Mike Tannenbaum admitted the shotgun marriage was out of the ordinary, but such is life in the fast-paced world of summer free agency. That Burress' two former teams, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, expressed interest in re-signing him said a lot to the Jets.
Tannenbaum believes his meeting with Burress in May 2009 helped build a foundation that led to the signing. At the time, Burress was in legal limbo, facing the likelihood of prison time. Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson visited him in South Florida.
"Woody and I walked away impressed," Tannenbaum said of the two-hour sitdown.
Said Johnson: "We were interested in getting him then."
Johnson said they didn't make the move to create a splash or to one-up the Giants. But he added, "If it creates a splash, so be it."
The Jets hope Burress can revive his career the way Michael Vick has with the Eagles.
Vick missed two seasons while serving prison time for his involvement in a dogfighting ring before returning to football in 2009. He was eased back into things by the Eagles before taking over as the starting quarterback last year and capping a terrific, highlight-filled season by being selected the AP's Comeback Player of the Year.
"He's been a good friend of mine for a long time," Burress said. "For him to come back at that elite level, it just shows a lot about him and his drive and his makeup. I'm just happy for him, and if it wasn't for maybe him going through what he went through, maybe I wouldn't be here today."
The Jets are counting on Burress to start opposite Holmes, giving Sanchez a 6-foot-5 target that should help the team's woeful performance in the red zone.
"He's picking up the offense very quickly, which is no surprise," Sanchez said.
Holmes, himself a former Steeler, expects big things from Burress. They never played together in Pittsburgh, but Burress is close with Holmes' first cousin, longtime Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor.
"When (Rex) asked me what I thought about the guy, the first thing I did was show him my bracelet," Holmes said, adding, "He has so much football built up inside him, that it has nowhere else to go except right back to the football field."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.