Commentary

Burress' return to form will take time

Set to make his debut on Sunday, don't expect the 2007 Plaxico just yet, if at all

Updated: August 20, 2011, 10:13 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

It's one small step for the New York Jets' offense, one giant leap for Plaxico Burress.

Burress returns to the NFL on Sunday night, 1,001 days after his last football game. He spent almost two years in prison and another two weeks in the Jets' trainers' room, treating a sprained ankle. Now he's back as the biggest addition to the offense -- yes, the same offense that LaDainian Tomlinson said the other day is good enough to be No. 1 in the league.

"I'm just going to enjoy it and play with a smile on my face and have fun," said Burress, who will start against the Cincinnati Bengals at the New Meadowlands Stadium -- which didn't even exist when he last played in the swamps of East Rutherford, N.J.

This is quite a human-interest story: former Super Bowl star going from big house to packed house (OK, half-packed in the preseason). But let's put that aside for a moment and concentrate on the football angle. Above all, remember this:

Don't expect to see the Plaxico from 2007 for some time, if ever.

Burress might score a touchdown against the Bengals or he might do something else that makes "SportsCenter" -- he'll play into the second quarter with the rest of the starters -- but don't take that to mean he's going to be a dominant wide receiver out of the gate. He's had only three full practices, he doesn't know the offense and he doesn't know the quarterback, Mark Sanchez.

This is going to be a long process, so it's important to keep expectations in check.

Burress is 34, playing a young man's position. Only eight times in NFL history has a player in the 34-and-up category made at least 10 touchdown catches in a season; not even the great Jerry Rice did it. Only eight times has a player in that age group hit the 1,200-yard mark.

In 2008, his final season with the Giants, Burress was "a player on the decline," according to an AFC personnel executive. His numbers were way down when he accidentally shot himself in the leg, the start of his personal and legal nightmare.

Of course, Burress talks big, saying, "I believe that I'm still one of the best out there competing." You have to admire his moxie, but it's just not realistic to expect him to dominate.

A solid contributor, yes, but it's unfair to expect him to be 30 again.

Once Burress gets comfortable with Sanchez, he should be able to help the Jets' performance in the red zone. Of his 55 career touchdowns, 29 came on passes inside the 20. The Jets finished 28th last season in red zone efficiency, and the starting offense got off to a bad start Monday night in Houston, settling for a short field goal after having a first down from the 14.

"Plax adds a dimension to this offense that, quite frankly, we haven't had," said Tomlinson, overlooking Braylon Edwards -- the Jets' so-called big target the past two seasons.

At 6-foot-3, Edwards has the size to dominate in the red zone, but that never materialized with the Jets. Maybe it was him, maybe it was Sanchez, maybe it was Brian Schottenheimer's play-calling. Burress is 2 inches taller than Edwards, but that doesn't mean he's going to win every jump-ball pass in the end zone. It's going to take more than a street-ball approach.

One of the most underrated aspects of Burress' game is his route running. Fellow receiver Derrick Mason said Burress' ability to run precise routes is rare for a big man.

"I can think of only one or two big guys that could run routes," said Mason, who mentioned Rice (6-foot-2) and Harold Carmichael (6-8). "Plax, at [6-5], moves around like a smaller guy."

That should help Sanchez, who has struggled with accuracy. One of the knocks on Edwards is that he doesn't run exact routes, according to scouts. That didn't help Sanchez, who completed only 52 percent of his attempts to Edwards, according to STATS, Inc. -- slightly below his success rates to Santonio Holmes and Dustin Keller.

Burress will be where he's supposed to be, and his power-forward arms will help turn potential pass breakups into completions.

"Like I tell Mark, he doesn't have to be extremely accurate, just give me a chance to make a play on the football and I'll try my best to do it," Burress said.

In time, he will help the Jets. Key words: In time.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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