EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Somewhere Eli Manning was watching and wondering if he should have hit the recruiting trail after all. The star he refused to court, Plaxico Burress, was playing in the New Meadowlands Stadium like he played in the Old Meadowlands Stadium, and suggesting for the first time that Eli and friends made a colossal free-agent mistake.
The New York Giants won't rue the day they let Burress become a New York Jet if the 34-year-old receiver pulls the hamstring an aging receiver coming off a 21-month stay in prison might be expected to pull.
But if Burress spends the 2011 season as the kind of target and touchdown maker he was in the first half of a 27-7 preseason victory over the wretched Cincinnati Bengals, the Giants won't bother fretting over the losses of Kevin Boss and Steve Smith.
Their fans will be too busy raging about the lousy three million bucks the Giants wouldn't guarantee Burress.
"I've never had a target like him," Mark Sanchez said.
Burress was good for three receptions and 66 yards in a steady rain Sunday night, notarizing his return to the NFL with a 26-yard touchdown catch on a Sanchez lob ripped straight from the Eli Manning playbook.
The old one, anyway. The one Manning and Burress used to beat the indomitable New England Patriots on a fade route to the left corner of the University of Phoenix Stadium end zone, the same route Sanchez asked for on third down when he identified a Bengals blitz in the final minute of the first half.
Burress shared all of three practices with Sanchez after injuring his ankle, and yet he picked up his quarterback's signal at the line. "It was one of those things," Burress said, "my guy's better than your guy. Let's play basketball."
Nobody wins a jump ball against the 6-foot-5 Plax, certainly not a 6-1 backup corner the likes of Fred Bennett. Burress used his long arms to push Bennett and create the space he needed to summon the memory of his Super Bowl-winning catch.
Only this play required a greater degree of agility and athleticism -- if only a fraction of the nerve -- to pull off. It required a crash-landing in a steady rain, with Burress forced to throw his head straight back over his shoulders to track the descent of the pass.
"It was an amazing catch," Santonio Holmes said. "He was able to track the ball with the rain dropping in his face. ... On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 15."
Burress didn't care to score it; he was too overwhelmed to try. Plax was so happy to be back on the field, he called pregame stretching and drills "an out-of-body experience, a surreal feeling." He said he felt stuck in slow motion when Sanchez threw that lob out of Manning's past, and that it was a sign the game wasn't moving too fast for him.
"It just feels like I never left," he said. "To have the ball up there hanging in the air with the lights ... I just trusted myself making the over-the-shoulder catch and just trying to bring it in."
It only wrapped a bow around a 99-yard drive.
"We were smiling from ear to ear," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "That's why he's here."
We know why he's not still there, playing with the lead tenants of this building. On a November night on the town in 2008, Burress made the mistake of packing an unlicensed and loaded gun, rather than a licensed and unloaded gun. He accidentally shot himself in the leg, ultimately costing himself his freedom and costing the Giants a chance to win a second consecutive title. The franchise and franchise quarterback haven't been the same since.
And yet Manning refused to campaign for Plax The Sequel the way Ben Roethlisberger did in Pittsburgh. Eli said he didn't want to deliver a vote of no confidence to his current receivers, and didn't want to call for Burress' hiring when other Giants free agents remained unsigned, but surely there was more to it than that.
Manning has his pride; he showed it when he didn't aw-shucks his way through those questions about elite quarterbacks and Tom Brady's rarefied air. Eli wouldn't mind winning big without Burress, if only to dispel the notion that he can't.
But that isn't Plax's problem anymore, even if the Jets receiver was still wearing No. 17 in honor of March 17 -- the day in 2005 he signed with the Giants. Burress' new assignment is to elevate Sanchez from a two-time AFC title game loser to a one-time Super Bowl champ.
"And I don't care who you are playing corner," Ryan said of covering Burress. "You can be Willie Brown or Darrelle Revis out there, and that's going to be tough."
On introduction Sunday night, jogging from the tunnel to the field, Burress received the loudest applause from the smallest of crowds while the PA announcer played a little Michael Buffer game with his given name. This moment, the receiver said, was one "that I have been waiting for a long time."
After playing so fast and loose with Tom Coughlin's rules, Burress called it a "privilege" to be employed in the NFL and promised to run routes with a smile on his face. Prison will do that to you.
But prison didn't temper Burress' extreme faith in his skill. After his first winning performance as a Jet, the receiver promised, "It's just the tip of the iceberg."
On the first play of the Jets' first series, Sanchez decided to break the ice. He ran a play-action fake and looked downfield to his right, where Burress was finishing a curl route. Sanchez fired it into Burress' breadbasket for a 20-yard gain, and then the receiver rose from the field to do a slow strut in celebration of himself.
They reconnected again in the second quarter, when Burress used his six-inch height advantage over Leon Hall and took in a 20-yard completion near the sideline. But nothing could touch the touchdown, which Burress punctuated with a couple of bows to the crowd.
Plax was out there for 30 of the Jets' 32 first-half plays, then watched the second half in a hooded jacket and baseball cap. Next he gets to face the Giants on Saturday night, a preview of the real thing on Christmas Eve.
"There's not animosity toward them," Burress maintained. "They haven't done anything to me."
Except give Plax a chance to make them regret saving three million bucks.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter"