Steelers WR Plaxico Burress's career arc is still moving

Karl Walter

Plaxico Burress has been in the league longer than nearly everyone in the NFL. Given a one-year deal with the Steelers this offseason, he sees his opportunity to maintain membership in the fraternity of the league as a simple task of catching the ball.

I got a Plaxico Burress jersey as a birthday present right after the Michigan State receiver was taken by Pittsburgh with the eighth overall pick of the 2000 NFL Draft.

It was No. 88, the number he wore in East Lansing.

I felt bad mentioning they weren't likely to let him wear that number, considering it was worn by Lynn Swann and was, I thought, retired. Emmanuel Sanders would eventually wear it, something Swann said didn't bother him in an interview I did with him last year. That particular tidbit didn't make the final copy, but it always brought me back to Burress and that jersey I was given.

I wore it only when I knew the giver, and those related to the giver, would be around. Burress was given No. 80, and that's what he wore for the first five years of his career.

He signed with the Giants in 2005, just as the league lifted a restriction that forbid wide receivers from wearing numbers outside the 80s. Burress chose No. 17 with the Giants because he signed with them on March 17. He would wear that number through both stints with New York teams - the Jets in 2011.

When the Steelers signed him late in the 2012 season, he dusted No. 80 off, previously worn by Cedrick Wilson in Pittsburgh. Sanders still wore (and continues to wear No. 88) and at that point, Mike Wallace wore No. 17.

Maybe No. 80 was a third option for Burress. Maybe he just wanted to get back to his roots with the team, and didn't have another choice outside of the number he wore when he had 2,333 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in 2001-02 in Pittsburgh.

Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette has a feature in Sunday's edition in regards to Burress's efforts to revitalize his career at age 35.He calls upon the timeless tale of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having wanted a tall receiver after the plague of 1,000 short receivers over the years.

But for Burress, it's simply about catching the ball.

"My job is to just go out and catch the football," Burress told Bouchette.

Perhaps catching the ball will be the ultimate reason Burress makes this team. That, and a cheap contract. Burress signed a one-year deal for the league minimum this offseason, and after the Steelers drafted Oregon State's Markus Wheaton in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, it appears Burress will have to either compete with fellow veteran Jerricho Cotchery for a roster spot, or do enough to convince a team that carried four receivers on its active roster for most of the 2012 season to keep a fifth.

Certainly not an impossible task. But even the decision to keep a fifth receiver won't guarantee Burress a spot. The team also drafted Oklahoma's Justin Brown in the sixth round this year. While he seems more destined for the practice squad, it's not impossible to see him doing well enough to grab that last spot.

He's battled through adverse conditions before - if one feels right about calling the results of one's decision to break the law "adverse." He shaved two years off his career when he shot himself in the leg - literally and figuratively - and spent two and a half years in the clink. Maybe even three or four years, considering the incident happened in the middle of one season, and the 2011 season was him getting back up to speed in the NFL.

More time off came between his stint with the Jets and the late-season signing with the Steelers. Maybe now he's gotten enough time with the Steelers offense, and he's been consistently active enough where he can get back to a comparative level of skill before he was a ward of the state of New York.

The opportunity for him to live up to the standards set by Swann for the No. 88 are long gone, but maybe he can get back to the standards he set for the No. 80 in the early part of the 2000s.


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