Steelers' Burress catching up to potential

After dismal rookie year, receiver key to offense

January 23, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PITTSBURGH - Plaxico Burress was quite a sight standing in the center of the Pittsburgh Steelers' jubilant locker room after their impressive divisional playoff victory over the Ravens on Sunday. He stands 6 feet 5, which makes him stick out in a crowd anyway. But he was wearing a white, full-length mink coat. It looked as though a polar bear were sleeping on his back.

His ears were sporting diamond studs the size of acorns, his head a skullcap, and his eyes were covered by slick sunglasses.

In the background Kordell Stewart, the team's quarterback, couldn't help but needle the wide receiver just a little. "Hey, M.C. Hammer!" Stewart yelled, comparing Burress to the flamboyant rapper who was popular in the 1980s.

"You look good, M.C.; when's the next concert?" Stewart said.

Burress smiled and finished his sentence. There was a time when teammates were more frustrated with Burress than conversational. But that is part of what can only be called the transformation of Plaxico Burress - from draft bust to key component of a Super Bowl-caliber team - in just one season.

Burress is now one of the top playmakers on a team of offensive stars like Stewart, running back Jerome Bettis and wide receiver Hines Ward. He had 66 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season. Against the Ravens, it was Burress' 32-yard touchdown catch that broke open the game. He led all receivers in the contest with five catches for 84 yards.

This is what Burress was supposed to do in his rookie season - dominate a secondary. Instead, he was plagued by dropped passes and on-field gaffes.

"It's funny how things go, but I always stayed confident in myself," he said.

Few in recent draft history have been ridiculed as much as Burress was. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2000 draft out of Michigan State, Burress came with high expectations. He was the Steelers' highest draft pick in a decade, and because of his size (230 pounds) and 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Burress was expected to bring much-needed explosiveness to the offense.

The only flaw was that Burress couldn't catch the ball.

"It was just a concentration thing," he said. "I was more worried about what I was going to do with the ball after I caught it instead of focusing on catching it first."

He had so many drops that the news media, even teammates, began anticipating when the ball would slip through his mitts instead of when he would make a play. He soon got the nickname Plexiglass.

Compounding the problem was that Burress was having trouble reading defenses and running precise pass routes, a difficulty for every rookie. But because Burress was such a high draft selection, more, perhaps unfairly, was expected of him.

Eventually, the Steelers had no choice but to bench Burress, and he played only sparingly. If that weren't bad enough, in November came one of the more embarrassing moments for him. Against Jacksonville, in the fourth quarter, he made a catch, and thinking he was down by contact, got up and spiked the ball.

The problem was that the play was still live, and the Jaguars recovered the football. After that play, which was replayed on sports-highlight shows across the country, teammates jokingly called Burress "Spike Lee" and Jay Leno mocked Burress on the "Tonight" show.

Toward the end of the season, the Steelers announced that Burress would miss the remainder of the season with two broken bones in his right hand.

Burress finished the year with only 22 catches in 12 games and no touchdowns.

"It was a rough year for Plaxico," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "But he worked hard this off-season to get better, and it's paying off now."

The way Pittsburgh stuck with Burress and the way Burress continued to believe in himself are a testament to how a player can rebound from a horrible start to become a valuable contributor.

Burress has improved his route running, studies more film to understand how to decode defenses, and now rarely drops a pass. In a way he is as responsible for the re-emergence of Stewart as Stewart is. Burress' size makes it nearly impossible to single-cover him, and he has breakaway speed that gives the offense a deep threat.

"I think we're a dangerous offense now, and Plaxico is a reason why," Stewart said.

Now, if only Burress could do something about that coat.

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