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A Change For the Better
October 31, 2005
Largely ignored as a free agent because of his troublesome rep, Plaxico Burress landed in New York, where he's Eli Manning's favorite target-and the NFL's best off-season pickup
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October 31, 2005

A Change For The Better

Largely ignored as a free agent because of his troublesome rep, Plaxico Burress landed in New York, where he's Eli Manning's favorite target-and the NFL's best off-season pickup

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Plaxico Burress plopped his sinewy frame on the plush, cream-colored sofa in his living room and savored his good fortune. The New York Giants wide receiver gazed at the open space around him, the cardboard boxes stacked in the hallways, the splotches of paint samples on the nearby walls, and imagined how this 9,500-square-foot, six-bedroom, six-bath house he bought in July would all come together. What made him smile the most was the price he paid for the home in a well-to-do northern New Jersey suburb: $1.5 million. When Burress and his wife, Tiffany, first inspected the place, they figured it would cost $2 million more. Then they learned the owner was eager to sell. "What can I say?" Burress says, with a slight grin. "I was in the right place at the right time." � You could say that about his whole experience with the Giants for the past seven months, on the field and off. After five productive but unsensational seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he wanted to be the go-to receiver on a high-powered offense. Burress wasn't a hot commodity over the summer as a free agent, but the Giants were interested in him, and he was definitely interested in them. He believed that if he could hook up with the promising team led by quarterback Eli Manning, he would play to his full potential. With 36 receptions for 535 yards and five touchdowns, including six catches for 84 yards and a score in New York's 24-23 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Burress has shown what a change of scenery can do for a talented player viewed by some as an underachiever. "I know a lot of people didn't want me when I became a free agent," he says. "Now those same people have to find a way to cover me."

Of all the players who have benefited from a change of address this year (box, page 58), Burress has had arguably the biggest impact on his new team. He has a shot to become the Giants' first Pro Bowl receiver since Homer Jones in 1968, but more importantly his arrival is a major reason why New York is 4-2 and tied for first place in the NFC East and leads the NFL in scoring (28.8 points per game).

At 6'5" and 206 pounds, Burress is a quarterback's dream in the red zone, a safe bet to snatch any pass lofted in his direction. He also has the speed to get deep and the toughness to outmuscle defenders. Against the Broncos, Burress drew four penalties on defensive backs trying to cover him, including one holding and two pass-interference calls on Pro Bowl corner Champ Bailey. After the game Bailey admitted he grew so frustrated with Burress's physical play that he stopped jamming him. "The guy is already a good receiver," Bailey said, "but when you're 6'5" and you know how to position your body like he does, the game becomes much easier."

Burress's presence has also made things easier for his teammates. He opens up the field for fellow wideout Amani Toomer and tight end Jeremy Shockey to operate against single coverage; on the Giants' final drive on Sunday, Bailey and Broncos safety Nick Ferguson picked up Burress as he crossed the goal line, allowing Toomer to find space in another part of the end zone, where Manning hit him for the game-winning two-yard touchdown pass. Likewise, Manning is a better passer with Burress in the lineup. In a 44-24 win over the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 2, Manning threw a pass over the middle that strong safety Adam Archuleta seemed sure to intercept. But at the last moment Burress flashed in front of Archuleta, snatched the ball in stride and raced for a 31-yard touchdown, the first of Burress's two that day; he had 10 catches against St. Louis for 204 yards, the latter an NFL single-game high this season.

"You need a lot of anticipation to make that throw," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Most young quarterbacks won't throw the ball unless they know a guy is open. But Eli has a great feel for Plaxico. He's smart enough to know this guy will help him play better."

Manning and Burress have lockers next to each other and regularly work on routes together after practice. "I can just look at Plaxico's body movement and know when he's going to make a cut," says Manning. No surprise, then, that Burress has quickly emerged as Manning's favorite target. So far this season Manning has thrown 77 of his 195 passes (39.5%) in Burress's direction. "When it comes to working with quarterbacks, I'm never worried about chemistry," Burress says. "As long as they can throw the ball within 10 to 12 feet of me, everything will be fine."

Burress clearly doesn't lack confidence. A standout at Michigan State and the No. 8 pick in the 2000 draft, he expected the pro game to come easily to him, and at times it did. During five seasons in Pittsburgh he caught 261 passes for 4,164 yards. But as solid as those numbers were, especially in a run-heavy offense, Burress rubbed some people in Pittsburgh the wrong way.

He showed up late to meetings and didn't display the same intensity as teammate Hines Ward, a Pro Bowl receiver who seemed hell-bent on squeezing every bit of potential out of his body. Burress, out of respect for the memory of his mother, Vicki, who died in March 2002, did not attend a minicamp in 2004 because it was scheduled over Mother's Day weekend, and he didn't tell the Steelers he wasn't going to be there. Despite his obvious talent he developed a reputation as a problem player, which partly explains the indifference around the league when Burress hit the free-agent market. With Ward due a contract extension, the Steelers declined to re-sign Burress, and only the Giants and the Minnesota Vikings made serious overtures. "It wasn't that he was unproductive in Pittsburgh, but he had devalued himself," says Chicago Bears pro personnel director Bobby DePaul. "People didn't want to invest a lot of money in a guy who could potentially be a locker room problem."

What the outsiders didn't know was that Burress had worked on his route running and other skills to make the best of his limited pass-catching opportunities in Pittsburgh's offense. And in the summer of 2003 he started training with about 20 other NFL players at the University of Miami. Early in his career Burress's daily off-season workout program wouldn't have challenged a Jenny Craig dropout: 30 minutes on the treadmill, 45 minutes in the weight room and plenty of cooldown time in his Miami condo. After his first day of training with Pro Bowl players such as Shockey, Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, Burress collapsed, exhausted, outside the university's weight room. But he stuck with the program, returning last summer, and it has paid off.

The training helped Burress improve his balance, body control and ability to separate from defensive backs. "Before I started training with those guys, I thought what I was doing was enough," Burress says. "I'd had [a career-high 1,352 yards] in my third year, but I didn't realize that people would be coming after me that much harder once I started having success. That's when I learned that the better you are in this league, the more you have to be prepared."

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