Commentary

The Plaxico Method still baffles as he blossoms

Plaxico , writes Seth Wickersham.

Originally Published: November 7, 2007
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN.com

Plaxico BurressChris McGrath/Getty Images After a difficult 2006 season ended, Plaxico Burress sat and watched every route he ran in 2006. He rededicated himself and is answering the call every play this year.
NFL teams are aristocracies.

Scroll your eyes from nameplate to nameplate in a locker room and it's easy to pinpoint the rulers. They have two lockers, not one. Sometimes management allots the extra, sometimes the star requests it, but the message is the same: Between his fan mail, clothes, shoes, iPod speakers -- his sheer quantity of stuff -- that player is entitled to extra means. It's a status thing.

On the Giants, Eli Manning doubles up. So do Michael Strahan, Jeremy Shockey and and Antonio Pierce. That's all.

So it's a wonder Plaxico Burress doesn't arrive every day ticked off about such disrespect. Hell, considering he's having the best season of his eight-year career, and considering the class of prima donna wideouts he's usually lumped with -- Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss -- it's shocking that Burress hasn't already taken his cause to the Big Apple's tabloids: "Plax Attacks!"

But when asked why he has only one locker, Burress says, "Because I'm not a star, man." Yeah, sure, whatever. Burress, in fact, has never been more of a star, with 564 yards and an NFC-leading eight touchdowns for a team that's won six straight after an 02 start.

Then the lanky wideout adds, "I'm just a regular dude." And he's not winking or smiling devilishly. His face is blank, making him hard to read -- exactly how he likes it.

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While Johnson entertains the Bengals with his unique brand of narcissism and Owens alienates teammates with his, Burress simply mystifies his fellow Giants. He'll thump his chest to thousands of fans after a TD catch, or flap his 7-foot wingspan when his quarterback misses him, yet he won't give the guys in his locker room a glimpse into his game-week preparations. Manning says it's almost as if Burress doesn't want anyone to know how hard he works or how deeply he cares.

"He doesn't talk about it much," Manning says.

The best evidence of that hard work is buried deep in Burress' lone locker, behind some hanging practice jerseys and Michigan State sweatshirts. Eating granola in front of his stall on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Burress reaches back and fishes out a 3-inch-thick playbook. He flips it open to a black loose-leaf notebook labeled 2007 with page after page of scouting notes in his perfect longhand. Not even Manning, whose locker is next door -- actually, lockers -- knew that Burress broke down the game in such detail until the QB borrowed his receiver's playbook one day last season.

I just do it all on my own. Nobody knows who I am and how I really prepare.

--Plaxico Burress

"I just do it all on my own," Burress says. "Nobody knows who I am and how I really prepare."

Leading up to every game, Burress jots down insights on his opponent and writes three or four goals, one of which is always "Make plays!!!"

Before facing the Packers on Sept. 16, his other goals were: "Run crisper routes. Focus."

The Redskins a week later: "Stick routes. Look ball into hands."

Against the Dolphins in London, on Oct. 28: "Take my show overseas. Come back harder to the ball."

The most extensive notes came before playing the 49ers on Oct. 21, because Burress was opposite cornerback Nate Clements, who signed an eight-year, $80 million deal in the offseason. His goals were: "Let's see who's better. Stay on my grind. Don't let up."

Burress also wrote that Clements gives a 3 Max coverage look -- a three-deep zone -- 96 percent of the time against triple-receiver sets.

Burress and Manning
AP Photo/Gregory BullPlaxico Burress, left, says he's not yet a star of the magnitude of, say, Eli Manning (right): "I'm just a regular dude."

And there was this: "Stays in backpedal real late. Likes to keep shoulders parallel to line of scrimmage." Burress knew if he could sell deep routes and break out of them, he'd be open all day. So in the first quarter, he caught a 9-yard comeback on Clements. In the second, he sold the comeback before cutting inside, and Manning found him for 18. Burress finished with only five catches for 43 yards, but that was mostly because the Giants didn't throw much in the second half after opening up a huge lead.

"Preparation is my thing," he says.

It hasn't always been. Burress started his note-taking ritual only after signing a six-year, $25 million deal with the Giants in 2005. He was coming off five productive but unspectacular seasons for the Steelers, who had taken him eighth overall in the 2000 draft. In Pittsburgh, fellow wideout Hines Ward played the gritty fan favorite, while Burress assumed the role of spoiled star, publicly griping about the Steelers' run-first offense and routinely arriving late for meetings.

Once in New York, he continued to show up late to meetings -- or, in Tom Coughlin's world -- not early enough. After one violation too many in 2005, he was benched for the first quarter of a game against the Chargers. Then, last season against the Titans, he made a half-assed stab at an overthrown pass. The ball was picked off by Pacman Jones, whom Burress barely tried to tackle. Afterward, Strahan chastised Burress on the radio for "quitting on us."

All of these special gifts I have won't come out if I'm a step behind. But if I'm two steps ahead of you, watch out.

--Plaxico Burress

It was the perfect moment for a true diva receiver to tear a team apart. But Burress didn't. Instead, he stewed quietly for a few days, telling himself that the play wasn't representative of his overall effort. Then he quietly patched things up with Strahan and moved on. After the season ended, Burress sat and watched every route he ran in 2006.

His conclusion? The critics were spot-on.

"I wanted to get into the groove of attacking the ball," Burress says. "All of these special gifts I have won't come out if I'm a step behind. But if I'm two steps ahead of you, watch out."

When Burress talks about his gifts -- at 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, he's built more like a shooting guard than a wideout -- he begins to sound Ocho Cinco-ish. But it's the only way he can explain how, in the season opener against the Cowboys, he ran a 5-yard slant into a double-team and slipped open for a 10-yard score, his third touchdown of the night. Or how, against the Eagles on Sept. 30, he outjumped cornerback Sheldon Brown and strong safety Quintin Mikell on a corner route for a 9-yard TD.

Or how, a week later, against the Jets, he ran a 5-yard out route, stiff-armed cornerback Andre Dyson to the ground and burst down the sideline for a 53-yard score. "I see myself making catches before they happen," Burress says. "You gotta have something special to do what I do."

Yes, he's boastful. And quirky. He doesn't like to be touched and, according to the book "The GM" by Tom Callahan, he once yelled at Ernie Accorsi when the former general manager patted him on the back. But even if he doesn't want anyone to know it, Burress also cares. He wears No. 17 to honor March 17, the date he signed with the Giants. Instead of arriving late to film sessions -- he got the message after his 2005 benching -- he now yells out "Boom!" during a big play to wake up anyone who's sleeping.

In September, he spent an hour breaking down film with second-year receiver Domenik Hixon, teaching him how to read the free safety on a stop-and-go route. Burress has barely practiced since spraining his ankle on Aug. 2 -- center Shaun O'Hara recently tabbed him No Practico -- but he still scored at least one touchdown in each of the season's first six games.

"He is very in tune to what is going on," says Coughlin. "He studies."

Burress is off to do that right now, rising from the stool in front of his locker to squeeze in a little more film before departing for the Giants' game in London. He's leaving a mess behind. A FedEx envelope of fan mail has burst open and is bleeding into Manning's space. Another box of letters is overflowing into the locker of reserve tight end Darcy Johnson. Burress has at least 12 pairs of shoes, none of them neatly stacked, many scattered on the floor, along with various shirts and socks.

Grabbing his playbook, Burress accidentally kicks a cleat into Manning's stool. The quarterback shakes his head and says, "Somehow his stuff always ends up in my locker."

Sounds like someone is due for another.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.