<
>

Burress unhappy with run-first offense

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to designate
wide receiver Plaxico Burress as their franchise player by
Tuesday's deadline, all but assuring he will become a free agent
March 2.

Burress is set to leave Pittsburgh, but possibly not the AFC
North because the Baltimore Ravens are believed to be interested in
signing the 6-foot-5 receiver. Burress had at least 60 catches for
three years in a row before being slowed by a hamstring injury last
season, when his 35 catches were his fewest since he made 22 as a
rookie in 2000.

Ben Roethlisberger lobbied hard for the Steelers to bring back
Burress, their only deep receiving threat and one of the
quarterback's closest friends. But with the Steelers lacking the
cap room to boost Burress' salary to $7,768,000 -- the average of
the NFL's top five receivers -- his parting has been considered
inevitable since last month.

Burress missed five of the Steelers' last six regular-season
games with a sore hamstring, then was disappointed at being used
mostly as a decoy after that. He made only five catches for 65
yards in two playoff games, including a meaningless TD catch in the
final minute of the 41-27 loss to New England in the AFC
championship game Jan. 23.

"It's Pittsburgh, which speaks for itself. They're not going to
change," Burress said of the Steelers' run-heavy offense. "I'm
not going to change. Three or four balls just doesn't suit me very
well."

The Steelers have not designated a franchise player since
linebacker Jason Gildon in 2002, when he signed a multiyear
contract before he could play under the franchise tag.

Burress' cap value last season was $1.5 million. He signed a
five-year contract worth a minimum of $8.67 million after being the
No. 8 pick in the 2000 draft.

While Burress is all but gone, The Bus might not be. The
Steelers have opened contract talks with running back Jerome Bettis
-- a possible sign the NFL's No. 5 career rusher might not retire.

Bettis, who turned 33 last week, has hinted he might play one
more season after gaining at least 100 yards in seven of eight
starts last season. But the Steelers need him to renegotiate his
contract, as he did last season by agreeing to a $2.7 million pay
cut to $1 million in base salary.

Bettis is scheduled to make $4.484 million in 2005, but might be
willing to play for $2 million after rushing for 941 yards and 13
touchdowns while splitting time with Duce Staley.

The Steelers were about $500,000 under the salary cap at
season's end, but must cut several players by next week to get
under the projected cap of $85 million. Numerous players collected
performance bonuses during the Steelers' 15-1 season that count
against next season's cap -- including Roethlisberger, who earned
more than $2 million in extra money after unexpectedly becoming a
rookie-season starter.

The Steelers could release Bettis for salary-cap purposes and
re-sign him. But that's a scenario both sides prefer to avoid with
perhaps the most popular Steelers player since the 1970s.