The comparisons are understandable, perhaps even inevitable. And the similarities are many. It's easy to line up the Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick headlines side by side and see the same inspirational comeback story, played out two years apart. A once-elite skill-position player in the NFL loses a couple precious seasons mid-career to imprisonment and scandal, but heroically returns to the field to bring his personal narrative of redemption full circle and perform even more spectacularly than ever.
I suppose it could happen the same way, but I'm betting against it. Burress and Vick share a similar background in their home state of Virginia, a track record of proven playmaking ability, and the soul-searing experience of having had it all and lost it. But that's where the Vick-Burress analogy should probably end.
To extend the trajectory into the future could wind up rendering the comparison neither apt nor particularly accurate. Just because Vick beat the odds and made it back to center stage in the NFL doesn't make Burress likely to travel that same remarkable path. There are key differences that could prove pivotal in how their sagas diverge, and they're obvious enough once you get past the surface resemblances.
For starters, there's time. In this case, not the 20-plus-month variety both Vick and Burress served in prison for their trespasses involving dog fighting and deadly weapons, respectively. But the kind that dictates the window of opportunity afforded every professional athlete, drawing the line between the prime of one's career and whatever comes after that.
Burress has more than paid the debt created by his crime and deserves every opportunity for a second chance in the NFL. And I have no doubt there's an eager team willing to extend him one. But he'll be 34 in August, when he presumably retakes the field, and if he should require in essence a redshirt season of re-acclimation -- as Vick did in 2009 in Philadelphia, in his limited Wildcat quarterback role -- he would be 35 and five years removed from his last impact season (70 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Super Bowl-winning 2007 Giants) by the time 2012 rolls around.
That is no insignificant detail. Burress was 30 and clearly still in his prime when he hauled down the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning in New York's epic Super Bowl upset of New England in February 2008. But later that year, he played in just 10 games for the defending champs, catching only half as many passes (35 for 454 yards) for a third as many touchdowns (four) before his self-inflicted gunshot wound ended his 2008 season and put him on the path to prison.
Can receivers still be impact players in the NFL in the range of 34 or 35? Definitely. Are there plentiful examples of such a trend? Not really. Of the league's top 50 pass-catchers in 2010, only four are currently older than Burress -- Cincinnati's Terrell Owens, 37, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, 35, Baltimore's Derrick Mason, 37, and Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, 35. And of that veteran group, only Owens, an athletic rarity by anyone's standards, finished among the league's top 20 reception leaders (72 catches for 983 yards and nine touchdowns).
By comparison, Vick was 27 when he entered prison in November 2007, and slightly more than a month shy of his 29th birthday when he rejoined society and resumed his career in 2009. That's about a five-year jump he had on Burress in that critical department, and Vick still needed a full year to shake off the rust and regain his electrifying athleticism. His renaissance 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year season occurred at age 30, a year younger than Burress was in 2008 when his career was placed in legal limbo.
But the most important difference that separates Vick's comeback from the one Burress will attempt to mount is the positions they play. As clichéd as it sounds, the NFL is a quarterbacks' league, and that reality means there will always be a sliding scale of patience and opportunity afforded to the guys who throw the ball. Passing is the name of the game, and as both Vick and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger proved in recent years, redemption can be quickly earned if one produces and wins big at the game's most crucial position. No matter how glaring the off-field transgression, or public relations risk.
If you think they extend the same courtesy to aging NFL receivers, even those among the game's elite, then you haven't been paying attention to the recent career paths of potential Hall of Famers like Owens and Randy Moss, both of whom have repeatedly worn out their welcomes as they hop-scotched across the league the past few years. That Owens and Moss are once again back on the free-agent market only serves to underline the point, and perhaps limit the number of teams willing to help Burress stage his career's second act.
Keep in mind that even in the best of times, Burress was not known as a particularly hard worker, great teammate or committed team leader. He routinely exasperated the daylights out of the Giants' by-the-book head coach Tom Coughlin during their four seasons in New York, and his reputation for being late to meetings or displaying a lack of dedication hasn't been wiped out of anyone's memory during his absence. Some team will give him a chance to prove he's a changed man, with newfound maturity, but the opportunity won't be of the same width or breadth as what the multitalented Vick received. That kind of slack is almost solely reserved for quarterbacks.
I'm confident there's a team out there that has a well-defined role for the 6-foot-5 Burress and his ability to outmaneuver overmatched cornerbacks. Frames like his don't grow on trees in the NFL. But it will be a complementary role at least to start with, with likely no team willing to bank on him as anything more than a No. 3 receiver in 2011.
Plenty of teams need a big receiver, and I could see Burress in New England, Washington, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and, yes, even Philadelphia with the Vick-led Eagles. Perhaps Vick and Burress are destined to link their comebacks together in some tangible way, other than the easy grouping that their stories invite.
Burress undoubtedly has some ability left, but the teams interested in him will have to weigh how much remaining upside they see against the risk he poses. For now, Burress's career serves as the NFL's latest cautionary tale. Where it goes from here is one of the stories worth watching whenever football resumes this year. In time, Burress will make his comeback. But comparing his to the capital C version authored by Vick last year is setting the bar impossibly high.
Vick and Burress have plenty in common. Just not as much as a first glance, and the headlines, imply.