By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — The stage is set for Plaxico Burress to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers. All that’s left is for the veteran wideout to make a final decision.
After meeting with his other former team, the New York Giants and Coach Tom Coughlin Friday night, Burress got to Newark, N.J. Airport and flew west. He got to the Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College late that night and had an early morning meeting Saturday with Steelers President Art Rooney II, Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin.
Burress had breakfast and lunch with many former teammates like wideout Hines Ward and inside linebacker James Farrior at length at lunchtime. Burress did not speak to the media afterward, but he appeared to be at ease throughout the conversation with his old friends.
“I’ve known him for a long time, since he was in college, and I’ve never had anything bad to say about him,” Farrior said. “I’ve never seen him do anything crazy, so he’s always been a friend to me. We tried to sell it, (and) we sold it this morning at breakfast. We’ve been trying to sell it all day.
“So, we hope he doesn’t leave here. If he leaves, we’re in trouble, ” Farrior said on the likely hood of Burress signing elsewhere if he leaves Saint Vincent without a deal.
(But) we don’t know how he feels. We just know that we told him how much we’d like him to be back on this team. I know he has a lot of confidence in his ability and what he can do, so he didn’t have to sell us. But we wanted him to know that it’s still a good atmosphere around here and not too much has changed since he left.”
But there have been changes since Burress left the Steelers after the 2004 season. The Steelers have been to three Super Bowls and won two. Mike Tomlin replaced Burress’ first NFL coach, Bill Cowher and most importantly, Burress hasn’t been in the league for two seasons. He was in jail on a weapons violation.
Burress is a much different person as well from the young player who the Steelers took with the eighth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. He has two young children and has become more of a family man, but long-time friend Byron Leftwich believed prison changed him as well.
“I never thought he was a bad person, but when you go to jail it changes you,” Leftwich said. “For the better, I believe, but he’s the same person as he always was in a lot of ways. I talked to him every day while he was in jail. So, he’s the same to me, and we spent lots of time together before and after he was in jail.
“I think that time makes you a better man and better human being. But I never thought he was a bad guy. … Jail isn’t for guys like Plax. It’s for real criminals. You change because of what you see in there. It gives you a lot of time to think. I think he was in his room 18 hours a day, so all you can do is think.
“I’ve seen a lot in my life, being from D.C., and jail isn’t for guys like Plax,” Leftwich added. “But things happen in life, and you have to answer for the decisions that you make. So, we’ve talked a lot about him coming back to Pittsburgh, but he has to make the right decision for him and his family.”
If Burress does sign with the Steelers, the club is going to have to do some fancy accounting work, because it’s several million dollars over the cap right now. And Burress certainly would get more than the veteran minimum.
“As you all know, we have issues with the camp, which is $120 million this year,” Colbert said. “We knew we’d have to terminate some pretty prominent players like we did, and some renegotiating and possibly more terminations would have to be done if we make any more significant roster additions.”
NFL teams must be in compliance by Aug. 4, which is the day all veterans who signed new contracts or renegotiated are allowed to return to practice. Practice Sunday is the first that the Steelers will be allowed to have contact in full gear, so some young guys would have about a week of good work.
“Both sides, obviously, are interested in Plaxico signing with us, but we have to determine how he’ll fit into our team on the field and financially,” Colbert said. “We won’t work him out now, but if he signs he’ll have to pass physical before he can begin practicing with the team Aug. 4.”
Notes: Colbert said that the Steelers have 88 players under contract, which includes three players on PUP — Ward, Chris Kemoeatu and Eugene Bright — and eight guys who signed but can’t practice until Aug. 4 — Jeremy Kapinos, Shaun Suisham, Willie Colon, Doug Legursky, Jonathan Scott, Ryan Mundy, Ike Taylor and Tony Hills. The only restricted free agent who didn’t sign his tender before the lockout was quarterback Dennis Dixon, but he has until Aug. 20 to either sign with another team or be forced to re-sign with the Steelers.