Posted by Chase Stuart on August 2, 2011
Over the weekend, the New York Jets signed Plaxico Burress as a cheaper alternative to fill the void left by Braylon Edwards. Buress and Edwards have had very similar career paths: From Michigan to Lake Erie to New York, these tall wide receivers have been in the news and teasing us with their talents for a decade. How do they compare?
Category Buress Edwards Edge Ht/Wt 6'5, 226 6'3, 211 Burress Michigan School Michigan State Michigan Push (MSU under Nick Saban) Sophomore year 65--1013--8 67--1035--10 Push Junior Year 66--1142--12 85--1138--14 Edwards Senior Year Entered Draft 97--1330--15 N/A 1st-team All-Conf. Twice Twice Push Last college game 13--185-3 in 37-34 10--109--3 in 38-37 win over Florida loss to Texas Burress College hardware Two Bowl MVPs Biletnikoff Award Edwards Drafted by Lake Erie Pittsburgh Cleveland Burress franchise in… Third year breakout 78-1325-7 80-1289-16 Edwards Breakout more impressive Tommy Maddox Derek Anderson Edwards because he played with Found out the hard way: NFL rules, college Helmet can't be used rules, different as a reception device Burress Touchdown rate Every 9.2 catches Every 8.4 catches Edwards Guilty of... Criminal possession Driving while of a weapon intoxicated Edwards Super Bowls + Pro Bowls One One Push Brush with greatness Game-winning TD to Fisticuffs with defeat Pats in SB LeBron's entourage Burress
Edwards just edges out Burress, 6 to 5. But Jets fans -- and fantasy football owners -- are forward thinking. They want to know how Burress will play in 2011. As usual, I don't know, and you don't know. At this point, it's wild speculation. But we can look to the past to get some sense as to what sort of path Burress' career might take.
What's notable about his 2011 season?
- He has not played professional football for the past two seasons
- His last season of pro football came at age 30 or later (Burress was 31 in '08)
- He was a starter for the majority of his team's games in his last season prior to being out of football
How many players match that list? Since 1970, only six players. Deion Sanders is the most notable; "Prime" returned to the NFL after three years off and played two injury-filled and non-eventful seasons in Baltimore. Giants' center Brian Williams missed two years due to eye surgery; he returned in 1999 and was productive, but was released by the team after the season. He never played in the NFL again. Greg Townsend had seven seasons with double digit sacks for the Raiders. He "retired" after the '94 season at the age of 33 due to struggles with weight -- he had put on nearly 50 pounds since entering the league. He returned at age 36, playing four games with the Raiders, but did not start a game or record a sack in his only year back. Rich Tylski spent six seasons at right guard with the Jaguars and Steelers, last starting 10 games for Pittsburgh in 2001. He was out of football for the next two years, and came back for one season with the Panthers, where he mostly played as a reserve. Nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Maxie Baughan played the last five seasons of his career under George Allen in Los Angeles. In 1974, Allen, then head coach of the Redskins, lured Baughan back after being away for three full years. He played in just two games as a player-coach. Quarterback Chris Miller retired after the 1995 season following a series of concussions. He went 2-1 playing for the post-Elway Broncos in 1999, before retiring for good.
That list doesn't inspire much optimism for Burress' prospects in 2011. What if we lower the starting requirement to just staring a handful of games in the player's last season, and only look at wide receivers? Just two players enter the picture. Atlanta's Brian Finneran was a solid possession receiver for the Vick Falcons at the turn of the century. He missed seasons in 2006 and 2007 due to ligament tears in his left knee. He came back in '08 at the age of 32; he caught 21 passes for 169 yards, and has posted similar numbers the past two seasons. Jets wide receiver Derrick Gaffney (father of Jabar Gaffney) played from 1978 to 1984 for New York. During the 1987 strike, Gaffney crossed the picket line and played in two games for the Jets, catching one pass.
Okay, so far, not so good for Burress fans. But what if we flip the question on its head? What if we start with players who played well in one season and were also out of football in the prior two seasons? I looked at all players who had an AV of at least 8 points in a year immediately following missing two seasons of football (playing in another professional league does not count). How many players met that criteria since the merger?
Just one. Garrison Hearst broke his ankle in a playoff game against the Falcons following the 1998 season. The prognosis was that he would never play again, but after two years away from football, Hearst came back and rushed for 1,206 yards while earning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. In fact, Hearst is only the fourth player to win Comeback Player of the Year after missing a full season of NFL play. Doug Flutie played in the CFL for years before winning the award with Buffalo in 1998, Joe Johnson missed all of 1999 due to injury and Barry Word went unsigned in 1989 before breaking out for the Chiefs in 1990.
But Hearst was "only" 30 when he made his comeback. No skill position player Burress' age has ever come close to having a productive season after missing a couple of years of football. Of course, very few productive players ever would even have a chance to be on this last. We are dealing with a severe example of selection bias. Terrell Owens, John Stallworth and Lance Alworth didn't spent two years in the middle of their careers away from the game. So the better question to ask might be: if this was August 2008, what sort of numbers would we project for Burress in 2011?
I say after the '07 season in an attempt to stack the deck in Burress' favor. Burress missed the end of the 2008 season, but he wasn't having a particularly strong season, anyway. As a result, to look at things in the most favorable light to him, we'll send us back in time to right after Burress' last full season. I'm going to use the ranking system that I used in my greatest WR ever series. Here is how Burress has ranked each year of his career:
To find comparable players to Burress in August 2008, we would want to look at any WR who:
(1) Had between 250 and 550 yards of value at ages 29, 30 or 31 in Year N (For Burress, Year N = 2007); and
(2) Had between 200 and 650 yards of value in each of the prior two seasons (Years N-1 and N-2).
There were 20 wide receivers who, from 1970 to 2006, met those two criteria. One of them was the '06 version of Burress, so we will remove him from the list. The other 19 players, in Year N, had an average age of 29.95 and an average value of 410 yards. In Years N-1 and N-2, their average values were 429 and 445. In other words, these 19 players probably had similar outlooks to the one we would have had for Plaxico Burress four years ago. How did they do four years (in Year N+4) after the season in question?
|Player||Year N||Value||age||N-1 Val||N-2 Val||N+4 Val||N+4 Gm|
|Gene A. Washington||1977||440||30||217||350||0||0|
Only 5 of the 19 WRs registered above average seasons. In any given year, around 40-45 wide receivers will register above-average seasons in this system, so the odds were heavily against Burress from being a top 40 season in 2011 even if he had played in the NFL for each of the past three years. And, remember, this is using Burress' 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons as his baseline, essentially ignoring any decline he may have showed in 2008.
The short version of this post: the Jets would be unrealistic to expect anything more than a mediocre season from Burress in 2011. Wide receivers don't age as quickly as running backs, but 34 years old is still pretty old, especially for someone who hasn't been keeping himself in professional football shape. Consider that Carolina's Steve Smith, Santana Moss and Deion Branch will all be 34 years old... during the 2013 season. An aging wide receiver who has been out of football for two years is a longshot to pay serious dividends. On the bright side, if the Jets need a touchdown in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, Sanchez will have more than enough players to target.