Burress is following the Vick playbook

Plaxico Burress embraces mentor Tony Dungy during news conference in New York.
Plaxico Burress embraces mentor Tony Dungy during news conference in New York. (Associated Press)
Posted: June 14, 2011

THE SUCCESS OF Michael Vick's comeback was not foreseen on that day in 2009. It was hard to imagine past the camera trucks convened at the NovaCare Complex, and the extra complement of security guards, and the protesters chanting at the gate. Any number of descriptions were painted that day: misguided, insulting, gimmick, waste of time, long shot. No one saw it as a potential model.

Fast-forward now, two summers. Another jail sentence is finished. The player this time is Plaxico Burress, the former Giants wide receiver. The media event is in New York City. The announcement includes a commitment to partner with organizations whose goals are to rid society of the very conduct for which the man was convicted. A member of the group assembled for media availability is an earnest, honest broker named Tony Dungy.

Repeat the word: model. Michael Vick, it seems, has written the playbook - and Burress and his people have swiped it whole.

What once were uncharted waters - who ever heard of a convicted felon returning to play professional sports? - have found their cartographer. He plays quarterback for the Eagles.

Cynics will see it as a public-relations map and nothing more. True believers will see it as a well-conceived set of steps for a public man who has fallen terribly and who needs to find a path back to a public life. The cynics will never be true believers and the true believers will never be cynics - and that isn't what this is about.

Instead, it is a simple acknowledgment of the fact that, whatever the ulterior motives - cynical or honest or some combination of the two - Vick and his people devised a comeback strategy that worked so well that it is being duplicated here by Burress. It is being copied exactly, and two of the three elements are now in place.

First, there is mentorship. That is the Dungy role. He performed it for Vick, and he will perform it - along with Magic Johnson and also Vick, apparently - with Burress.

Dungy is the key, though. He visited Burress in jail, talked with him about what is ahead and, most important, publicly vouches for Burress' sincerity. That is crucial as teams begin to sniff around.

"It's an honor. [Dungy is] a man of great integrity, of great faith," is how Burress was quoted yesterday by the Newark Star-Ledger. "I have a lot of respect for him, with everything he's accomplished in life. For him to reach out to me in a time and a situation where a lot of people shied away, it meant a lot to me."

And Dungy?

"If anybody calls me, I would say I think he does have a different outlook on things," said the former coach of the Bucs and Colts. "This is not a guy that's going to take anything for granted. He does have a passion about getting back and playing. If I were in that position, I would certainly investigate it and, if I had a need, I would definitely look at him."

Dungy's reputation is impeccable. What he provides here is cover for whatever team takes a chance on Burress, just as he did with Vick.

The second element of the strategy is the partnership. Vick, convicted of dogfighting, partnered with the Humane Society. Burress, convicted of firearms violations, is partnering with the National Urban League and, significantly, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"We're eager to work with Plaxico as he speaks to audiences young and old, inside and outside of sports, to help prevent gun violence," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center. "He has learned directly, and painfully, about the risks of gun ownership, and understands that he has an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children, athletes, and the entire sports community."

Everybody involved understands the bargain. Burress benefits from the credibility of these organizations. The organizations benefit from Burress' ability to draw publicity to their events.

Cynics will see a cynical bargain. Optimists will see the transformation of a bad situation into a win-win. The tension between those opposing viewpoints will remain, and it isn't going to be solved here.

Mentorship. Partnership. The third element is the new team. The particular choice was more important for Vick than it will be for Burress. Vick needed a place with proven coaching and a chance to retool his skill set at the game's most difficult position. Starting right away would have been the worst thing for him.

Burress, by contrast, is older and only needs to prove that he can still run and catch. He doesn't need a place to work his way back. He needs a stable place with a strong head coach, but he mostly just needs to play.

That chance will come, too, it seems.

It is all in the playbook.

Send email to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at www.philly.com/TheIdleRich.

For recent columns go to www.philly.com/RichHofmann.

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