EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Plaxico Burress was 34 going on 50, a playmaker aging faster than Rex Ryan talks. People around the league were no longer debating whether Burress was worth the $3 million wage he landed out of prison.
They were debating whether Burress was worth a place in the New York Jets' lineup.
It's no fun growing old in the big city -- just ask the Derek Jeter of 2010 and the first half of 2011. Even icons aren't exempt from the laws of gravity and the whims of fan bases with painfully short memories. And no, Burress doesn't show up in anyone's data base of icons.
He walked into MetLife Stadium on Sunday as a man who spent the first six games of the season doing a terrific impression of a washed-up wideout.
Burress saw it for himself on tape. They say the films don't lie in football, and these were no exception.
"You just get so tired of seeing yourself look so bad on film," Burress said.
Plax was so sick and tired of watching the shadow of what he used to be, so sick and tired of seeing how those 21 months behind bars robbed him of his game-breaking talent, he decided to do something about it.
He tried the delicate dance of playing with more emotion while remaining patient at the same time, and he studied his opponent as much as he's ever studied any.
In the San Diego Chargers' 6-foot-1 corner, Antoine Cason, the 6-5 Burress found someone he could exploit. If football is a game of inches, Plax's four-inch advantage on Cason was the difference between the Jets being 4-3 and their season being declared dead and buried a week before Halloween.
The box score says Burress caught a lousy four passes for a lousy 25 yards and a not-so-lousy three touchdowns in the Jets' come-from-behind 27-21 victory. For the first time since Burress delivered that preseason catch against the Cincinnati Bengals, he made the Jets look smart for laying out the three mil.
When they chose to sign Plax instead of Braylon Edwards, the Jets thought they were getting a major upgrade near the end zone. A half dozen regular-season games into that decision, Burress had 14 catches, 218 yards and two touchdowns. Mark Sanchez had targeted him only seven times from inside the 20-yard line.
"It was actually feeling worse than it actually looked," he said.
And it looked plenty bad enough. Burress had been such a lost cause out there, Ryan risked his quarterback's health in the Jacksonville game in a desperate bid to get Plax the ball.
But unlike Santonio Holmes, who blamed everyone but Joe Walton for the offense's struggles, Burress -- the ultimate high-maintenance act with the Giants -- never publicly ripped a Jets teammate or coach for his own failures.
"You've just got to evaluate yourself," he said. "I just looked at myself on tape. I said, 'You know what, I've just got to play better. It's not on anybody else but myself. ... I've got to become more consistent and at least have some kind of impact.'"
Burress started making an impact in the first quarter, right after Donald Butler returned Dustin Keller's fumble for a touchdown. Sanchez walked to the line prepared to execute a rushing play before audibling to a Burress screen.
Plax made the catch near the sideline, and set up his 15-yard gain with the kind of nasty ankle-busting crossover move on Cason that no Jurassic receiver is ever supposed to make.
"I almost hurt everything trying to get out of the way," Burress joked. "I made the first move and he didn't go for it, and I said, 'Uh oh. I'd better come up with something else,' and I was able to get away from him. It was a good start."
In the middle of the second quarter, down 14-3, Sanchez missed Burress in the corner with a fastball even Albert Pujols couldn't have hit. If Plax was dying to tell his quarterback that Eli Manning would put some air under those passes, he didn't succumb to the temptation.
"Man, that was a great throw," Burress told Sanchez. "Put it there every time and I'll make it."
Two plays later, quarterback and receiver hooked up for a touchdown. Burress dropped to a knee before rising and carrying the ball off the field.
"I finally made it back," he told himself. "Finally made it back in the end zone."
Burress returned there twice in the second half, this as the Jets' defense pitched a 30-minute shutout against Philip Rivers and all of his high-flying friends. It was a good thing, too, as the fans booed the home team off the field at halftime, serving notice that the tone could turn uglier if the Jets planned on losing their fourth game in five tries.
Burress, of all people, spared everyone the indignity. He caught a four-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. On a third-and-goal in the fourth, after Darrelle Revis did what Darrelle Revis does, Burress won the game by beating Cason again over the middle.
"I didn't have time to finish my route," Burress said. "I beat him so bad and Mark saw it and immediately put it up."
Plax hadn't enjoyed a three-touchdown game since he dropped 18 points on the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener of 2007. His three scores against the Chargers covered a grand sum of 10 yards, and nobody on the winning side cared.
"This isn't the end for him," Sanchez said.
It only looked like the end for Burress before Sunday. But he watched film of Cason, noticed how the corner likes to lean in on his two-hand jams at the line, and figured he could use that to his advantage.
Of greater consequence, Burress watched film of himself. He saw an impatient player trying to force things. He saw a receiver who wasn't honoring Ryan's faith, and a playmaker who wasn't worth the price of admission.
"Every morning that you wake up on Sunday," Burress said, "you want to be great."
After more than two seasons out of the game, a 34-year-old Burress will have a hard time being great. But if nothing else, he proved against San Diego that he can still be relevant, productive and worthy of that $3 million wage.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.