Preserving Plaxico from practice has proved practical

Plaxico Burress aggravated a preseason injury by spraining his ankle against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 16, 2007. Despite an unorthodox practice schedule, he's answered the call when the Giants have needed him. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

With the players off for a second straight day, Wednesday was quiet at Giants Stadium. No howling media mobs, no traffic jams in the players' cafeteria. But there, somewhere past the west end zone, behind the closed doors of the trainer's room, sat Plaxico Burress in a tub of warm, bubbling water.

Accompanied by his young son, Elijah, Burress went through three hours of treatment for a chronically sprained right ankle. He has been doing this for so long that he knows the sequence of exercises and procedures better than the therapists themselves.

Football is the most intricate of games. It has the most moving parts and, particularly on offense, those pieces must be synchronized to the level of a fine Swiss watch. This is why teams practice so long, so hard and so often. Coaches love to practice, even if their players do not.

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But what happens when one of the critical components can't participate?

In the frigid NFC Championship Game, matched against one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league, the New York Giants ' lithe and sometimes laconic wide receiver was the best player in Lambeau Field. Burress caught a career-high 11 passes for 154 yards as the Giants stunned the host Green Bay Packers 23-20 in overtime.

"There was a lot of single high man-to-man coverage, and we had some big plays," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

"We call it fade stops, where he goes outside and you just make a read. A couple of times we threw it down the field on them and they didn't know what to do."

Hard to believe that Burress practiced only a handful of times since aggravating a preseason injury by spraining his ankle against these same Packers on Sept. 16. Somehow, Burress led the Giants in the 2007 regular season with 70 catches for 1,025 yards and a career-high 12 touchdowns.

"It was a battle," Burress said. "We was out there competing to go to the Super Bowl. You couldn't expect anything less going into this game."

Only on a Sunday.

Everyone still playing this time of year is a little nicked up (Google Tom Brady and boot), but for someone who makes his living stopping and starting, leaping and diving, a sprained ankle is a severe handicap.

Burress, 30, has admitted that he starts each game gingerly, wondering how long his ankle will allow him to be effective. Since the first Packers game, Burress has been going through the same routine.

According to Ronnie Barnes, the Giants' vice president of medical services, most days Burress receives heat and water treatment, ultrasound and electrical stimulation on multiple parts of his body, and rehabilitation and strengthening exercises for his ankle.

Burress also does cardiovascular conditioning and receives regular massages, at Giants Stadium and at home. He receives acupuncture treatments twice a week, watches a lot of film -- and stands on the sidelines while Amani Toomer, Steve Smith and David Tyree do the heavy lifting.

Pity Tyree, who plays the role of Burress in practice. He has only four catches to show for his trouble.

Burress -- to the accompaniment of his teammates' smirks and guffaws --
claims he wants to practice. It's just that, he says, his ankle has only so many full-speed cuts in it per week. Through the first half of the season, the unorthodox approach was a huge success.

"I've always said we need Plax at practice," said Manning after Burress burned the Falcons for six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in Week 6. "But now I'm starting to think we don't. He's always in tune and he gets open."

In eight games, Burress caught 37 passes, eight of them for touchdowns, shaking the very foundations of long-held views on the importance of practice.

Maybe this was why, during the bye week in early November, Giants coaches sounded frustrated. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Burress' absence was hurting the continuity of the offense.

"There are going to be small issues with regard to timing," said wide receivers coach Mike Sullivan.

"There's no substitute for that. I think there are some fine details with regard to the timing of the quarterback, and maybe finishing some routes. There are some things where he's not quite where he wants to be and where we want him to be."

Burress, with an extra week to rest, came back for his first practice in nearly two months. On that Sunday against the Cowboys he was held to four catches and 24 yards. So much for practice.

Reverting to his once-a-week running regimen, Burress made it through the season nicely. Not that he enjoyed the constant stream of questions.

"I have been pretty much going out and dominating anyway, whether I was hurt or not," Burress said. "It hasn't stopped me from going out and being successful."

He even found the strength to work out one day before the regular-season finale against the Patriots. In about 20 minutes of limited action, he ran only the routes tailored specifically for him and responded in the game with four catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns.

In the two playoffs games at Tampa and Dallas, however, Burress was no more than a decoy. While Toomer carried the Giants' receivers, Burress had all of five catches for 43 yards.

Against the bump-and-run Packers, though, Burress figured heavily into the game plan.

Manning, Toomer and Burress walked out onto Lambeau Field two hours before last week's game and managed to get through only one-quarter of their typical warm-up session.

"My left hand was numb, my receivers didn't have any hand warmers, they were done," Manning said. "I said, 'Hey, I can throw. Let's take it in. We're good.'"

Indeed, they were.

Burress used his long 6-foot-5 frame to frustrate Packers cornerback Al Harris. On two occasions, Harris was called for penalties trying to cover him.

For Burress, who was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers team that lost to New England in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, the career game meant his first trip to the Super Bowl -- and another crack at the Patriots.

Burress certainly isn't daunted by the challenges New England presents.
He raised some eyebrows recently by saying that the Giants' receivers are just as good, if not better, than the Patriots' talented group.

"I've been battling all year, and should have been better in the regular season," said Burress after the NFC title game, "but I had to take the hand I was dealt. I didn't play as well as I wanted to, but I'm going to the Super Bowl. It's one of the best feelings in my life."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.