When turned a bare back to reporters before slipping a black T-shirt over his head, the five-word tattoo might as well have been blinking red, a warning to those who would mock him for the felonious mistake that cost him 20 months of his life and career.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Burress, it turns out, may be the best reason there is hope for — as a playoff contender and as a team that has become notorious for compulsively misbehaving and shooting itself in the proverbial foot.
Stevie Johnson — the Buffalo receiver who pretended to take aim at his leg after a touchdown catch and whose penalty for excessive celebration was a primary reason the Jets beat the , 28-24, on Sunday at MetLife Stadium — still could have had the last word.
But Johnson dropped a perfect pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick on the run deep in Jets’ territory on Buffalo’s last-ditch drive and then failed to make what would have been an extraordinary catch on a Fitzpatrick overthrow in the end zone on the game’s final play.
Practical reason being, Johnson is 6 feet 2 inches, or three inches shorter than Burress, who has long been the elastic man of the N.F.L.
As Burress has been advising Mark Sanchez during their first season together, “Just stay focused, trust what you see.” And if Sanchez should see Burress towering over a defender in single coverage, just throw him the ball and let nature run its course.
This was no better suggestion or option for the much-maligned Sanchez on third-and-11 from the Bills’ 36 and the Jets’ season perhaps on the line coming out of the two-minute warning. Under blitzing pressure, Sanchez spotted Burress on the left sideline, without separation from cornerback Justin Rogers.
As Sanchez let fly, Rogers was positioned so that part of his body was between Burress and the ball. But here was the essential Burress, with a six-inch advantage on the 5-11 Rogers, reaching high, pulling the ball in with his right hand while somehow keeping his feet in bounds.
Having repeatedly done this during his career, Burress said, “It felt like a regular catch to me.” On any given Sunday, maybe. On this one, with the Jets in danger of falling under .500, it was a mini-MetLife miracle.
Two plays later, Sanchez rolled right from the 16 and hit Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone for his fourth touchdown pass and the margin of a sweaty palms victory that had even Coach Rex Ryan struggling for words.
His postgame news conference began: “OK. Whew. We’ll take it. Wow.”
These were the sounds of Ryan feeling profound relief. He could plainly see that this was looking like every other desultory Jets performance this season when Drayton Florence intercepted a second-quarter Sanchez pass intended for Holmes at the Jets’ 27 and Johnson beat Darrelle Revis on a 5-yard slant for a touchdown and a 14-7 Buffalo lead.
Here, Johnson decided to enjoy himself at Burress’s expense, pulling an imaginary trigger, mimicking the accident in a Manhattan nightclub that got Burress locked up and ended his run with the Giants. Johnson then spread his wings in the manner of a celebrating Jet, only to crash to the turf and — finally — incur a 15-yard penalty.
When Dave Rayner botched the ensuing squib kickoff from the Buffalo 20, the Jets took possession at the Bills’ 36 and scored in four plays, Sanchez to a wide-open Burress for 14 yards.
The damage done, Johnson at least struck the proper tone afterward. “It was very stupid of me going through that, and I feel like I cost our team the win,” he said. “It was a bad decision. I have to apologize to everyone and talk to the coach.”
Johnson is Buffalo’s problem. But can the Jets learn from the reflection of their own repellent behavior that begins with Ryan’s increasingly unconvincing bravado? Can this team that was supposed to embody his belief in smash-mouth football commit itself to more smash and less mouth?
Can the Jets learn from how Burress coolly dealt with Johnson’s insolent display?
He explained that he hadn’t seen it, was learning about it from reporters for the first time and what, after all, was the big deal?
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I’ve already been through the wringer with that situation and dealt with it accordingly. I’ve seen worse and I’ve heard worse. He’s young. Maybe he understands one day later.”
Burress’s teammates were also calm, if less kind. Tight end Dustin Keller said: “He’s an idiot for that one. He should be embarrassed for that.”
Receiver Patrick Turner said that he didn’t see Johnson’s performance but that he, too, had Burress’s back.
“And then he dropped that last ball,” Turner said of Johnson. He nodded for effect and added a one-word summation.
“Karma,” he said.
Did it all happen for a reason? As it related to the playoffs, that will be up to the Jets over the next five weeks. For a team promising a , 2011 has been a humbling experience, if nothing compared with what Burress has been through.
From Ryan on down, they could all look at him, read the writing on his back, and find reasons to behave and believe.