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Will a team take a flyer on risky Burress?

The Glock pistol was unregistered but very much loaded. Plaxico Burress(notes) either didn’t know New York’s concealed weapons laws, or didn’t care. It was Thanksgiving weekend 2008, and the then-New York Giants receiver was headed to the Latin Quarter nightclub complex in Manhattan. He took the gun and stuffed it in his sweat pants.

As he climbed a set of stairs, the un-holstered gun began to slip from his waist, down the inside of his pants. He reached for it, accidently grabbed the trigger and in one single moment shot up his leg and his career.

Burress was released from prison Monday, serving 21 months of a 24-month sentence that seemed unduly harsh, a product of fame, media attention and political grandstanding, particularly by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. New York’s strict gun laws also played a role. We’ll leave the Second Amendment debates for other websites: For the purpose of this column, the law is the law. Obey or risk the Oneida Correctional Facility.

Plaxico Burress spent nearly two years in prison for accidentally shooting himself.
(Associated Press)

Debt to society paid, Plaxico needs a job, and while the obvious concern of any NFL team is whether he can stay out of prison, that probably isn’t the most germane mark on his permanent record.

Getting locked in the clink for nearly two years for accidently shooting yourself in the leg will go down as one of the dumbest ways anyone has been forced out of the National Football League. And while it’s risky to predict anyone’s future behavior – especially that of Plaxico Burress – it stands to reason this is one mistake he won’t make twice.

If Michael Vick(notes) finding enjoyment in hanging out in the woods watching dogs fight to the death was a red flag about his emotional temperament and psychological balance, fumbling with a gun in your sweat pants is more like world’s stupidest criminals material.

While Burress has a mercurial personality and is prone to reckless and ridiculous behavior, few who know him think he’s stupid, or at least stupid enough to do it again.

It’s everything else that should cause careful examination before a team decides to take a flyer on a guy who caught 55 touchdown passes – including a Super Bowl winner – over nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Giants.

He’s been a handful since before he attended Fork Union Military Academy in an effort to gain discipline and maturity. He’s had countless run-ins with coaches. He’s reportedly been fined over two dozen times through the years for being late to meetings and practices, if not skipping them all together. His effort, and production, has been sporadic. He’s been in the middle of car wrecks, civil suits and domestic incidents.

There have been contract disputes, non-participation at mini-camps and repeated questionable injuries. The Steelers suspended him once during the offseason. The Giants did it once during the season, when he not only failed to show up at the team facility, he didn’t answer their phone calls for two days.

In short, he’s been a headache. He’s a player who has never hesitated to be difficult; perhaps because he knows that 6-foot-5, 220-pound receivers are always given another chance.

Burress is a talented receiver, but teams considering signing him will be wary of his penchant for missing meetings.
(Associated Press)

And he’ll get one now.

Burress’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said his client has stayed in reasonable physical condition during his time on the wrong side of the Oneida wall in Rome, N.Y. He’s a gifted athlete and if he applies himself, there’s little question he can get back into playing shape.

Even if prison rust causes him to lose a step, he’s still a valuable asset. When properly motivated, he was almost impossible to cover – his simple Super Bowl-winning pitch and catch after the 2007 season against the New England Patriots is proof.

So this is where, perhaps, prison will be good for Burress. He doesn’t seem like a hardened criminal, just a star athlete who coasted through his career lacking the proper respect for his talent and the game as a whole.

For years everyone’s been waiting for the switch to turn on. Maybe the repeatedly closing of the cell doors will have done it.

Burress was contrite in pre-prison interviews. He must be pained by the fact that his youngest daughter was born while he was behind bars. The endless jokes must ring in his ears. And he’s got that bullet wound as a permanent reminder.

There’s little in common about the Burress and Vick cases. About all you can take is Vick’s post-incarceration work ethic and his repeated affirmations that having everything stripped from him changed his mindset about how precious the opportunity to play in the NFL is. Since getting out, Vick perhaps has never worked harder at being a great player. Even with diminishing physical skills, it’s showed.

Can that be Burress? A year of predawn wake-up calls at Fork Union didn’t teach him to attack each day and appreciate every opportunity. He was a teenager then, of course, with a limitless future in front of him.

Will 21 months in the hell hole of prison, with the clock ticking as he approaches his 34th birthday in August, be different?

If it is, Burress will be a steal as a free agent pickup – New York Jets, anyone? A motivated, dedicated Plax can be a productive star. That’s what prospective employers have to determine.

It’s not so much about whether he’ll again make a big off-field mistake like tucking a loaded, illegal gun in his loose waistband before heading out for the night.

It’s whether he’ll avoid every small on-field one that preceded it.

This is about football now and Plaxico Burress has the opportunity to answer the question everyone has been asking his entire career – when will he finally care?

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jun 6, 2011