- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Exactly a year ago, Antonio Bryant's couch was among the world's most uncomfortable seats.
Week after week, that's where Bryant sat, knowing he was better than most of the wide receivers he watched on television. The torture didn't come so much from the fact Bryant wasn't allowed to play in the NFL as it did from the realization that he put himself in that situation.
A practice jersey thrown in the face of former Dallas coach Bill Parcells and his frequent upstaging of young quarterback Alex Smith in San Francisco left Bryant with a reputation as a bad guy. But his arrest for driving his Lamborghini over 100 mph, driving under the influence and resisting arrest set him apart from the legions of flamboyant wide receivers who push the lines on the football field.
Bryant had gone way over the line and that's why he wound up on the couch and out of football for the entire 2007 season. That's why Bryant showed up in Jon Gruden's office in February asking -- more accurately, begging -- for one thing.
"All I asked Gruden for was a chance to compete," Bryant said. "That's all I wanted."
That's why Bryant said he didn't even look at the one-year $605,000 contract (with the possibility for $50,000 more in incentives) before he signed it.
As it turns out, the Bucs, who often get criticized for taking shots on troubled players (see David Boston) might have gotten the single-best deal in this year's free-agency period. The guy who was suspended for part of last season and unable to get on with any team after reports of a positive drug test surfaced, has turned out to be one of 2008's best receivers.
Through nine games, Bryant has 45 catches for 566 yards and two touchdowns. He's gone from not even knowing if he'd make the roster at the start of training camp to being Tampa Bay's No. 1 receiver, arguably the Bucs' best offensive player and perhaps even a Pro Bowl candidate.
"He does everything I ask," Tampa Bay receivers coach Richard Mann said. "He really works on the details and he's punctual and dedicated. He's been a good guy here. We don't look at the past. He's been good in the receivers room.
"Guys have a tendency to go in a shell when they join a new team and have to deal with new teammates and new coaches. With the success he's had and being around us for a while now, I think he's feeling really comfortable now and feels good about where he's at right now."
Bryant should feel good about where he's at right now. Part of it is a change in attitude, prompted by the past and part of it is circumstances.
First, the change. You could look at it as simply as Bryant, 27, just decided to grow up. But there was a lot more to it than that.
"I definitely went through a very a humbling experience," Bryant said. "But I'm glad I did now because it helped me to get to where I'm at right now. And it helped me understand and be more focused and knowing exactly what I need to do to get in this position and stay in this position. I feel a lot better about everything."
In the process, Bryant says he learned some things about himself -- things he likes.
"I like to go in my little zone," Bryant said. "I like being more focused now and I like having my goals set in place and having the drive to go get them. I know more now what I want out of this game and I know more now why I'm playing. Before, I was just freelancing and just thinking I could just show up on game day. I'm taking it a lot more seriously now."
That plays into the circumstances, which also have played a role in Bryant's emergence. It's more than a little ironic that a talented guy, who used to keep screwing up his career with his own mistakes, now is thriving because of what's happening with others.
At the start of camp, Bryant was viewed as a fourth or fifth receiver, if he was lucky enough to make the team. But Joey Galloway kept getting hurt, Ike Hilliard kept getting older and Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall didn't do anything to set themselves apart.
Bryant leaped right over them all. He started from Day 1 and was so good in Galloway's spot that he kept it when the veteran receiver finally got healthy. In a season where offensive consistency hasn't
been Tampa Bay's strength, Bryant has become the most consistent threat on the offense and a big part of the reason Tampa Bay is 6-3 and very much in the NFC South race.
For the first time in a long time -- maybe even for the first time in his career -- Bryant has found satisfaction and peace.
"It makes me feel good to know that I've done what I said I was going to do and people knowing that I was a man of my word," Bryant said. "When I said I was going to shut it down and stay focused, I did."
In some circles, that might even be referred to as growth. Bryant just says he's proud that he's living up to the promise he made Gruden about staying out of trouble.
"It's really been a great story, gratifying to watch," Mann said. "He's done well for himself. I'm glad for him because he's worked for it and he deserves it. But this story's not over yet."
Mann went on to explain how Bryant has continued to get better and better each week and how his chemistry with Jeff Garcia, who missed a chunk of games earlier in the season, is still a work in progress. The rust from last year is long gone, but there still is more Bryant can do to get better.
Bryant knows that. And the Bucs also know they've got a No. 1 wide receiver with plenty of upside. Bryant said the Bucs haven't approached him or his agent about a contract extension that would bring his pay more in line with his production. But Bryant's not worried about that. In the last year, he's learned that things will work out the way you want, if you keep doing the right things.
"I'm comfortable and I've got a lot more patience than I ever did before," Bryant said. "At the end of the day, I want to stay in one place and be complete. Right now, I'm just trying to maximize my opportunity that coach Gruden and coach Mann have given me and keep giving them everything I've got."