Bryant using breakthrough season to repair image

Antonio Bryant wants to set the record straight.

There is a rap sheet on him, fuzzy with details, that he feels compelled to disprove. At a time when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver should be moving on with his life, Bryant just can’t shake the past.

“You got guys who beat manslaughter charges. You got all kinds of dudes with off-the-field problems,” says Bryant, who’s with his fourth NFL team in six seasons. “I don’t beat girlfriends. I don’t have a [expletive] babysitter. But there’s this stigma that Antonio Bryant is a character question.

Photo Bryant pulls down one of his nine catches vs. Carolina.
(Getty/Streeter Lecka)

“They talk about baggage, but talk about the baggage. Name it. They ain’t got nothing.”

Yet, enough people bought into this characterization of Bryant as a bad apple that he spent the entire 2007 season away from the NFL. Now, he provides rare insight on his run-ins with two coaches, including one he calls “The Godfather,” and a questionable driving incident that resulted in a four-game suspension that, along with a failed drug test, helped keep him out of the NFL last year.

Cowboy clash

His first publicized incident may haunt him the most.

During an offseason practice with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004, Bryant says he ran “dummy reps,” where he didn’t get the ball. Then veteran Keyshawn Johnson, who played for coach Bill Parcells with the Jets and was acquired in a trade that year, steps in for several plays and gets the ball thrown to him each time.

“I snapped,” says Bryant, a 2002 second-round NFL draft pick by Dallas.

“It was probably a tough situation for Antonio,” said then-Cowboys receivers coach Todd Haley, now offensive coordinator of the Cardinals. “He’s there, and he gets a new receivers coach, and they bring in Keyshawn, and they know each other.”

From that point, there wasn’t much harmony between the two sides. Bryant, noted for his good hands and explosiveness, was also labeled as easily “distractible” by Haley.

“When I was with him, he had some things going on, with family and things, that he had to deal with, that prevented him from being everything he could be,” Haley says. “At that time, he was a distractible player; he let too much get to him. Whatever the subject was, it kept him from practicing and performing and being a dependable player.”

Bryant disputes the claim – “That’s a [expletive] excuse,” he says – and still insists that Haley did not fulfill his promise that “the best players are going to start.”

The tension got worse when Parcells intervened during a testy moment between Bryant and Johnson at practice in June. After some heated words and the tossing of Bryant’s jersey, a final throw landed in Parcells’ face.

“I threw it back at him, and said, ‘Don’t ever throw nothing at me.’ ”

And that, more than anything, Bryant believes, has made him a polarizing figure in NFL circles.

“He’s The Godfather,” Bryant says. “So all the coaches in the league say, ‘[Expletive], he’s got no regard for authority. I got no chance.’ ”

Yet Bryant says he and Parcells cleared the air, with the coach informing the receiver of his clashes with former Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Bryant says he has spoken to Parcells “on several occasions” and that the current Dolphins executive vice president “sends messages to me through other coaches.”

Among the messages: “Keep it up,” Bryant says.

(Parcells declined interview requests for this story, a Dolphins spokesman said last week.)

After five regular-season games, Bryant was traded to the Cleveland Browns for receiver Quincy Morgan. In 10 games for the Browns, Bryant caught 42 passes for 546 yards (both second on the team) as well as four touchdowns. But coach Butch Davis resigned after a 3-8 start, and Romeo Crennel was hired in the offseason.

In 2005, Bryant had his best NFL season, leading the Browns in catches (69), receiving yards (1,009 yards) and touchdowns (four).

Asked if he was aware of Bryant’s reputation before joining the Browns, receiver Dennis Northcutt says, “Absolutely. Who didn’t?

Photo Bryant and Parcells nearly two months after the jersey incident.
(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“He was known as the guy who threw the jersey in Bill Parcells’ face,” Bryant says. “People looked at him as a cancer to a team, a disgruntled player.”

Yet Bryant was a model player during his season and a half in Cleveland, Northcutt says.

“Cleveland had a lot of issues going on,” says Northcutt, who is now with the Jaguars. “At the time, we really had no foundation, so there was a lot going on. When Romeo came in, they were looking to make changes.

“You want guys you drafted, guys you bring in. Antonio wasn’t one of those guys.”

Niner for a season

During the 2006 offseason, Bryant signed a reported four-year, $14 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers, mainly to replace Brandon Lloyd, whom the team traded to the Redskins. Two months into the season, controversy struck.

After a 20-14 victory over the Seahawks in Week 11, Bryant was pulled over in his new orange Lamborghini for driving over 100 miles per hour. He was charged with suspicion of misdemeanor reckless driving, driving under the influence and resisting arrest.

“It was dumb,” Bryant says. “I was young. I got a piece of money, and I bought a Lamborghini, and I was trying to go very fast. But that’s the only stupid thing I was doing.”

Bryant acknowledges that he had a “heated exchange” with the police officer but that he was “yanked” out of his sports car and that his stuff was “thrown all over the place.” He also says he was never given a breathalyzer test and that he didn’t have a single drink that evening.

The following May, however, prosecutors dropped the two most serious charges (DUI and resisting arrest), citing a lack of evidence. Bryant pleaded no contest to reckless driving and was fined $1,312.

“It was funny,” he says. “At the end of the day, it was a speeding ticket.”

The incident, however, drew him a four-game suspension (final two of ’06 and first two of ’07). The 49ers released Bryant on March 1, 2007 – not just because of his arrest but also because of his conflicts with quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the ’05 draft.

Bryant says Smith operated under a different set of rules and that he was slow to pick up the 49ers offense.

“You go to practice, and you go over something over and over again,” Bryant says. “When are you going to figure this out?”

Then-49ers coach Mike Nolan says he mishandled his receiver and regretted the team’s decision to release him.

“He was the best receiver we had in San Francisco, in the time I was here,” says Nolan, fired by the 49ers in October. “Looking back on it, I actually made a mistake in letting him go. I think I put too much blame on Antonio, as far as his relationship with the quarterback.

“As it turns out, it was not all his doing. I blamed him for more than he should have been blamed for. There’s no question he was making more effort than I was made aware of. I truly regret that.”

Bryant, though, says his issues with Nolan go beyond the offense.

The 49ers insisted Bryant meet with them in Indianapolis during the NFL scouting combine. The club, according to Bryant, wanted him to undergo a psychological evaluation, which he begrudgingly agreed to do. He was then offended from the outset.

“A white woman comes in,” Bryant says, “and the first thing she said to me was, ‘I can help you. My husband is black.’

“Once she told me that, I looked at her like, ‘That was it.’ So I got a problem because I’m black? I felt insulted. Then she was asking me crazy questions.”

His problems didn’t end with the team releasing him. He failed a drug test over the summer. The league subsequently asked him to take a urinalysis three times in September and threatened to discipline him with a positive test if he didn’t cooperate. Bryant filed a lawsuit against the NFL for requiring him to submit to drug testing even though he was out of the league. The issue was resolved in December though details of the settlement weren’t disclosed, according to ESPN.com.

Despite some calls from teams, Bryant missed the entire 2007 season. Remarkably, Nolan says he wanted to bring Bryant back “several times” but was rebuffed by team officials.

“I didn’t have any leverage, at that point,” Nolan says.

One NFC personnel director says his team steered clear of the receiver in 2007 because of the “red flags” and in-house effort to avoid “character risks.”

“That was a part of our philosophy, at the time,” the director says.

Bryant says he became frustrated that inferior players were making plays and making dollars, and he was determined to get back into the league.

“I don’t want to sit on that couch again,” he says. “I know that I don’t want to have that feeling again. I thought, ‘This don’t make no sense, to be given this talent and not be able to help a team.’ ”

The Buc stops in Tampa

There were several suitors this offseason for Bryant, but he was impressed with Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden’s approach.

In their first meeting, before they even started talking, Gruden played a highlight reel of Bryant’s catches to the beat of an Eminem song.

“He said, ‘You still think you can make play like this?’ ” Bryant says. “I said, ‘What do you think?’ ”

Bryant was also impressed with the Bucs leaders, including quarterback Jeff Garcia, whom he played with in Cleveland.

Before he signed his one-year contract for the league minimum for a veteran of his tenure ($605,000), Bryant told Gruden, “You know you’re getting more than you’re paying for.”

The Bucs return on the modest investment: he is the No. 1 weapon on a 12th ranked offense, with 28 more catches and 585 more yards than the next closest receiver, veteran Ike Hilliard. He’s been such a force this season that he’s relegated Joey Galloway, who topped 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons and 23 touchdowns during that span, to the bench.

“We’ve kind of moved on a little bit,” Gruden recently said of Galloway, who was sidelined earlier in the season with a broken foot.

Bryant’s brilliance kept the Buccaneers in the game against the Panthers Monday night. He finished with nine catches, 200 yards and two scores, including snatching a bullet from Garcia in the back of the end zone with only his left (non dominant) hand for a 15-yard touchdown in the final three minutes.

“That guy just has glue in his fingers,” Garcia said after the game. “One of the best catches I’ve seen in a long time.”

But Bryant has been making plays all season, which is why Garcia said late last month that the offense was trying to get him the ball more often because “he’s just an animal on the field.”

“He plays the game with such intensity, and such passion,” Garcia said at the time. “He is a rare breed.”

Nolan figures that’s Bryant’s secret.

“I tried to keep him on the straight and narrow,” Nolan says, “but he lives on the edge quite a bit.

“That’s the kind of player you want. You don’t want him to jump, but you want him to stay on the edge. If you get a team full of good guys, you typically aren’t any good at all.”

Nolan says he learned something else about Bryant that many people do not know: he’s highly intelligent and in-tune to what’s happening around him.

Bryant was in Nolan’s office once, and they were talking about leadership in the locker room. Figuring Bryant didn’t have a pulse of the team, Nolan challenged him to identify the leaders. On a single piece of paper, Bryant listed clear leaders, potential leaders and players who were not leaders.

Photo Nolan and Bryant experienced abrupt exits from the 49ers.
(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

“He listed every player without looking at a depth chart or anything else,” Nolan says. “He put every player in one of three different categories, and I would say he and I were 95 percent in agreement.

“No one would have thought that he cared about anyone else. That he was selfish. But I tell you what, I don’t think anyone else on the team would have known that.”

Nolan still has that piece of paper.

Bryant doesn’t shy away from his bold personality – “I do everything from my heart,” he says. But, more than anything, Bryant wants to convey that he is a team player and that he is more concerned about wins than stats.

In the second quarter of Monday’s game, Bryant hauled in a long pass down the left sideline, but he was ruled out at the Panthers’ two-yard line. Four plays later, the Bucs settled for a 20-yard field goal.

On Tuesday, Bryant paid $25 to a pot the receivers keep for making mistakes and errors.

“I should have gotten into the end zone,” Bryant says. “I should have had the ball in the other hand.”

For now, Bryant isn’t worried about reaching 1,000 yards, scoring a new long-term contract, winning Comeback Player of the Year or making the Pro Bowl roster. He’s envisioning a long postseason run.

“We want the Super Bowl at home,” Bryant says, referring to Super Bowl XLIII, which will be played Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium. “I can come back off the couch and get in the history books by playing in a Super Bowl.”

Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.