A Troubled Past: Looking at the Tumultuous Career of Antonio Bryant

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As we all know by now, the Seattle Seahawks have signed Antonio Bryant to the 90-man, meaning that he'll have a chance in training camp to prove that he's worthy of returning to the NFL. "Worthy" meaning that his knee his healthy and that he can still get it done at the age of 31 and almost three years after his last NFL catch. He believes that he is and last month he told Danny O'Neil that it's amazing how ready to go he is after sitting around doing nothing:

"I feel like you couldn't find another human being to come out here from being dormant and do this," Bryant said after practice. "They probably would have quit or their body would have fell apart. So I feel good about that, and just being able to progress, not pass out, and finish all my practices, so it felt good."

That sounds very encouraging to Seahawks fans that Bryant, a two-time 1,000 yard receiver, is feeling so good. Pete Carroll didn't exactly agree at the time:

"He's not in very good shape, but he's very natural," Carroll said. "He's got terrific instincts for catching the football and getting in and out of breaks."

Ouch. Carroll noted at the time, now almost six weeks ago, that if he gets into "great condition" they would look into signing him. I guess we can assume that he did make strides in his conditioning since as of today, he is a Seahawk. Whether or not he remains a Seahawk remains to be seen, but his career has been anything but boring. A long history of locker room battles, disputes with head coaches, and an undeniable talent for playing football, have kept Bryant in the headlines and on our minds to the point where he can still get a job in the NFL and also keep the off-season interesting.

Here is a deeper look at the career of Antonio Bryant, as told through the headlines.

Talent has never been the issue with Antonio Bryant. You'll often hear him talk about how great he is and the frustrating part about that is that he could have been right. As one of the top football recruits in the nation, Bryant chose to attend the University of Pittsburgh. It seems like you could look back at it now and say, "Well yeah, Pitt had Larry Fitzgerald. They produce receivers." Except that Bryant was like the Pitt Panther that started it all.

As a sophomore at Pitt, Bryant won the Biletnikoff Award in 2000 as the nation's top receiver. He was the second receiver in history, along with Randy Moss, to win the award as a sophomore. He finished the year with 1,302 yards, a Big East record. He was also the first Panther to be named First Team All-American in fifteen years. Everything was looking up for Bryant, a player that could go down as one of the best receivers in college football history. But there were issues...

In July of 2001, Bryant was arrested for using a plane ticket that was purchased with a stolen debit card, part of a string of problems. It didn't even start there though. Bryant had numerous behavior problems at the University of Pittsburgh, after he was arrested in January of that year for arguing a parking violation, and had also been suspended from the team twice in spring drills. The Panthers were trying to promote Bryant as a 2001 Heisman Trophy candidate, but Bryant was promoting himself as a headache.

Said head coach Walt Harris after he was suspended for a "temper tantrum" in scrimmage:

"He is not a part of the team."

Remember that Harris is saying this about one of the best players he's ever coached. The best player on his team. The guy that was supposed to lead Pitt into the next era of football at Pitt. Even then, other players on the team thought he was getting special treatment, as players are quoted as being overheard to say, "They didn't put up with that (stuff) with Barlow."

Of course, they meant to say "Shit" but they couldn't print that in the Gazette in 2001. Thank God for blogs! The players were referring to Kevan Barlow who was suspended for 14 of 15 spring practices for bad behavior. It seems that they at least thought Bryant was as bad as Barlow with his attitude, but wasn't getting punished nearly as bad. Before the 2001 season, Pittsburgh Sport Report interviewed Bryant about his off-season trouble. His response seemed to answer none of the questions of "What happened?" and instead he seemed to push the blame elsewhere:

When you do well, and you get to the top, people try to knock you down. So it IS lonely at the top, you know, man, it is. But you have to deal with that. Where I come from that's just the way it is. Deal with it, and move past it. So that's what I've done.

It seems like he's saying that the campus officer that cited him for a parking violation was trying to "knock him down" and so it turned the situation into an arrest. His coach Walt must have been trying to "knock him down" for not practicing and participating. The police were trying to "knock him down" for not letting him purchase plane tickets with stolen debit cards. Why is the world trying to hold Bryant down from being able to be above the law? Doesn't seem fair.

Bryant dealt with injuries as a junior and did not win the Heisman. He finished with 42 catches for 659 yards and 9 touchdowns as he also faced more double teams, which probably upset him. Upset him to the point where he threw a punch at Mike Rumph in a game against Miami in which he was held to 39 yards. That only drew him a warning, but Bryant's head was already out of the game:

When did he know Bryant was discouraged? ''I looked over on the sideline and he was cussing the quarterback out,'' Rumph said. ''That's when I knew we had him frustrated.''

He ended the year on a high note as the Panthers rallied from a 1-5 start to beat NC State in the Tangerine Bowl with Bryant winning MVP honors. Here's what he told the press about his chances of returning to Pitt:

Despite what some believe was Bryant's last college game, he gave no indication he was ready for the pros.

"God has blessed me so that I can walk through the door and look and see what's out there," said Bryant, who caught all seven of his passes for 101 yards in the opening half as the Panthers built a 24-10 lead.

"But I never said I was leaving. A scholarship is for four years, and I like playing college football right now. It's exciting."

But Bryant decided to make that money and declared for the draft.

I remember the 2002 draft pretty clearly, because it's a "Who's Who" list of failed wide receivers. There were a lot of guys that I really thought were going to be good to great but then fell off of the map. Bryant was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round, 63rd overall, and the tenth wide receiver taken. That who's who of receivers taken ahead of him:

Donte Stallworth, Ashley Lelie, Javon Walker, Jabar Gaffney, Josh Reed (my personal favorite), Tim Carter, Andre Davis, Reche Caldwell, and Antwaan Randle El.

Remember that just a year earlier, Bryant was considered better than all of these players. But the 6'1" Bryant ran a 4.57 40 at the combine (after reportedly running a 4.34 before his junior season) and had all of those problems with discipline, coaching, and obeying the law. Frankly, Bryant had the talent to be a first round pick, and maybe the top receiver drafted, but when you look at the whole picture he had to fall to late in the second round to a coach in Bill Parcells that is always willing to look at talent over attitude.

That decision looked pretty good to begin with. He played in all sixteen games as a rookie in 2002, fifteen starts, and caught 44 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns. Playing with Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter on the league's 31st ranked offense, Bryant had a stellar season with 16.7 yards per catch. He capped it off with 7 catches for 170 yards against the Redskins in the final game of the year.

Yup, Bryant with all the talent in the world would just prove to be good enough to overcome any "attitude" problems he may have had. You see, those were just misunderstandings in college and now that he's getting paid to play, he's going to be worth all of the trouble. From Randy Moss to Terrell Owens to Chad Ochocinco, we just need to understand that receivers are good enough to do this and Parcells made the perfect decision in the second round. You see, Parcells just knows more than us and we should- oh, he just threw a jersey in Parcells face. Yeah, forget what I had just said because Bryant just threw a jersey into the face of a Hall of Fame coach.

After Bryant threw his No. 88 jersey to the ground in a fit of anger over his lack of repetitions as the third receiver, Parcells flung the jersey back at Bryant only to have it balled up and thrown back in his face. Bryant was then escorted by security off the Valley Ranch premises.

Cowboys coach Bill Parcells reportedly told Bryant during the offseason: "I've got one more good fight left in me. Don't let it be with you."

This all happened after Bryant did not follow up his rookie season with improvement. In 2003, he had 39 catches for 550 yards and was upset that he was playing behind Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn, and then the team added Keyshawn Johnson as a Galloway replacement in the offseason. Bryant was upset even though the Cowboys had gone from 5-11 to 10-6.

Somewhere in one of those links (I think the interview pre-Junior season) Bryant emphasizes the importance of winning over own personal gain. That if the team is doing well, he's doing well. I guess that only matters in college.

Oddly enough, this incident with Parcells had happened shortly after the coach famously used the word "Jap" so it seems he wasn't necessarily ready to start throwing character assassinations around. That doesn't mean that the gun hadn't been loaded yet to shoot Bryant out of Dallas like an old Texas western. As soon as the timing was right, Bryant would be gone.

The Cowboys traded him to Cleveland at the NFL trading deadline for Quincy Morgan in 2004, just two years after being drafted and just one year after an excellent rookie season that showcased his immense talent. Players that can produce big numbers and be traded often offer only one explanation: "This guy is not worth the headache." Do you have any idea how much of a headache you have to be to not be worth it in sports? Where winning is #1. Basically, your team is telling the world that you're attitude is actually detrimental to the organization in such a way that it completely eliminates whatever amount of talent you have.

He didn't have much trouble acclimating to the Browns, despite how difficult it can be to learn a new playbook mid-season, but Bryant had games against the Bengals and Patriots in which he topped 100 yards and two touchdowns in both. He finished the year with a career-high 58 catches for 812 yards split between Dallas and Cleveland. Reports coming out from Cleveland during the 2005 pre-season showed "Bryant's attitude with Browns much better":

"He made a very average pass look good - he attacked the football in the air. When you have guys that will do that for you, and I have not had many of those in my career, it makes you willing to make more aggressive decisions in plays."

"I would like to see a lot more of that from him"

That's Trent Dilfer talking about Bryant prior to the year. Backup Charlie Frye said, "I've never seen a guy run routes like he does."

Talent. There was still no denying it. The talent of Antonio Bryant was the kind of talent that made NFL veterans and coaches say, "Wow." The kind that these guys, who have seen it all, stop and admire in practice. From college to the pros, Bryant still seemed to stand in a class above most players on the field. If only talent was all that mattered.

Bryant was going to be a free agent after 2005, and he responded with more career highs: 69 catches, 1,009 yards. However, he only caught four touchdowns and he didn't top 100 yards until the final game of the year, and there were criticisms that go beyond just having a "1000 yard" season. Head coach Romeo Crennel wasn't shy about "A.B." and his failures:

"Antonio hasn't been everything we wanted him to be," Crennel said this week. "The reason is his inconsistency. His drops. If he hadn't dropped those balls, we'd be good with his production."

Cleveland had no problem saying "bye bye" to Bryant after the year, despite him having twice as many yards as hot-shot rookie Braylon Edwards, who was second on the team. He had the yardage, but he lacked everything else you'd probably ask for in a receiver. Where stats lie and reality sets in.

(The NFL is so odd and coincidental, by the way. The teams that Bryant has played for, the connections to the Seahawks, the connections to other players. For instance, the fact that Bryant and Braylon Edwards played together in 2005 on the Browns and then both tried out for the Seahawks recently with Bryant actually beating out Edwards. Or that he played with Kellen Winslow in Tampa. Just weird.)

But obviously the improved attitude wasn't enough to even have his own head coach in his corner and Bryant signed a 4-year, $14 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. (By comparison, Edwards had a $40 million rookie contract with Cleveland. I do not miss those rookie contracts.)

He started out well, topping 100 yards in each of his first two games of the season, but Bryant sputtered along for the rest of the year. With 32 catches for 488 yards in his final 12 games, Bryant no longer had the production to even try to make up for everything else. That "everything else" didn't stop in San Francisco and may have erupted to new standards.

His first mistake was probably playing for Mike Nolan, despite the fact that Bryant had already shown a major problem with authority. Being "Antonio Bryant" and showing up for late team meetings was going to cause a problem. He was arrested in November of 2006 for reportedly driving over 100 MPH while drunk in an orange Lamborghini. Nolan and the 49ers did what they had to do, especially after a substance abuse violation that would result in a suspension, and waived him after just one season.

He spent the 2007 season basically trying to get back into the league and going to court over a failed drug test in the summer but by then his season was lost.

If you don't know by now that the NFL (or any sports/entertainment organization) is all about second or fifth chances, welcome. I'm surprised you've read this entire thing so far. If a team thinks you have the talent to help them win and make money, you'll get a job. Despite the fact that Bryant had numerous run-ins with the law, disputes with head coaches dating all the way back to college (at least), problems with authority, and questions about behavior, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Bryant in March of 2008 for the veteran minimum.

Perhaps for the first time, the talent finally won out over everything else.

Bryant had 83 catches for 1,248 yards including a 9-catch, 200 yard game against the Panthers on Monday Night Football. Per Football-Outsiders, Bryant caught 60% of his targets, which seems really high for a player that had his history of drops.

Did the player who had everything a coach could ask for in terms of talent finally calm himself down off of the field, listen to his coaches, and focus on being a better football player in every aspect of the game?

The Bucs chose to take a chance on the enigmatic wideout last offseason and the gamble is looking smarter with each week.

"He's settling in," receivers coach Richard Mann said. "Being comfortable makes a difference."

So does being confident.

Bryant, 27, was asked how he's managed to resume playing at such a high level after such an extended time away.

"I'm me," he said.

The Bucs assigned him with the franchise tag, which he signed before the 2009 season. I asked Sander of Bucs Nation about what went wrong in 2009, when he had just 39 catches for 600 yards in 13 games:

Playing with Byron Leftwich, Josh Johnson and a rookie Josh Freeman didn't help - but mostly it was just the knee

injury that limited him throughout the 2009 season. He still showed some skills at times, but he missed a lot of

time and didn't look healthy toward the end of his season. Incidentally, that same knee injury has kept him out of

football for two years now.

There were also some rumblings of freelancing as a route runner, but that was never really confirmed.

Asked if he got along with the coaching staff, finally:

Nope. He was a little too outspoken for the coaching staff/front office, though they never publicly commented on it.

During the season he openly criticized the way the team was using Josh Freeman, for instance. He's not a

company man, and he'll tell the media what he wants.

After the season, the Bucs decided not to re-sign Bryant, which was apparently news to his agent who had never even been contacted by Tampa. However, the Bengals felt that he'd be back to being a top receiver once his knee healed and signed him to a 4-year, $28 million contract. It only took five months for them to release him.

Antonio Bryant last caught an NFL pass on January 3rd, 2010, when he had 2 catches for 15 yards against the Atlanta Falcons while playing for Tampa. He has spent the 2010 and 2011 NFL seasons trying to recuperate from that knee injury and biding his time until a sixth team would decide to take a chance on him. That team is the Seattle Seahawks, although he still remains a longshot to make the final 53.

It's not because of the talent, or even the age, or even the knee. It's because the only thing that has ever held back Antonio Bryant was (cliche coming) Antonio Bryant. I'm not sure if Pete Carroll has really taken the best risk by signing Bryant, but we do know that he has taken a player who spent years out of the league before and helped guide him into being an NFL player again. Carroll relishes the opportunity to take talented players with shady personalities and turn them into the men that he thinks that they should be. I don't think that Mike Williams would be the person that he is or the player that he is, without Carroll's guidance in 2010. It's possible he would have never played again.

He's giving that same opportunity to a player that is not only more troubled than Williams, but a guy that perhaps has one of the sketchiest histories of any active player today. It's one thing to break into Top Pot Donuts or to even have more serious infractions with the law and then it's another thing to have a reputation as a guy that doesn't like authority, fights with coaches, and has repeatedly made very short trips to every team he's played for in the NFL. How many guys at his talent level have made four stops (five including Cincy) in seven years? There has to be something to it, right?

Who knows what kind of a man Bryant is as of today. It's possible that this two years has given him a new perspective on life and football and how those two things are supposed to peacefully co-exist. It's possible that each step forward really has been a step forward, even if marred by more infractions. Most people are a better man at 31 than they were at 21, right?

We can't say anything for sure right now, even if his comments in June about being the only human being to be able to do something are off-putting, but I know this: Carroll has challenged himself with a player perhaps more than any other challenge he's ever taken on. This is not a reclamation project, this is a depth move for a low-risk player that has perhaps been one of the most talented receivers to step on a field since his days at Pittsburgh.

The only question is how talented his character has become since then, when he steps off of it.

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