The game-tying touchdown catch in Kansas City was just the latest of WR Antonio Bryant's exploits this season
Prior to the beginning of the NFL's 2008 season, much of the talk surrounding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers revolved around the team's search for another playmaking option at wide receiver to pair up with veteran speedster Joey Galloway.
Who would've guessed then that Antonio Bryant, the man the Bucs believed could fill that role but whose signing created little fanfare, would actually be tasked with helping fill in for Galloway?
Injuries kept Galloway out of the majority of training camp and the preseason and have limited him to just four games of action, 12 receptions and 134 yards so far this year, but Bryant has done an outstanding job picking up the slack.
Galloway has returned from his foot injury and played in each of the last two games and will continue his return to form as he gets re-acclimated into the Bucs' offense. But Bryant's contributions all season, with or without Galloway in the lineup, have been a key to the team's success on offense.
Through nine games, Bryant leads the team in receptions (45) and receiving yards (566) and is second on the club with his two touchdowns. Perhaps the most promising sign that the best is still to come for Bryant is that he has been on a roll as of late, posting two of his three 100-yard receiving games and both of his touchdowns within the last three games.
Considering that Bryant didn't take a snap in an NFL game in 2007, his resurgent performance in 2008 is all the more stunning. With elite speed, excellent hands and a knack for picking up yards after the catch, Bryant doesn't look like he's missed a beat since his days as a 1,000-yard receiver with the Browns in 2005, the last time he played 16 games in a season. In fact, on his current pace, Bryant would be in line for 80 catches and more than 1,000 yards this season as well.
All of his talents were on display in Kansas City last Sunday, as Bryant tallied eight catches for 115 yards and helped the Bucs to an improbable come-from-behind victory. Two of those catches were of the one-handed variety, including one amazing grab on which he tight-roped the sideline and snared the ball with one hand from behind the helmet of a Chiefs defender. But none of his catches were as critical as the 24-yard touchdown he hauled in with just 19 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
An Alex Smith two-point conversion after Bryant's score tied the game at 27 before the Bucs went on to win in overtime, but it was Bryant's toe-dragging grab just over the outstretched hands of a defender near the side of the end zone that drew praise from his teammates and coaches.
"He made a great catch," quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "It was one of those things where we saw so much Cover-Two throughout the day, knowing their safeties didn't have great lateral movement, I thought if I could pump inside and hold the corner down and keep the safety in, I might be able to give Antonio a shot outside, which is one of the things that we lacked [the previous] week [in Dallas] – taking a shot at the end zone late in the game. We took a shot and Antonio made a great catch. It just snuck by the corner and it was just a huge play."
Added Head Coach Jon Gruden: "It was Cover-Two. [Garcia] stuck the ball in between the corner and the safety. Protection held up, allowed Garcia to look left, look right and shove the ball into the void. What a great throw and catch. It was a real happy day in my life."
What might make Gruden's life even more pleasant is the rapport that seems to be building between Bryant and Garcia – 20 of Bryant's 45 catches on the year have come in the last three games, and some communication between the two early on in Kansas City helped set the stage for that late score.
"I think it was a play where we knew they were playing [Cover]-Two but the safeties weren't really true to covering the hole shot," Bryant said. "The whole game I was in Jeff's ear like, 'Hey man, that Cover-Two hole shot is going to be there.' I think he knew he had it in his back pocket and when he went to scramble, he went to his emergency outlet and I was there to make a play for him."
That Bryant – a man seeking to revive a once-promising NFL career – would help his new team dig out of its own hole in an important Week Nine game seems fitting. Bryant has impressed teammates and coaches with his work ethic and stick-to-it attitude ever since joining the Bucs, and those traits were crucial for the entire team in the Kansas City comeback, Bryant said.
"We just stuck in there," he explained. "It was up and down for us, a lot of turnovers. When you have turnovers like that, you're really not supposed to succeed. But looking into each other's eyes, we knew that we could pull it off and we just stuck with it.
"We've played some tough battles and we knew that Kansas City was going to come give us their best shot. They've got great talent, even though they're young, but they lost a lot of guys early and we just had to stick it out. They jumped out to an early start and it's kind of hard to come out of a slump like that in this league, but we did."
With Galloway rounding into form and becoming increasingly involved in the offense, an ever-physical Michael Clayton continuing to make plays when called upon and a trusty standby in Ike Hilliard, Garcia certainly has some options as the Bucs' quarterback when he drops back to pass.
But the true star in the Bucs' aerial attack so far has been Bryant, Gruden says, and the future continues to look promising for the rejuvenated veteran.
"He was a superstar [on Sunday], let's just be honest," Gruden said. "Two one-handed catches; an unbelievable catch on the touchdown to make it 27-25; after the catch; as a blocker – he was a great receiver on the tape I looked at [Monday] morning. He's our leading receiver and he's got two 100-yard games the last three outings. He's running all the routes. He's got great stamina and I'm really happy for him."