Despite his strong start to the 2008 season, WR Antonio Bryant doesn't consider his comeback complete just yet
Hours before any fans filled Soldier Field last Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Bryant stood alone on the turf and gazed around the empty stadium, soaking everything in.
"Most of the time, before that stadium fills up, I want to already just be in the stadium and see everything there is to see, so when I'm in the game, I'm in the game," Bryant said.
It's entirely understandable that Bryant would spend some time before games trying to get re-acclimated to raucous stadiums and hostile crowds after sitting out the entire 2007 season. But he also poked fun at himself when explaining his pregame routine.
"I'm an anxious, hyper person. My attention span is very short, so I lose focus quickly," Bryant deadpanned. "I just sit there and picture things that can occur during the game, see plays being made on the field and just look in the stands and look at all the pretty pictures and posters and stuff and get that out of my system early, before the stadium fills up and it becomes what it becomes."
Whatever was going through his mind during those solitary moments in Soldier Field must have worked. A few hours after his pregame meditation session, Bryant drove a dagger through the Chicago fans' hearts with his career-high 10 catches for 138 yards, including a 38-yard grab that set up the game-winning field goal.
Perhaps that's precisely the performance he envisioned as he stood alone on the field hours before kickoff. Either way, Bryant's breakout performance was just the latest stepping stone on his path to redemption.
After cracking 1,000 yards the last time he played all 16 games in a season, with the Cleveland Browns in 2005, Bryant has been working hard to capitalize on the opportunity Head Coach Jon Gruden and the Buccaneers presented to revitalize a once-promising career.
"I'm just competing and taking advantage of an opportunity I didn't have last year," Bryant said. "Some people may not ever know how that feels until they're sitting at home not able to play and watching everybody else play, which I did. I had that experience, so I know what I want to get out of this game now."
That drive and motivation piqued Gruden's interest this offseason as the Bucs pondered bringing Bryant aboard. Although he didn't suit up for a team last season, Gruden believed the hard-working Bryant was still fit enough to bring his outstanding athleticism and playmaking ability to the table.
"He wasn't really on the couch," Gruden said. "He was working out. Hopefully, I think, he was looking to get one more opportunity to show that he belongs in the league and what kind of man and receiver he can be. He's in great shape. He's the first guy here. I see him in the lobby at 6:00 a.m. waiting for [Wide Receivers] Coach [Richard] Mann to get here, 5:30 a.m. He never missed a day in the offseason. He's in tremendous shape."
The ever-confident Bryant credited some of his intangibles as reasons why he has been able to revive his career, but did admit it took some time to get back into the swing of things.
"I just missed a season, really. That's just how I look at it," Bryant said. "I really didn't feel I was going to lose much. I know how to work, and I know that hard work pays off. I still have confidence in myself.
"Knowing that these guys were already well-conditioned and coming back, you only get about a month-and-a-half, two months off before you start back training," Bryant continued. "I just kept myself in small workouts. Nothing too physical, but just enough to come in here and compete with these guys. So when I came in and started working out, I wasn't too far behind. You could tell I was a little bit rusty in some things I know I can do well as far as catching the ball in certain positions. Actually the first time I got out here and got pressed, I actually beat one of my teammates deep but I dropped the ball, wide open. Just little things like that."
Three games into the season, Bryant seems to be back in form. And if his fitness level was ever in question, running precise, full-speed routes deep into the overtime period against a Bears defense that was visibly tired put those worries to rest.
The sixth-year veteran said getting back into a rhythm was just a matter of getting some live action under his belt.
"I don't think it had to be regular season [games], I think just playing period, and just competing on that level was what I needed," Bryant said. "Practice and doing little scrimmages is totally a different tempo than a game. That's why I was glad that we experienced that Chicago game and had a playoff atmosphere, a playoff-type feel to it, early on in the season. It'll probably help us and bring us out to some more tough games down the line."
Aside from the physical aspects of getting back into tip-top shape, Bryant also had to get readjusted to the mental strain of not only learning a brand new playbook but mastering it.
That part of his game seems to be razor sharp as well, and Bryant gave much of the credit to the support of his teammates and coaches.
"It's a great offense," Bryant said. "I just think it's being comfortable around the people that bring you in and having Coach Gruden and Coach Mann and guys that are willing to help you, quarterbacks and people willing to explain and understand what's going on. Knowing how the parts of this machine work and being able to be comfortable within it allows you to play well. That's how I look at it."
Bryant gave particular notice to Mann, his position coach.
"He brings an understanding of the offense and allowing me to just be me and giving me respect," Bryant said. "He understands I'm a grown man, but I need to take care of my business. He gives me that cushion to do that. He doesn't necessarily over-coach or under-coach. It's just anything that he knows specifically that can help in a game, he says, 'Hey, I'm going to tell you this and you can take it or leave it. You can use it or don't use it.'
"But obviously for a guy with the type of status he has and the guys that he's coached and how long he's been around the game, you're going to listen to a lot of the things that he says because it's been done before. He's not just saying it because of what he thinks, it's because of experience. I take a lot of things he tells me to use, little techniques, and even though I've been this far along in the game, everything is helpful."
As confident in his abilities as he is, even after the year-long layoff, Bryant isn't about to become complacent after his outstanding day in Chicago. The payoff for him – and the full realization of his comeback effort – won't come until he's able to stare around an empty Raymond James Stadium before a certain big game this February.
"I really can't look up," Bryant said. "I'm the type of guy – I'm a dreamer, but I do honestly believe hard work pays off. I'm going to keep my head down and keep driving, because that's the ultimate goal – to end up right here in this very locker room when it's time to get ready and go across the street and play in the Super Bowl."