Despite it being "Mike Alstott Appreciation Night" in Tampa, it wasn't the Bucs' smash-mouth ground attack that set the tone. Instead, it was the performance of a certain wide receiver.
In front of a national TV audience on NBC's Sunday Night Football, Antonio Bryant proved he was back to his best with a 47-yard touchdown catch, only minutes into the game. As Seattle's Kelly Jennings fell, Bryant made a simple catch and ran the remaining yards untouched, into the end zone.
A suspended free-agent who spent the duration of the 2007 season "on the couch", the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a gamble on the somewhat troublesome wide-out. With Bryant's second 100-yard performance of the season coupled with his first touchdown in a Bucs uniform, head coach Jon Gruden was evidently delighted.
“He’s a heck of a receiver. He’s made a lot of plays here. He started the season at flanker, moved over to split end when Joey (Galloway) got hurt. He’s a guy that can catch the football, he can get deep, he can run all the routes, he’s big and good after the catch. He’s got all the criteria that we’re looking for at the receiver position. I think he could be a great receiver in this league, and that’s what we’re going to hold him to.”
Bryant's six-year career has not been without some controversy. In Dallas, he threw a towel in Bill Parcells' face. He was traded soon after. He had two solid years in Cleveland before he moved to San Francisco, where he and Mike Nolan did not see eye-to-eye. Gruden, however, is unconcerned.
“This is a guy that won the Biletnikoff Award at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s a second-round draft choice, started opposite Michael Irvin as a rookie, had 1,000 yards in ‘05 with the Browns, led the 49ers in receiving in ‘06. He’s got talent, that’s never been a question. I really give him a lot of credit.
I think Antonio recognizes the future’s now, you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity. And that he is. He’s leading our team, really, from an offensive standpoint. He’s at the top of the board in terms of effort. He’s been a team guy and I’m really happy for his success. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be an outstanding receiver for the Bucs.”
With a six-catch, 115-yard performance in a 20-10 win against Seattle, Bryant seems to be proving any doubters wrong with his head-down, hard-work attitude. With the Bucs at 5-2, a trip to Bryant's first team, the beleaguered Dallas Cowboys, awaits.
With Joey Galloway's return uncertain, the Bucs will lean on Bryant again. And in Dallas on Sunday, he will be happy to oblige.