On the play that saved the season, let it be remembered that Antonio Bryant was wide open.
At the time, the Bucs were staring at disappointment, and the offense still looked like it wasn't good enough to last, and once again, you could feel the discontent spreading as quickly as the ticking of a clock.
Then Bryant did the most amazing thing. He took a pen, and he signed his name.
Just like that, everything changed for the Bucs.
Say what you will about Bryant's game-tying touchdown reception in the closing seconds against the Kansas City Chiefs Nov. 2. As of now, it feels like the first cut on this team's highlight film. Without it, this week — and this season — would feel drastically different.
Ah, but before Bryant made the biggest catch of the season, he was the biggest catch of the offseason. Before Jeff Garcia found him in the end zone, Bruce Allen found him on the discount rack.
If you are keeping score, the biggest play the Bucs have made this year came quietly on March 10. That's when general manager Allen plucked Bryant out of the recycled bin. The contract, like the fanfare, was for the minimum.
Let's be honest. When the Bucs signed Bryant, the trumpets did not blow. There were faster, flashier receivers out there, and most of them had at least played in the NFL the previous season. Bryant couldn't have caused less excitement if he had strapped cantaloupes to his biceps and changed his name to David Boston.
After all, this was supposed to be the offseason of the great wide-receiver chase, wasn't it? Everyone knew the Bucs needed more impact players on their offense, and everyone knew that Allen had money to spend. It just figured that Allen would drop by the wide receiver store and pick up two of these and one of those and, just like that, the Bucs offense would go electric.
And instead, the most popular pattern in the NFL seemed to be down-and-somewhere-else.
Overnight, other teams acted as if every receiver available was a lottery winner. Bernard Berrian signed with the Vikings for six years and $43.6-million. Donte Stallworth signed with the Browns for seven years and $35-million. Jerry Porter signed with the Jags for six years and $30-million. Incredibly, Javon Walker signed with the Raiders for six years and $55-million.
Yeah, the contracts were staggering. But was it possible that all of those teams could be wrong and the Bucs could be right?
As it turns out, yeah, they could.
Berrian is off to a good start with 30 catches for 621 yards. But Stallworth has 11 catches for 104 yards. Walker has 15 catches for 196. Porter has five for 77. That's a lot of cash per catch.
And Bryant? For his $605,000 salary, he has 45 catches for 566 yards. When you consider that in the Bucs' two closest victories — overtime wins over Chicago and Kansas City — Bryant has combined for 18 catches and 253 yards, you cannot help but shudder if you think about what this Bucs season might have looked like without him. If this season still has possibilities, in other words, it is because of the improbable season of a receiver the league left behind.
That's the thing about receivers. As quarterbacks will tell you, it isn't hard to find a receiver. It's hard to find the right one. For crying out loud, does the name "Alvin Harper'' mean nothing around here anymore?
In other words, it's a difficult thing to project just how a wide receiver is going to fit. The Bucs can tell you about that, too. After all, if they came up with the catch of free agency, so far, their drafting of Dexter Jackson in the second round looks pretty much like a dropped ball.
Look, the disappointment with Jackson isn't that he hasn't made an impact as a rookie. Out of the 10 receivers picked in the second round, only two have more than 25 catches, and only four have more than 10. The disappointment with Jackson is that he hasn't given anyone a reason to believe he will be a player in the future.
It's a shame, because the Bucs could use a young, talented receiver who is ready to work his way into a retooled receiving corps as the season enters its stretch run and injuries mount.
If not for Bryant, perhaps you would hear more talk of Jackson's struggles. If not for Bryant, perhaps you would hear more frustration about Joey Galloway's injuries. If not for Bryant, perhaps you would hear more about an offense that still doesn't make enough big plays.
That's what a great receiver can do. For all the plays gone wrong, he can make the end zone possible.
Sometimes, he can make it look like a bargain.