TAMPA — Jon Gruden lives by a simple principle: Tape tells no lies.
So when the Bucs coach first attempted to evaluate receiver Antonio Bryant, he relied on the best tool he knew. Gruden liked what he saw so much, he had to share.
When Bryant, then a free agent, visited, Gruden made sure the player saw for himself.
"He put together a highlight film and asked me if I still had that," said Bryant, in the process of reviving his career with the Bucs. "I told him, 'Yeah, I still got that — plus a little bit more.' ''
Gruden, too, had a little extra. There was something more on that tape, perhaps intended to inspire Bryant.
"I just wanted him to see himself making great plays," Gruden said.
"And then I cut a few clips of my favorite receiver: Jerry Rice. He was a workaholic, a passionate football player. I watched Jerry Rice work against double coverage and triple coverage for years. It's about maximizing your potential."
If Bryant does that, he just might live down his reputation as a hothead, known more for run-ins with coaches than being a go-to receiver.
A prerequisite, both Gruden and Bryant agree, was Bryant deciding to be coachable. Nothing he has done since his acquisition in March suggests he won't be.
"I told him if you do that, you should be a guy that's one hell of an NFL receiver," Gruden said. "You're a young guy. You have your whole life in front of you. I said, 'Let's open the book here and write a new chapter and move on.' ''
Bryant, 27, seemingly has devoted himself to transforming not only his image but his attitude as he enters his sixth season. He admits to his sometimes hardheaded ways.
But when he was released by the 49ers before last season while suspended by the NFL and spent 2007 "on the couch," it brought him to this career crossroads.
"Everybody knows what I'm capable of doing because they've been around me and seen me play this game for a while," Bryant said. "But I'm taking a more mature approach and a more professional approach."
He continues to prove himself from a discipline standpoint, but what about football? That's coming along just fine, coaches say.
"I kind of follow college football. But I forgot he was the best receiver in the whole country,'' receivers coach Richard Mann said of the winner of the 2001 Biletnikoff Award (nation's best receiver) from Pittsburgh. "He's a very, very good player."
Good thing because the Bucs will lean heavily on him after doing little in the offseason to upgrade a mediocre receiving corps. Bryant stopped short of saying he has earned a roster spot with final cuts on Aug. 30.
"You never know," he said.
But he has made a compelling case, leading Tampa Bay in receiving in the preseason with five catches for 57 yards, including a 33-yarder. He brings a blend of size (6 feet 1, 205 pounds), speed (see his end-around against New England on Sunday) and toughness the team sorely needs.
His on-field success coupled with his attitude adjustment has Bryant starting to look more like the complete package.
"I couldn't care less what kind of problems he had somewhere else," Gruden said. "Somebody's got to call the plays. That's just football, whether it's elementary, junior high or high school. There's discipline behind it. I don't try to belittle anybody. I try to motivate them, and I'm going to try to be aggressive and urgent. This is a team game, and we need team players.
"I really think he's bought in."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3377.