TAMPA — For some, the most memorable image of newly acquired Bucs receiver Antonio Bryant does not involve him scoring one of his 19 NFL touchdowns.
Keyshawn Johnson will always remember the moment Bryant went toe to toe with then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. Johnson was one of several Cowboys to restrain Bryant, who seemed on the verge of coming to blows with the coach during a practice field run-in.
"You're killing your career," Johnson recalled telling Bryant. Now, four years and three teams later, the Bucs are giving Bryant a chance to resurrect it.
Bryant spent 2007 unemployed after being released by the 49ers a year ago following a league-imposed suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. After losing millions and being rebuked by two teams, Bryant's time away from football may have given him something he lacked: perspective.
"The most important thing Antonio learned is how important football is to him," his agent, Peter Schaffer, said. "It's a privilege to play in the NFL. That's a hard lesson to learn."
The 27-year-old Bryant hasn't granted any interview requests during this week's offseason workouts. No team was willing to sign the potentially explosive receiver in 2007 largely because of his unresolved status with the league. Having been cleared to play in December, the Miami native signed a one-year deal with the Bucs last month and can either live up to his reputation as a colossal disappointment or reinvent himself by proving he indeed is coachable.
Parcells thought otherwise, as Bryant was traded later in 2004 to the Browns. The 49ers cut ties with him following the 2006 season after a reckless-driving arrest, the substance-abuse violation, milder head butts with coaches and a perceived unwillingness to change.
"His personality was going to the edge a little bit, but he goes too far," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "If he knew when to put the brakes on, it would help him a little bit. My deal with him at the time that we parted was that I encouraged him and hoped he'd learn those boundaries a little better. He was really disappointed when I let him go, but at that point, I was done with it."
Schaffer is bothered that in today's zero-tolerance environment Bryant often is lumped in with players who have been linked to egregious misdeeds, such as Titans cornerback Pacman Jones and recently released Bengals receiver Chris Henry.
"He's never done anything to be considered in that class," Schaffer said. "I really resent that anyone would categorize him in the same group as guys like Michael Vick. There's a difference."
There may be some disagreement on Bryant's perception, but there is universal agreement about his ability.
"I think he should be looking at this as maybe one of his last opportunities to really learn from what has happened in the past and not go down that road again," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, a teammate of Bryant's in Cleveland. "He has tremendous ability. You can watch his highlight film and the guy makes plays all over the field."
Bryant notched a 1,000-yard season in Cleveland in 2005. He averaged 18.3 yards per catch for the 49ers in 2006, which would have led the Bucs that season. Another number that has stuck with Bryant is the millions of dollars he lost when the 49ers terminated his $14-million deal.
He'll likely earn around the veteran minimum of $605,000 as Tampa Bay's seemingly annual reclamation project. The Bucs think it's a small price for the chance at a big payoff.
"We did a lot of research on him," coach Jon Gruden said. "He's got a lot of talent. & He could be a really good player in the league if he gets confidence, gets into a rhythm and trusts us."
GRAHAM ABSENT AGAIN: Running back Earnest Graham uncharacteristically missed his second day of voluntary offseason workouts on Wednesday, fueling speculation his absence is a protest against his lack of a new contract. General manager Bruce Allen said long ago the team intended to open contract talks with the team's leading rusher in 2007, but there's no indication of significant progress.