TAMPA — The arrival of Antonio Bryant made little more than a ripple when the free agent receiver was signed in March.
The move was announced the same day the Bucs signed favorite son Warrick Dunn in a widely celebrated decision. Somewhere in the back pages of sports sections was the news about Bryant.
And that was just fine, really.
"I like it that way," he said. "I'm a guy who people don't expect to be a force, a guy people don't expect to have to reckon with. They don't see me coming."
That might explain opponents' sudden inability to stop him. Bryant's role has quickly and quietly expanded from afterthought — a guy no one was certain would make it past final cuts — to the most productive receiver on the roster (31 catches, 406 yards). In fact, he has practically stolen standout Joey Galloway's starting job at split end, where coach Jon Gruden intends to keep Bryant should Galloway return from his now five-week absence because of a foot injury.
After Bryant sat out 2007, in part because of a league suspension, it was wise not to expect much from the sixth-year player out of Pittsburgh. But with each catch, and with every first down, he provides more reason to believe.
Bryant, 27, posted a season-high 10 catches for 138 yards against Chicago last month, followed by a six-catch, 115-yard performance on Sunday night against Seattle.
Perhaps you're surprised. Bryant, however, has never lacked confidence.
"I'm me," he said matter-of-factly. "That's real. I've never really got a lot of exposure. But there's a time for everything. Maybe it's my turn now for people to see, 'Hey, this guy … maybe we should take a look.'
"Nobody has brought up the fact that the year I got drafted (2002) — if you go back and look at it statistically and production-wise — that I'm either the No. 1 or No. 2 guy from that (class). And I didn't go in the first round. Let's look at some real facts."
Bryant, taken 63rd by the Cowboys, gets his brash, unapologetic style from his inner-city Miami roots, where he played for Northwestern High, a school that has produced nearly two dozen NFL players.
Although he occasionally talks a big game, Bryant hasn't talked out of turn in Tampa Bay. His reputation had been defined by his apparent inability to cooperate with coaches, evidenced by run-ins with former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and former 49ers coach Mike Nolan. But there have been no such issues in Tampa Bay, coaches and teammates emphasize.
"He had some unfortunate situations off the field that didn't allow him to play last year, but he has tremendous talent," said Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, a Browns teammate of Bryant's in 2004. Both say the chemistry they once had has been renewed.
"He's come in with a new outlook on life in general, and he's trying to do the right thing."
In doing so, Bryant — 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds — has made it difficult for the Bucs to justify handing the job back to Galloway.
"I have a role in the offense, and that role is to be able to play any position, as all the receivers do," Galloway said. "Wherever Coach chooses to use me, that's his call. … I've been through these long rehabs before, and you sort of have to get back into game shape. That'll be something that's handled cautiously. That'll be something that's handled upstairs" by management.
Meanwhile, Bryant just keeps getting better, especially now that he is overcoming his physical challenges. He gritted through persistent knee pain in the preseason that limited his practice time even after the start of the season. The yearlong layoff was the culprit.
"I think what happened with my knees was I was just breaking them back in," he said. "They were like, 'What are you doing? What's going on? Where's the couch? Where's the flat-screen? Where's the remote?' My body was like, 'What's going on? What are you getting up so early for?' It was a great adjustment."
Sort of the way Bryant's play has made it necessary to adjust the way he is viewed. Maybe no one saw him coming. But he's impossible to miss now.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]