Despite being frustrated by Tampa Bay's 3-12 record, wide receiver Antonio Bryant said Wednesday that he is open to returning to the Buccaneers in 2010.
Bryant, 28, is in the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay. He earned the team's franchise tag in his debut with the Bucs last year by hauling in 83 passes for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns.
But Bryant's production hasn't matched the $9.88 million salary that came with the franchise tag placed on him. He has just 37 catches for 585 yards (15.8 avg.) and three touchdowns in 12 games in 2009.
There are a lot of reasons for the reduction in his production, including playing with three different quarterbacks, two different offensive coordinators an emphasis on running the football and throwing it to tight end Kellen Winslow.
Bryant suggested he's a victim of the circumstances in Tampa Bay, but said he's attempted to make the best of the situation.
"[Jon Gruden] most definitely [game planned around me more]. In that Carolina game [in 2008] I think I caught every pass thrown to me that night. Maybe I missed one of them," said Bryant. "The scary part of that like I was telling [wide receivers coach] Richard Mann is last year compared to this year, we repped that stuff every day, so when I went out there on the field I knew exactly what [Panthers cornerback] Ken Lucas was going to do when I ran a dig and go. As soon as he touched me I almost knocked him over because I anticipated it. This year it's not like that. There are situations where we have guys we want to get the ball to, and I'm not on that sheet right now. Our tight end is a quarterback's best friend, especially a young quarterback, and I understand that. They're committed to Kellen, and he's a great player, but that commitment isn't here for me. I just have to make do with what I can do. I'm going to be a team guy and do my part because if I don't do my part it will show.
"How could you not [work in plays for me next year]? I wouldn't expect it. I would come back and compete like everybody else and do what I do, and it will keep standing out. Come on, man. I don't want to sit here and say, ‘Let's compare film,' but it ain't even close. That's how I feel about it."
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Bryant has also battled a knee injury throughout most of the season. He underwent knee surgery in training camp and has missed three regular season games due to the nagging ailment.
"At one point they were trying to put me on IR," said Bryant. "I was like, ‘I'm not no IR person.' It was just kind of something that was brought to my attention, and I just kind of shrugged it off. It is what it is.
"Health-wise, I'm as good as I'm going to get. You really can't judge my health because me being able to do what I do really isn't in the scheme of things. That's not where we're at."
Of the three quarterbacks Bryant has played for this year, two never started a game before the 2009 regular season started. However, since establishing a more consistent presence on the football field, Bryant has developed a positive rapport with rookie signal caller Josh Freeman.
In fact, Freeman is the main attraction to Bryant being open to returning to Tampa Bay during the offseason.
"Yeah, I want to return," said Bryant. "My biggest motivation is Josh Freeman, and then let the chips fall where they may after that. I have a great position coach [Richard Mann]. You've seen some guys emerge and make plays like Maurice Stovall, but that's not just Maurice Stovall. There is some great coaching behind that as well and competition. I'm never afraid of competition. It makes you better. It completes your team. That's why you have guys like [linebackers] Geno Hayes and Quincy Black stepping up and making plays. That just makes us better."
Bryant is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, but he's not the only Buccaneer that may not return in 2010. A report from NFL.com over the weekend suggested the Bucs had reached out to retired head coach Bill Cowher about the possibility of coaching the team next year.
Although he has no control over whether first-year head coach Raheem Morris returns next year, Bryant said continuity between quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Greg Olson and Freeman was important.
"And to have an Antonio Bryant to throw to during the offseason; that sounds good," Bryant said laughing while explaining the importance of continuity. "That's stability. If I get in a car for 10 years there isn't anything I won't know about that car. It won't matter because I've been in that car everyday. If something goes wrong with it I would know because I know the car."
The outspoken Bryant was originally signed by Tampa Bay during the 2008 offseason. He signed a one-year contract for league minimum after being out of the NFL in 2007 due to off-the-field issues.
Should he be allowed to test free agency in 2010, Bryant isn't worried about his reduction in receptions or off-the-field problems, which appear to be behind him.
"I'm not worrying about them judging me," said Bryant. "If it's not one thing it's another. ‘Well, he has an attitude. Oh, he has baggage.' You don't see that now, so now it's, ‘Oh, he gets injured.' Man, turn on the film and watch me play. I'm not going to sit here and brag about myself, but I know I'm capable of doing things that other guys in this league can't do. That's the bottom line. I play a style that other guys don't play. This is my situation and I'm not complaining because there are a lot of other things you could be doing in life, and this is something I enjoy, so I'm happy."
The Bucs expressed little interest in signing Bryant to a long-term, lucrative contract last offseason, which led to the team placing the franchise tag on him.
It is unlikely Tampa Bay would place the franchise tag on Bryant again next year, and it's unclear what level of interest, if any, the team has in re-signing him. Bryant intends to play football in 2010. It's just a matter of where.
"I'm not an agent-dependent guy," Bryant said when asked what his agent had told him regarding the Bucs' interest in having him back. "I barely talk to my agent. They don't like that. I've never even been to my agent's office in Denver. Most guys visit where their agents are based out of. I'm not like that. I'm a very independent person. I just told my agent, ‘I don't like all that long, drawn-out stuff. If you're going to get it done, get it done. You get what you pay for, and that's the bottom line. Turn on the film, or I can come in and run routes. We can do that, too. I'm confident in what I'm capable of doing because I know at the end of the day I'm willing to work hard and sacrifice a lot to get what I want or get what I deserve. It doesn't scare me. I have no fear of that. I'm going to play football next year. If it's not here it will be somewhere else."
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