Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Bryant cleared the air regarding his status as the team’s franchise player. After posting a career-high 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 on the heels of signing a one-year “prove it” contract for the league minimum $605,000, Tampa Bay prevented Bryant, the team’s most explosive offensive weapon, from hitting free agency by placing the franchise tag on him prior to the start of free agency in 2009.

Although the one-year contract guarantees Bryant $9.88 million, he indicated some unhappiness during the offseason over not having a shot at free agency where he could have landed a more lucrative, long-term contract from Tampa Bay or elsewhere. But on Tuesday, the first day of the Buccaneers’ initial mini-camp of 2009, Bryant stated that he wasn’t unhappy about being franchised – just about not having a long-term deal.

“I’m not unhappy about being a franchise player. That’s not it – just an overall picture, but I’m past that,” Bryant said. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you the truth. I’m not a sugar-coated person. I’m not going to lie to you. At the end of the day, of course I’m happy to be here. This is what I like to do. I could have been back home on the couch again. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not complaining about that. But for my situation and my lane in life, and what is going on in my lane, there were better options and better situations I could have had myself in. But that’s over. That’s why I’m here, so you all can’t go and report, ‘Antonio Bryant didn’t show up today.’ I did my part.”

When asked how fans might grouse about a professional athlete getting upset over a $9 million raise in the midst of a bad economy, Bryant said: “In this business, we don’t look at it like $9 million. There are taxes, there are people you have to pay off and stuff. Remember, I was out of work in 2007. I know what it’s like to be out of work. Don’t take it personally. You should never take it personally. You should never count what’s in the next man’s pocket. I don’t do that. I don’t come in and say, ‘This guy has this kind of money – I want that money.’ I’ve never done that. I’ve never compared myself to anyone. I prove myself everyday. That’s what it’s about. I’m a competitor. But I don’t count what is in the next man’s pocket because I don’t know the next man’s pain or the next man’s struggle or what he has to do to work or what he’s going through.”

Bryant said he didn’t necessarily mind the scrutiny that comes with having to play for another one-year deal in 2009, albeit a much richer deal.

“This is a prove-it league every day. That’s why we get filmed every day. That’s why you are evaluated every day. Every week they bring people in here and work them out just to see if they can replace someone.

“There were times that I thought about the whole scenario. Okay, now you get franchised and you go back out and you guys have the success that you had last year and I prove myself or (prove to be) better. Now what is the deal? Do you go back to the table and ask for all the money (thye've) got? Now what is the scenario?”

Dating back to the end of the 2008 season, Bryant maintained that he wanted to remain a Buccaneer this year, and he achieved that primary objective – even if it was only for one more season. Bryant alluded to the fact that he could have received a more lucrative contract elsewhere, but if the situation wouldn’t have been as good as it was in Tampa Bay he could have been open to regret.

“At the end of the day, you could go from sugar to you know what. Now I’m with another team and in another situation and that’s what I’m more disappointed in – if that occurs,” Bryant said. “It’s all about doing my best to make sure I’m in this situation again.”

Bryant knows that he will not only be called upon to make plays in Jeff Jagodzinski’s new offense this year, but with the departure of veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, he will be the oldest and most experienced wide receiver on the team. That means he will be looked to for leadership and is ready to embrace a leadership role on the team.

“We’re not missing leaders, it’s just that with our new leaders everyone has to take a step up,” Bryant said. “Some guys have to take two or three steps up. That’s just what is required in this game. It’s a revolving door. You know that. … You are not renewing yourself, but you are allowing people to see beyond what they’ve heard. Last year was it wasn’t really my place to speak out in the locker room or say something and just letting my play speak for itself. Now I know it’s a little bit different because guys come to me for advice. A guy like Joey, I was around him long enough to know how I should handle this. I took advice from a guy like Ike, so when these young guys approach me, I’m the veteran now.

“When the fantasy (football magazines) and all that stuff comes out they may not say anything about the Bucs. Just like last year. I’ll just sit back. ‘Oh yeah, they picked up Antonio Bryant. Oh yeah, they picked up the trouble-maker.’ I laughed. I had something in store (for them). I knew I was going to be dedicated and do what I needed to do and in the end we will see. When I started playing, slowly but surely they started to say, ‘Hey the Bucs have this guy over there. Remember Antonio Bryant?’ Yeah, remember me? So it was kind of personal. It’s always personal.”

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver won’t be sneaking up on anybody in 2009 after a breakout campaign last season. Bryant’s best game came on Monday Night Football at Carolina on December 7 when he caught a career-high nine passes for 200 yards and two scores, including an amazing, one-handed 15-yard touchdown catch that made all the highlight reels.

“(My) greatest catch ever? The funny thing about it is there is not a lot of background information about me,” Bryant said.  “I’ve caught game-winning catches in a lot of situations. I just look at it as another catch to ad to the repertoire, but winning that game with that catch. Now let’s think about the magnitude of that!”

Bryant knows that his breakout season and franchise status will make him a marked man this fall. But with the weapons the team has added on offense, including re-signing the likes of wide receiver Michael Clayton and tight end Jerramy Stevens, and trading for tight end Kellen Winslow, Bryant knows that the offense will be helped by him making plays or drawing double-teams and allowing others to make plays.

“The more weapons the better. Ask Tom Brady. Come on now. Look at that offense. It’s not all about Randy (Moss). It’s not about one individual guy. Hey, in certain situations, I want you to double me because after you double me and I come out of that route I’m looking and it’s Winslow down the field or Clayton down the field and boom, it’s a touchdown. We just have to build our rapport with our quarterback.”

And who that quarterback will be remains a mystery at the moment. Luke McCown is taking starting reps with Josh Johnson as the backup, while Brian Griese remains in Denver this offseason to be with his wife, Brook, who is eight months pregnant. But Bryant indicated that he had faith in all of the quarterbacks on the roster.

“I don’t have any problems with any of the quarterbacks we have,” Bryant said. “We joke and clown, but those guys are competitors. They know what is expected of them and they know how I feel, they know how the coaches feel, they know how everybody feels. Those guys have to understand that just because of the position that they play, it’s automatic leadership responsibility. It’s automatic.”

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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