Monday, March 1, 2010

On Antonio Bryant

Last week Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris announced that the team would not be resigning Antonio Bryant. I think the phrase he used was that they were "moving on". To me this was a head scratching development. Don't get me wrong, I think the Bucs would have been wise to let Bryant test free agency to see what the market was like and then try to match whatever offer he had. But to basically close the door on his return just didn't make any sense to me. I didn't want to have a knee jerk reaction to that decision so I gave it a few days to try to think it through, but I still can't see a way that this makes sense.

Let me first caveat the rest of my post by saying there are things that go on behind the scenes with any team that nobody ever hears about. There could have been things that Antonio Bryant was doing in the locker room or on the practice field that the powers that be saw as detrimental to the team and or to quarterback Josh Freeman's development. If that were the case then I could accept the decision to let him go a lot better. But being as that I haven't heard any of those things for myself, I can only go with what is readily available and is public knowledge. So first I am going to make the case for bringing him back and second I am going to talk about the state decisions to let him walk.

Just one season ago Bryant was a Pro Bowl player with 83 catches for over 1,200 yards and 7 touchdowns. He brought the big play back to the Tampa Bay offense and he made numerous circus catches. Last year he was hurt and started only 11 games, participating in 13 and his numbers fell off precipitously to 39 catches for 600 yards and 4 touchdowns. But you can't view those numbers in a bubble. Bryant had to adjust to 3 different quarterbacks and two new offensive coordinators. Still with all that he was the best wide receiver statistics wise by 8 catches and and by over 200 yards on the team. His 4 touchdowns weren't great but no other wide receiver had more than 1. In short he was the best option that we had all year when we had to throw the ball at the position.

I know people are going after him for supposedly shutting it down because he missed some games this year with his knee, but one thing to keep in mind is that in every one of the 13 games he participated in last season he had at least one catch. Its a modest statistic but something most of our other wide receivers can't say. Its also apparent that after he came back from resting his knee after the Patriots game, his statistics went up the rest of the year. So whether or not the perception was that the team needed him for the two games he missed, it seems at least from the production that him resting his knee was the right way to go.

Now before the Bucs articulated their reasons for allowing Bryant to go via free agency, the dominating perception was that it had to do with his attitude mostly attributed to some interviews he gave. This is an issue I want to talk about because for me I wasn't upset by some of the things he said and in truth I WANT my best receiver to want and demand the ball. My hard and fast rule is that as long as the guy doesn't throw the quarterback or the head coach under the bus I am good with them expressing frustration about not being a part of the offense. So lets take a look at some things he said.

"It’s not (about) me," Bryant said. "I know there's things I’m capable of doing on the field that can get other people open. We just have to find ways for other people to get me open. There’s a lot of double coverage. It’s to the point where teams don’t respond to other things happening on the field. They just keep rolling that safety over.

"We’ve been able to use that where I just go out and run a deep route and take that safety and then you have (Kellen) Winslow come underneath or (Maurice Stovall) come. So, it works to our benefit to some degree.

"But on a personal level, did I like that? No, because I couldn’t get the ball."

I defy anyone who knows anything about football to find something false about what he said. He was right in that most teams at the end of the season were rolling a safety to him to keep him from making big plays. He was also correct that by him running deep routes he was opening things up for guys like Kellen Winslow and Maurice Stovall underneath. And maybe the best part of this whole quote in my opinion is that he said he didn't like it because he wasn't getting the ball.

You show me a guy who is happy being a decoy and I'll show you a loser. The best football players want to contribute and make plays to help their team win. I don't care if its Jerry Rice or Randy Moss or Larry Fitzgerald. None of those guys are happy just opening things up for other people.

Bryant acknowledged his early-season knee injury, one that limited him through the first half of the season and caused him to miss three games. That, too, limited his effectiveness and will, perhaps, make his market value hard to determine. He has 37 catches for 585 yards in 12 games, this after tallying 1,248 yards in 2008 when he was the focal point of coach Jon Gruden's offense.

Not that Bryant is obsessing over it.

"I’m not worried about (teams) judging me," he said. "If it’s not one thing it’s another. It’s 'Oh, he has an attitude. Oh, he has baggage.' Okay, now you don’t see that. Now, what is it? Man, turn on the film and let it play."

So in this instance not only does Bryant run from his injury, he in the words of the Stephen Holder acknowledged that it limited his effectiveness. Again, what did he say that wasn't true? We should be concerned because he is confident in his abilities? I don't think so.

Here is the final part of that post and the section I think a lot of fans got upset about.

As mentioned above, Bryant was far more effective last season. And that was in no small part a result of Gruden's efforts to feature him.

"Most definitely," Bryant said. "I think in the Carolina game (in December 2008), I caught every ball that was thrown to me that night. I probably missed one. The difference between this year and last year, is we (practiced) that stuff every day. Before I went out there on the field, I knew exactly what (Panthers CB) Ken Lucas was going to do. As soon as he touched me, I almost knocked him over because I knew. I told my coach on the sideline excactly what he was going to do. And as soon as he put his hand out, I did it and ran.

"The ball was under thrown, but he was beat so bad. We have situations where you have your guys you want to get the ball to and I’m not on that sheet right now. The tight end is the quarterback’s best friend. They’re committed to Kellen. But that commitment is not helping me. I know how everything operates so I’m just going to be a team guy and do my part."

The one thing about articles like this one that I don't like is that the author never lets you know what question Bryant is responding to. Look at Bryant's quote. Its obvious that he didn't just start talking off the top of his head, but was responding to someone's question. What that question was I guess we will never know.

But look at the quote in its totality. First Bryant talks about his performance in the Carolina game in 2008 and that was a truly magnificent game for him. He then goes on to contrast that with how the game plan goes this year. Was he wrong in saying that the offensive guys were more prepared in 2008 than they were last season? From what I saw during the games he wasn't. Maybe he shouldn't have come out and admitted that they were less prepared this year so as to protect offensive coordinator Greg Olsen, but I personally didn't think he said anything that was that bad in that regard.

The other thing he points out is that he wasn't the focal point in the game plans this season, even when he was healthy. Its on this point I think some fans may not understand what he meant. A lot of people think that you call an offensive play and then the quarterback just drops back and throws to the guy whose open. If only that were really the case. The truth of the matter is that on every passing play there is a primary option, a guy who the offensive coordinator wants the ball to go to based on the coverage the opposing defense plays. At times of course the defense switches up on defense or their guy just covers our guy and the quarterback has to go to a second or third option. But what Bryant seems to be saying here is that more often than not he wasn't the primary option on passing plays. If that was the case, and again watching the games it seemed that he was correct, then why WOULDN'T he speak out about it. I love the things that Winslow can do in our offense and the way he creates mismatches with the opposing defenses, but you can't have a tight end be your primary option on the majority of your passing plays.

Bigger than that wide receivers have a tendency to play better when you get them involved early in the game. When you have a guy like Bryant who is head and shoulders above the rest of the receivers on your team, you feed that guy to not only help him but also to help your quarterback get a rapport with him so they can both have big games. I'm not suggesting you force the ball to Bryant and risk throwing a pick, but there are more than enough "safe" routes to get the ball in his hands early and often. Even if Bryant had never come out and said it, that still would have been one of my criticisms of the offense last year. Aside from the times when Freeman scrambled and threw the ball on the run, our passing game didn't function well because there never seemed to be a method to the madness.

I could see if this only happened a few times throughout the year but instead it was an every game occurrence. Let me put it to you this way, the most catches Bryant had in any one game last year was 5 and he did that 3 times. If he is your number one receiver, and he was, that is almost inexcusable. There has to be a way that at least in one game you get that guy 7 or 8 catches. I don't care if its on wide receiver screens or smoke routes or quick slants. Some how some way if you want to be successful your top wide receiver need to touch the ball more than 5 times in a game.

As for the Buccaneers they have given two reasons as far as I can tell so far for their decision to allow Bryant to go. The first is that they want to get younger on offense, something that sounds kind of laughable when you think about it. So lets think about it.

The starting backfield at the end of the season of Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham are going into their 6th and 7th NFL seasons respectively. The quarterback is coming off his rookie season. Winslow is going into his 7th season. Every guy on the offensive line except for center Jeff Faine has played 4 or fewer seasons in the NFL. Faine is the old head of everybody heading into his 8th seasons. How young, exactly, are we supposed to be trying to get here?

Keep in mind that as far as the other receivers go we already have some young guys in Sammie Stroughter and Maurice Stovall. Is Antonio Bryant who is going into his 8th year like Faine REALLY supposed to be "too old" to play with this offense? Especially when you look at some wide receivers in this league playing at a high level well into their 30s? I'm not buying that.

The other reason as far as I can tell is that Bryant didn't run crisp enough routes and caused interceptions. Now this goes back to my post on Roy Miller. The NFL can be a dirty game. Folks will look at you cross eyed if you say you can't play because you are injured, but then when you go out and play through the pain they give you no benefit of the doubt when you don't play up to the highest of levels.

Do I believe Bryant didn't run as crisp routes last season as he did in 08? Yes. Do I think its probably because he had knee surgery in the preseason and tried to play through the pain? OF COURSEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

But the shady part of that knock on him is where they say he "caused" interceptions. I'm calling bullshit on that. First off all you never, not one time, heard that criticism during the season. As a matter of fact during the season what you did hear was the coaching staff getting on Freeman about his decision making and his accuracy. Now considering how much they wanted and needed for Freeman to be the star going into next year, are you really going to try to convince me that they heaped criticism on him that should have been directed and Antonio Bryant?

Hell to the nawl!

Once again, not buying it.

So what do we have left? We have a receiver who can block but can't catch a cold but naked in the north pole. We have a kid coming off his rookie season who was productive but who will be coming off an injury. We have another guy who may or may not be snatched from us in free agency who to date has been mostly a special teams player but who has shown some flash over the last couple of years. And a bunch of other no name guys who haven't played much in the NFL.

All I can say in closing is this. If we don't get a big name receiver via free agency and or the draft we are going to be in a world of hurt next year. If you thought this year was bad, just wait until our only viable option in the passing game is our tight end. There are a few guys who are trying to get off their current teams like Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall who perhaps we could pick up and really bolster or receiver corps, but it doesn't appear that we are leaning in that direction. No matter how much Freeman gets better over the offseason, he won't be able to perform without someone to throw it to. And as it stands we just let our best option walk right out the door for nothing in return.

I hope it works out for the Buccaneer brass, but I just don't see it happening right now.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, great analysis -- as usual. For a team who says they are doing everything they can to help Freeman, it is very puzzling to see them give away one of his best weapons. A rookie WR is not likely to be able to replace AB's veteran presense or production. -Louie