AnT.O.nio needs to T.O.ne down his act
The new tempestuous talent wearing No. 81 for the 49ers and setting the San Francisco offense on fire with his leaping catches, punishing downfield blocks, home-run strikes into the end zone and weekly domination of defensive backs goes by a different name and plays a different kind of game. But Antonio Bryant sure is suspiciously starting to remind us of Owens in ways that aren't nearly as flattering. Take the 49ers' home opener last Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, for example. After a quick start - 136 yards in the first quarter alone - the Niners were running into some offensive struggles as halftime approached and they trailed the Rams by a touchdown. As the San Francisco offense neared midfield in its attempt to put more points on the scoreboard before intermission, Bryant shook free over the middle on a third-down crossing pattern. But as he looked back for the football, what he saw was quarterback Alex Smith sailing a wayward throw more than 10 feet over his head. Drive over. No more 49ers points before halftime. And one very upset receiver. The volatile Bryant made no attempt to hide it. In fact, he made sure everybody knew it, clinching his fists and pumping his arms several times, doing his very best to show up his young quarterback and create some dissension on a team that already was bummed enough it would be trailing at halftime despite out-playing its opponent. That wasn't the only time Bryant appeared visibly upset when Smith missed him with a pass. And he carried his simmering rage to the sideline, continuing to jaw in angst even after taking a seat on the bench. "I'm very animated," Bryant said. "I would probably be the most animated character out there if I was a cartoon. It wasn't the fact that I wasn't getting the ball because I'm going to get the ball. It's just the fact that I like to score touchdowns and we were kicking too many field goals." Now, T.O. is a cartoon. That's what the iconic Owens has become since he left San Francisco, where he laid the groundwork for becoming the temperamental, enigmatic outcast that he is today. Nobody needs another one of those in San Francisco. Bryant, remember, is the same guy that was run out of Dallas a few years ago after tossing a sweaty jersey into the face of coach Bill Parcells during a spring workout. He's the same guy that was ordered to take anger management classes before the Cowboys finally traded him away to football Siberia, otherwise known as the Cleveland Browns. And he's the same guy who, when he went without a catch in the first half of San Francisco's season opener, said he felt like getting into a "boxing match" with Smith. Like the 49ers under coach Steve Mariucci did at first when Owens started going off in his own unique way during the 2000 season, the 49ers under coach Mike Nolan are tolerating Bryant's antics instead of stepping in and telling him to tone it down. "Animation doesn't bother me," Nolan said. "You can't misinterpret that body language for what he said. As I've said all along, Antonio is a very competitive player. He does get animated at times, but he's growing up. He understands it. He can articulate it the right way. He says, 'I need to count to 10,' or whatever it may be. I can accept that. He and I have our moments, but I'm darn glad he is here." It must be pointed out that Bryant's intensity, competitiveness and fiery determination are crucial elements in what makes him so good. As Smith says, "He's an emotional person and an emotional player and he loves the game. I like that about him and think it's what makes him such a good player. He wants to win as bad as anyone on this team and he'll take it any way he can. At times in games he gets emotional and wants the ball and wants to be part of things. But there is no ill will or selfishness. He wants to be good and he wants the team to be good. He sees the big picture, and he realizes that in this team, success is out of all of us." But does he really? "I go to work every day to win," Bryant said. "And I love all my teammates to death. It's almost like having brothers. You come in here and laugh and it's just like a big family. There's nothing personal between me and any person in this locker room because we're like brothers." Well, we have to admit, in the several seasons of being around Owens after he became a superstar, we never heard him say anything like that about his 49ers brethren. So maybe there's hope for him yet. Just the same, remember that the 49ers came back to beat the Rams, keyed by Bryant's 72-yard touchdown reception from Smith, and everybody was able to laugh and smile afterward and talk about cartoons. But not every Sunday afternoon will turn out like that for the 49ers and Bryant, who began his career in San Francisco with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and is the NFL leader with a 30.6 average per catch heading into this week's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. If Bryant is still throwing tantrums when things are going that good, we dread to see what he'll do when they're not.
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