Bryant blows opportunity to improve his image

Antonio Bryant has pushed his image to the edge, and now everybody will be watching closely to see where he takes it from here. The mercurial 49ers receiver refused to speak Wednesday about his recent arrest on suspicion of drunken driving, reckless driving and resisting arrest, and now the questions regarding his character will rage once more after Bryant had done his best to silence them.

That's a shame, because Bryant has done a lot since joining the 49ers in March to repair that image, which took a beating during his first four NFL seasons in Dallas and Cleveland, when Bryant's attitude, maturity and ability to fit into a team concept all became issues.

But that's the price Bryant pays for allegedly steering his 2005 Lamborghini down U.S. Highway 101 at speeds in excess of 100 mph during the late hours after San Francisco's breakthrough 20-14 victory Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, then allegedly becoming "uncooperative and combative" while resisting arrest, according to some reports.

One could look back now and see that Bryant - who yearns to establish himself as one of the NFL's rising talents at wide receiver - statistically did not play a leading role in that victory with two receptions for 21 yards, his third consecutive game with only two catches.

Since bursting onto the scene during his auspicious 49ers debut - Bryant had 114 yards receiving in the season opener, then 131 yards receiving in Week 2, when he had a spectacular 72-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown - Bryant's production has decreased considerably and his shining star has faded into the background while the team around him has risen in the NFL consciousness with a three-game winning streak.

Bryant has elite ability. That must be said. He knows that, and he has shown it during his brief time with the 49ers. But as the San Francisco offense evolves, Bryant has had to become patient for his time to come. Since speedy tight end Vernon Davis suffered a broken leg in Week 3, opposing safeties have been able to shade toward Bryant instead of playing the 49ers honest in coverage. The 49ers have adjusted their offensive plan accordingly.

After some early ranting about not getting the ball during the season's opening weeks and an on-field outburst that showed up quarterback Alex Smith - and receiving a fair amount of criticism for it - Bryant seemed to display a newfound maturity in dealing with his frustration. The fire still burned inside, but Bryant didn't let it glow so vehemently on the outside.

In an interview with SFI a month ago, when the 49ers were returning from their bye week, Bryant was asked how difficult it was for him to be patient while waiting for his next games of big receiving production to come.

"I can't say the things a T.O. says," Bryant said, referring to the volatile receiver who preceded him with the 49ers. "I can't say things Steve Smith says. Because Antonio Bryant is going to be viewed differently. They're going to say I'm an individual. They're going to say I'm not a team guy, and that's not true.

"It's not going to help me running around on the sideline throwing my hands up, because I did that before, and they jumped on me like I was trying to do something terrible when I was just trying to help my team win. So I'm going to keep my mouth closed and be a part of the big picture, just go play football, go about my business, and when they give me the opportunity, I'll take advantage of it and make plays."

Bryant went on to talk animatedly for almost 15 minutes about his love of the game, excitement to be with the 49ers, firm belief the team could still turn around its season and - pointedly - his determination to make an impact at receiver in the final 10 games.

But after recording a season-high five receptions that Sunday against Chicago, Bryant has six catches in three games since, with the 49ers winning all three. He certainly has contributed to those victories with his downfield blocking and by clearing out space for others to catch passes underneath. It's all about winning, and that's what Bryant said he's ultimately all about.

But considering the character issues that came with him to San Francisco - Bryant was directed to take anger-management classes after he threw a sweaty jersey into the face of Dallas coach Bill Parcells during an offseason workout in 2004 - one could speculate that Bryant has been on low broil the past two months and, despite his good intentions, has been a powder keg just waiting to burst.

The reports of Bryant becoming confrontational and being restrained by police are ugly, but there should be no rush to judgment, because nobody really knows what went on with Bryant and a bunch of cops until those details are adequately and accurately revealed. That's an issue for a court room.

Still, Bryant did himself no favors in the court of public opinion. Those who aren't close to the 49ers - those who haven't seen Bryant work so very hard since joining the team, who haven't seen his competitiveness drive his teammates, who haven't seen his talent and work ethic set an example for so many of the San Francisco's younger players - might see Bryant's latest brush with the law and view it as just another blemish on a guy who already has a spotty reputation.

That may be unfair. But then again, maybe not. Bryant let the 49ers down, and also let himself down.

As Nolan said Wednesday, while trying to be as succinct as possible about the Bryant incident, "I was disappointed, yes."

But the 49ers aren't overreacting, and that's fair to Bryant, too.

"There will not be a suspension," Nolan said. "I'll let the judicial system do what it has to do. I did speak with the team and put it out there. There are consequences to the things we do. I look at it this way - there are internal distractions and there are external distractions. This is one that's an internal one that we'll deal with inside the building or, should I say, as a football team. We need to do a better job of controlling these type of distractions. But again, what doesn't kill you, I was told makes you stronger."

Nolan said earlier this year, when asked if he worries about Bryant's temperament, "From the moment I first sat down with him until as long as we're together, yes."

Nolan sat down with Bryant again for 45 minutes after his arrest, and one can imagine both coach and player wondering aloud how Bryant could have let this happen when he's worked so hard to answer questions about his character since arriving in San Francisco. Accountability is a big issue in character.

Nolan said Bryant did not address the team about the issue. "I think he looks at it as I do – it's a personal issue and we'll go from there," the coach said. "It's personal but at the same time, I addressed our team because it does affect our team. It is a potential of an internal distraction and they need to know because they'll be asked about it."

Bryant certainly will be asked about it, when he gets around to speaking with the media again. Earlier this year, after his hot start became a memory and his on-field frustration festered, Bryant said, "In 2002, Antonio would have been frustrated. In 2003, Antonio would have thrown a helmet across the field. But it's 2006. I knew that, hey, you've got to keep your head up."

Bryant has to keep his head up now, too, after yet another episode that brings his volatility into question. But now he's already blown his first opportunity to start fresh and rebuild his image with the 49ers. And he'll need to remember there won't be a whole lot more chances.

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