Niners going down the wrong road with Bryant?

Antonio Bryant is looking more and more like a bad buy for the 49ers, but after forking out $15 million with a $5 million signing bonus for the free agent during the offseason, the team isn't exactly in a position to cut its losses with the mercurial wide receiver. "We are not done with Antonio," coach Mike Nolan said. But, Nolan added, "it's a very short leash from here on." As well it should be.

In fact, Bryant is fortunate the leash hasn't been yanked violently backward already, making the collar grip his neck to the point of career suffocation.

His four-game suspension by the NFL, while not necessarily unexpected, easily could be the last straw as far as the 49ers are concerned.

The official word from the NFL is Bryant has been suspended without pay for violating the league's Substance Abuse Policy. There's no reason to speculate here about the specific details of the suspension, since the NFL works so diligently to protect the confidentiality of such issues, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for all involved.

But to get hammered with a four-game suspension for - as most reports seem to indicate - issues related to his Nov. 19 arrest on suspicion of drunken driving, reckless driving and resisting arrest, indicates that Bryant already has screwed up along the way with a previous violation of the league policy.

A four-game suspension without pay is the second stage of the substance abuse program with the next stage being banishment from the league for a calendar year.

The specific reason for the suspension is not revealed unless it is a failed steroid test. The league, in a statement, did not specify a reason for Bryant's suspension because of confidentiality.

Of course, at this point, the reason for the suspension doesn't really matter. It's the reality of the suspension that matters to the 49ers.

As Nolan said after he talked with Bryant once the word came down, "He was disappointed for a number of reasons. The first one was that he felt he let his team down at a crucial time."

Damn right Bryant let the 49ers down at a crucial time. There are two games left in 2006 season, and San Francisco still has a shot at an unlikely NFC West title or wild card playoff berth.

But without Bryant, it gets a whole lot tougher these next two weeks for the San Francisco offense. While Bryant hasn't made the weekly impact he did during his auspicious San Francisco debut in September - two 100-yard receiving games to start the season - his presence alone has been a key factor in the San Francisco attack.

After his early-season outburst, opposing defenses have had to be wary of Bryant's big-play potential and have rolled safeties to his side, which has a ripple effect on the rest of the defense. But now the 49ers don't have that going for them, and it will be just that much more difficult for San Francisco to get the ball down the field and prevent the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos - the last two teams on San Francisco's schedule - to load the box to stop running back Frank Gore.

That's the short-term impact. But the 49ers must also think about what this means to the team long-term. Bryant - despite his superior talent and good-natured personality - already has been a disruptive force with his on-field behavior earlier this season, fortifying the perception he is a ticking time bomb.

Nolan already has displayed several times since taking control of the team last year that he doesn't put up with this kind of stuff.

So, now he's going to put up with it for Antonio Bryant's sake?

"I'm still saying that it was a good decision to bring him here and that he becomes a longtime 49er," Nolan said. "He's still a part of this football team, and hopefully he gets things in order, and we rebound because he still has a lot to offer. In my experiences, people who go through things like this, or similar things like this with a team, when they do get their life in order, you get somebody back that you are damn glad is on your team."

Well, that and the fact the 49ers would take a sizeable salary cap hit if they decided to dump Bryant right here, right now, and make the amortized portion of his signing bonus come due immediately instead of being spread out over the next three seasons.

And, let's face it, it also would stunt the team's growth, since the 49ers would have to start looking all over again for a No. 1 wide receiver, and then start over again to get that guy in sync with quarterback Alex Smith.

So the 49ers are tied to giving Bryant a second chance. Or is it already a third chance?

There is no joy taken here in bashing Bryant, who despite his high-strung personality genuinely seems like an effervescent individual who has a burning desire to win and be a good 49er while taking a leading role in the team's surge back to success.

But good intentions can't always prevent a guy from being who he really is. And so, who really is Antonio Bryant? Can he control himself enough to fit into the fabric of a pro football team? Take a look around at Bryant's three stops so far in his NFL career, and you may not like that answer.

"I want to see (Bryant) pass this test," Nolan said. "I want to have Antonio back, I want him on this team and I want him doing the right thing. Believe me, I think Antonio does, too. He's disappointed also, but he takes responsibility also."

It's not difficult to believe those things. The difficulty is in believing that, after this situation ostensibly gets resolved and repaired, something like it just won't happen again in the future.

"I want him here as much as he can be here once the season is over, because I want him around," Nolan said. "I want to get it right, and I want to give him every opportunity to get it right because if he doesn't get it right, I want to see it. I don't want to wait six months, and then find out it's not right."

Oh, yes. Unless the 49ers participate in two playoff games this season - and, folks, that's not going to happen - Bryant's suspension will hang over the 49ers into next season, because he'll be forced to complete his penance by missing the opening games of the 2007 season.

But since the 49ers apparently have decided to stick behind Bryant - not that they really have a better option - they now are in a wait-and-see holding pattern with their volatile playmaker that will extend well into next season, and perhaps beyond.

"This is like anything else we are doing right now," Nolan said. "In about three years, see what the good was and the bad of it. Some people in the building have asked me if I have had some regrets about it (acquiring Bryant), and I said no. This is something that we will look back on down the road.

"For right now, I do not have any regret about making the decision whatsoever. I'm glad he's here. Down the road is when I will answer that much more accurately."

But this much is undeniable: In his first season with the 49ers, Bryant already has taken way too many wrong turns down that road.

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