Updated: 9:30 p.m.
Antonio Bryant fits right in, doesn't he?
Fits right into the specifications that built the Bengals 2009 AFC North champions. A corps of players who overcome problems on and off the field and eager to prove themselves to the people that gave up on them.
Bryant, the former Buccaneers wide receiver discarded four times now by the age of 29 years and a day, joined the Bengals on Wednesday in what agent Lamont Smith termed "a verbal agreement." Reports had it at $28 million over four years, a sad price to pay for the death of Chris Henry and a frustrating tag for the failure of Laveranues Coles. And it is a large enough deal that it could put a crimp in Cincinnati's plans to re-sign some of its own free agents, like kicker Shayne Graham, right guard Bobbie Williams, and safety Roy Williams.
But the Bengals feel it is worth it because the 6-1, 205-pound Bryant brings some Henry with a 15.3 yards per catch career average and some T.J. Houshmandzadeh over-the-middle toughness they believe revives quarterback Carson Palmer's long ball and gets a reigning division champion closer to over the hump.
Another thing it does is crack the first round of next month's draft wide open. Get the tight end in the second round, the wideout in the third and the Taylor Mays and Mike Iupati factions can start dreaming at No. 21.
As he has done since free agency opened Friday and head coach Marvin Lewis targeted Bryant as his No. 1 catch, Palmer tapped out another text message when he heard the news.
"Very excited. To see what he can do. We will be better with an aggressiveness he brings and big-play capability."
At Lewis' urging, it was Palmer's texts and phone calls that played a key role. On a conference call with the Cincinnati media early Wednesday evening Smith said that Palmer's involvement in the process was "major. Very major. I don't want to overstate it but sort of tipped it from another situation to them."
After a more publicized running mate search than Biden and Palin, Chad Ochocinco happily tweeted about his new partner that also happens to be from Miami:
"Antonio Bryant signs a 4 year deal with the Cincy Bengal, congrats to the homie from the 305, DADE COUNTY FINEST."
Bryant, wrapping up loose ends in Tampa, preferred to let Smith do the talking Wednesday.
In the end, the Bengals opted for youth because they had plenty of good vibes about the 36-year-old Terrell Owens, too, as they mulled a one-year deal for him. Despite Owens' controversial past, he had endorsements from The Ocho, Palmer and former Bengal Ryan Fitzpatrick, his quarterback last year in Buffalo. And Owens spent about three hours Wednesday closeted with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, impressed with him even 14 years ago when he coached him in the Senior Bowl.
The pleasant, soft-spoken Owens impressed the staff and he was classy to the end, tweeting on his way from PBS, "I wanna thank Mike Brown & the coaching staff 4 the visit along w/the possible opportunity 2 play w/carson & 85. I enjoyed the visit," which came via ProFootballTalk.com.
Bryant doesn't have the baggage carousel of T.O. But he's got some carry-ons that seem to be in his past.
He was traded from the Cowboys in 2004 after a practice confrontation with coach Bill Parcells and he failed a drug test in 2007 during a year he sat out. But he was named The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year in 2008 after Tampa Bay signed him and he responded with a career year of 83 catches for nearly 1,300 yards, and the Bengals were apparently impressed with how he dealt with his issues in the Tuesday meetings. After injuring his knee in training camp last year and getting a scope for a cartilage tear, Bryant was limited to 39 catches for 600 yards.
But the Bengals got rave reviews about Bryant from people like Bucs employees that were attending league meetings this week. And one Bucs beat reporter said Wednesday night that Bryant was terrific with the media, always accessible, willing to talk. A guy that had a knack for making tough catches and has a mindset still trying to prove he's worthy of the second-round pick the Cowboys spent on him out of Pittsburgh in 2002.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hasn't seen Bryant since they were both in Dallas during Bryant's first three seasons, but he says at that age Bryant got out of his cuts faster than anyone he had seen since Hall of Fame Cowboy Michael Irvin.
In discussions with Bengals vice president Troy Blackburn, Smith said the deal was actually well in motion before Bryant flew in to Cincinnati late Monday night. He said the sides "were "within striking distance" when he left the next day.
"He left with the impression that this was a place he could be comfortable and where there was a great complement to him on the other side in Chad," Smith said.
In fact, Smith said Bryant couldn't stop talking about how good the quarterback is and how good the other receiver is. "It's something he's never had in his career," Smith said.
Here's a guy whose first 1,000-yard season came at the hands of quarterbacks Trent Dilfer and Charlie Frye in 2005 in Cleveland. His other 1,000-yard year in '08 was his second hookup with Jeff Garcia. He also had Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson in Dallas, Alex Smith in San Francisco and Josh Freeman in Tampa. More like a Who's Not of quarterbacks rather than a Who's Who.
On Tuesday morning Bryant met with a large group of staff that included Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown, Later he would also board with Bratkowski and Bratkowski came away impressed with how he handled the chalk and his issues. Bryant did graduate from Miami's Northwestern High School with honors.
"They asked him some tough questions and I think they were impressed with how forthright he was," Smith said. "He's blue-collar. Every coach he's been with, from Bill Parcells, Mike Nolan, would say he brings his hard hat every day."
Zimmer was there when Bryant had the almost unthinkable confrontation with Parcells in which he reportedly threw a jersey at him.
"I got along with him, but it was a different deal," Zimmer said. "That was a long time ago so I can't give you a scouting report. Not a burner, but really great at getting out of cuts."
But the flareup with Parcells also shows a passion and competitiveness the Bengals feel are going to give them a tougher look on offense. Indeed, it is a nice counter to the Ravens trade for another tough, physical receiver in Anquan Boldin. In the last two years Boldin has had four catches of plus 40 yards and 20 of at least 20 yards while Bryant had four 40-yarders alone in '08 and 30 catches of at least 20 in the last two years despite the knee trouble.
The Bengals have been struggling getting the ball down the field so they can get the double coverage off the Ocho. The Ocho has bested Bryant's career per catch average of 15.3 three times. No one else on the team in Ochocinco's nine seasons has caught at least 15 yards per in a year except Henry with 16.8 in '06, 16.3 in '07, and 19.7 in '09.
And the key last year is Bryant still averaged 15.4 per in '09 as the Bengals crave for the vertical.
Bratkowski says Bryant is tough and plays that way in those kind of situations.
"He likes to play the game," Bratkowski said. "We think he can stretch the field. He's a young player with speed. There have been some years he didn't quite have a quarterback like he has now, but he'll tell you he wasn't always there, either. I thought he handled himself well on that. I'm sure he's not the same guy he was when he was 21, 22. Nobody is."