Marvin Lewis settled into the second row of Antonio Bryant's introductory news conference Thursday and thoroughly enjoyed the presentation. And why not? This was the same guy that sold him enough last week on his passion and perseverance to become the marquee free-agent signing of the defending AFC North champions.
In Bryant the Bengals have another MarvGuy. A seasoned veteran that has survived the hard knocks of the NFL elsewhere and knows the difference between being a pro and being a kid. A guy that has some good wheels left (certainly more than Laveranues Coles, the club believes), is solid in the locker room, and treats the game like a job. Dhani Jones meet Cedric Benson meet Brandon Johnson meet Evan Mathis meet Tank Johnson meet Roy Williams meet Antonio Bryant, No. 81.
Indeed, in Bryant the Bengals have a guy that feels good enough about his locker room presence that he made some news last year in Tampa Bay when he called a players-only meeting.
"I don't mind stepping up and speaking out," Bryant would say later Thursday. "For one, it's all about action. If you're a guy that can do it on the field, you can use it in that position. There's a time and place to do things like that. I never approached it like, 'This is what I'm supposed to do.' It's a feeling and it's a moment and that's why I'm willing to do that if someone has to step up and do that."
He might have raised some eyebrows when he did it last year because he was struggling on the field with a knee injury and yet another quarterback. But he also built up enormous respect with the support staff and media during his two-year stint in Tampa.
The two things that stood out about Bryant on Thursday:
His size. (This is a big, 205-pound man. A bruiser.)
His directness. (He called his shots even if he was shooting himself.)
"Playing football has always been easy for me. It's just been the politics and the maturity and doing all the right things," Bryant told a sparse March Madness media contingent. "I feel like I've finally got a grasp on that. That's why I'm here."
Bryant is here because of the man in the second row. Lewis may be headed into the last year of his contract, but with an owner that craves stability he has helped make this one of the most stable teams in the NFL. Lewis' eight seasons in Cincinnati have coincided with a time of unprecedented upheaval and change in the league and the irony is that one of the most unstable teams has become a port in the storm for a guy like Bryant.
Bryant arrived here Thursday as a snapshot of all that turmoil with a suitcase of eight different head coaches in the eight seasons. He was there when Bill Parcells, Romeo Crennel, Mike Nolan and Raheem Morris were hired to rebuild. He was there when Chad Hutchinson, Charlie Frye, Alex Smith and Josh Freeman were wet-behind-the-ears quarterbacks given the key to their franchises.
That's why Bryant looked at Lewis on Thursday and talked about how nice it was to be someplace "solid." Lewis was hired the same year Parcells was hired in Dallas, 2003, when Bryant was in his second season. Since then the Bengals have had one coach and two starting quarterbacks, the same one for the last six years. Yes, you can say, seven years of mediocrity at 56-57-1. But you can also say seven years of two division titles and two other seasons that came down to the last game for a playoff berth.
Just ask Antonio Bryant.
"In the league there's not a lot of continuity amongst teams because everyone wants to win now," Bryant said. "You look at the organization. They did a great job of building and establishing a foundation. It seems every year they try to find a piece that was weak and try to repair it as opposed to cleaning ship. Because everywhere I've been it was either the whole team was cleaned out and we were brought in, or we got cleaned out as I was there."
But the thing that impressed Lewis during the phone calls and interviews was how candid Bryant was about cleaning out his own past. The practice confrontation with Parcells that led to his trade to Cleveland. The uncomfortable time in San Francisco punctuated by a suspension. A failed drug test in 2007, the year he didn't have a job.
On Thursday he talked about learning to do things the right way. When to approach coaches. How to approach teammates with the proper body language.
"And a lot of times it was a lack of understanding because I never had bad intentions," Bryant said. "I'll tell you first and foremost I always want to play good football. I always felt like going out there and making the plays and playing good football would handle everything. But there are other parts of life."
"Really impressive that way," said Lewis, loving it when he read that Bryant called himself "edgy."
"That's the way he came across to me the first opportunity I had to speak with him on the phone and talk about different things," Lewis said. "He's very straightforward. He's certainly not a prima donna, and that part of it is what we're looking for here. We're looking for gritty guys. That's what we're about. The two guys we visited with (Bryant and Terrell Owens) both came across very well. I'm not saying Terrell Owns is a prima donna. He's not at all. We were very impressed by him.
"In Antonio we added a guy that's excited about the opportunity. He's excited about being wanted, and frankly that's the thing he sold to me. He's never been in a situation where he could go somewhere where they wanted him."
Any surprise, then, that Bryant played his college ball at the University of Pittsburgh in Lewis' hometown of grit? Lewis loved the stories he heard from Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes when Hayes was the special teams coach for the Steelers and he would see Bryant every day watching the Steelers practice at the shared facility and how he would challenge the NFL cornerbacks.
Hayes can still remember the Steelers' Troy Edwards walking by Bryant joking, "That kid must go to class even less than I did."
Actually, Bryant was a high school honor student growing up in Miami.
"He loves football," Hayes said.
When Nolan later talked about his time in Frisco, he said he made a mistake when he released Bryant. That he was the Niners' best receiver and that he misunderstood how Bryant was trying to help the situation.
"It was a sensitive situation for them," Bryant said of the Alex Smith puzzle. "Obviously he was a young guy they invested a lot money-wise and time. Sometimes you get pressure from other people and there are a lot of prejudices as far as people that already have their take on what type of person you are from previous incidents. There's a lot baggage that came with the Bill (Parcells) situation within itself. There's not much I can do but continue to be me and persevere."