WR Michael Clayton had the biggest play in overtime, turning a short pass into a 29-yard gain
Rookie running back Clifton Smith sat motionless and alone on a stool in front of his assigned space in the visitors' locker room in Kansas City.
While many of his teammates gave each other joyous slaps on the back and laughed out loud as they changed and showered after the Bucs' 30-27 comeback win over the Chiefs, Smith quietly sat, still sweaty, in his uniform pants and undershirt. He had a wide grin on his face as he soaked in the moment.
Smith, who originally joined the team as an undrafted free agent this offseason and spent the first half of the year on the practice squad before getting a call to the active roster before last week's game in Dallas, had reason to be excited. His 97-yard scamper for a touchdown, only the second score on a kickoff return in franchise history, cut into what was a 21-point Kansas City lead at the time and ignited the Bucs' crazy comeback.
Pulling his cell phone out of his locker, Smith couldn't help but chuckle – word of his big play had spread beyond those in attendance at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday to family and friends back home.
"I've got about 10 text messages and five missed phone calls," Smith said with a laugh.
But the shifty young back out of Fresno State will gladly pay for any overages on his phone bill after the first touchdown of his professional career was one of the biggest plays of the day.
After fielding a Connor Barth kickoff at his own three-yard line late in the second quarter, Smith sprinted straight ahead before making one quick cut to the left and then heading up the sideline. Jon McGraw, the final Chiefs defender in the picture, had a chance to bring Smith down from behind as he neared the Kansas City 30-yard line, but some remarkable awareness by the Bucs' rookie allowed him to shrug off the would-be tackle and dash the rest of the way into the end zone.
"The first thing I saw was my teammates just knocking everybody out," Smith said. "They made it easy for me. They had great blocking up front and I just saw a hole and hit it. All the credit goes to those guys.
"I was getting up field and saw [McGraw] still running at an angle, so I kind of looked at my shadow a little bit and saw he was getting close. I just cut in on him and he slid up on past."
Smith's return cut the Chiefs' lead to 24-10 with just over two minutes left in the first half and seemed to spark the club on what would prove to be the biggest comeback in the franchise's 33-year history. A Matt Bryant field goal as time expired in the second quarter made it 24-13 in favor of the Chiefs, and the Bucs went on to outscore Kansas City 17-3 the rest of the way to pick up their sixth win of the year.
As ecstatic as he was to help ignite his team's improbable comeback win, Smith was more proud of the effort the team put forth as a whole.
"It's a great feeling right now," Smith said. "I can't let my excitement get too much to me, because I still have a long way to go for the game. But just to put a bug in the team, that was big for me.
"I was so excited to put a spark into the team and after that, everybody just got going and kept rolling. It was a great team effort today. I can't let my return overshadow what we did as a team today. It was huge."
Smith's evaluation of the game was right on – there were almost too many outstanding individual moments by members of the Bucs to count. Head Coach Jon Gruden agreed, but did make sure to mention his young rookie's splash play.
"It was big," Gruden said. "It gave us a chance. Right then we were struggling. It was a hot day and it was not going well. Clifton gave us a chance, gave us some life and energy. There were four or five big plays we made today that allowed this to happen."
Antonio Bryant made a handful of those big plays to which Gruden, including several dazzling catches highlighted by a fourth-quarter touchdown grab that helped tie the game. Alex Smith showed outstanding hands on a low pass from Jeff Garcia after Bryant's score to earn a two-point conversion and even the game with just seconds left in the fourth quarter. Earnest Graham threw a touchdown pass to Smith earlier in the second half. Tanard Jackson forced and recovered a Jamaal Charles fumble moments after Smith had lost a potentially-costly fumble of his own.
And then, one play into overtime, wide receiver Michael Clayton broke free of a tackle after catching a short pass in overtime and rumbled another 25 or so yards down the sideline to help get the Bucs in field goal position.
As difficult as it would be – if not impossible – to pinpoint which of those plays was any bigger than the rest, it's hard to look past the plays from the duo of Clifton and Clayton.
In short, Smith's return helped start the Bucs rally and Clayton's catch and run helped finish it.
After winning the coin toss in overtime and starting the first sudden death possession at the Bucs' 26, Garcia threw a short pass to Clayton after scrambling around. It was a dumpoff under pressure, really; with two defenders in the area, the play seemed doomed to be nothing more than a short gain. But Clayton stuck a hand in the ground, kept his balance as he shrugged off a tackler and followed some excellent blocks downfield on his way to a 29-yard gain, all the way to the Chiefs' 45-yard line.
"I always try to go forward," Clayton said. "That's the kind of player I am. I'm just trying to make a play, really. Jeff did a great job staying with me. I had a slant route, he rolled out and I came back out not knowing what was out there. The defender, I don't know, but I guess he took a bad angle and we were able to make a play.
"We had some good blocking. I don't know exactly what happened at the time, but I knew that Jeff threw a great ball, I was able to break a tackle and make some yards down the field."
Watching from the sideline, Gruden said the play was vintage Michael Clayton.
"It was a great catch and great run after the catch," Gruden said. "Those are the kind of plays that will bring him back to life again, I think, and really allow him to explode back on the scene again in the NFL. He did some great things today.
"I was thinking about jumping in front and helping him out [by blocking]. He got a good block from somebody, but I can't tell you who it was. He's just a football player. For all the things he's been through in the last few years, for him to make a signature play in a game like this is huge for him [and] huge for us."
Eight plays later, Bryant booted a 34-yard field goal through the uprights and the Bucs escaped Arrowhead Stadium with the win. As unlikely as the outcome may have seemed for the Bucs earlier in the game, Clayton said the team's attitude never faltered.
"You have an opportunity to win," Clayton said. "We knew coming in that this was a game that we needed. With opportunities to win the game still available to us, you've got to do what you've got to do to take advantage of it. We did that. We went all the way to the lowest of the low tonight, but we dug ourselves out of the hole and I applaud my teammates for it."
With a bye week up next, Smith and Clayton agreed that the good vibes from the Bucs' amazing victory – helped in part by their outstanding individual plays – would carry over as the team rested, relaxed and prepared to return for the remainder of the season.
"That was huge," Smith said. "If that game wouldn't have turned out the way we wanted it to, it would have been a grind over this bye week. Now we've got the win under our belts and everybody can relax going into this bye week, get healthy and come back next week ready to roll."
Added Clayton: "It's unbelievable. We had big plays throughout. Antonio Bryant caught a big ball at the end of the game. Everybody just played hard. We each, as individuals, ignited everybody and we got the victory.
"We put ourselves in position. We're coached well enough and we have our hearts in the right place to go out and fight for the win. It showed tonight, it's showed all season and we came out with a tough win."