WR Michael Clayton has battled injuries this year but is still poised for a breakout
A roar went up from the Raymond James Stadium crowd on Sunday, about three minutes into the fourth quarter of what would eventually be a 17-13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers win over the Detroit Lions. The cheer was independent of anything happening on the field, which was a bit strange.
Bucs' Head Coach Jon Gruden, of course, had his attention focused squarely on the action between the lines. Had he known what had turned the crowd on, he might have felt a little less...well...lonely.
For awhile there on Sunday, about the time the third quarter was leaking into the fourth, Gruden wasn't sure who he still had at his side. His left tackle, Anthony Davis, was out with a shoulder stinger. His prized rookie back, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was resting a sore hamstring and an aching foot. His starting receivers, Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, were not on the field, victims of cramps and, in Clayton's case, an aching shoulder.
Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli was there, but Gruden wasn't necessarily enjoying his company.
"I felt like everybody was leaving me yesterday," said the Bucs' coach, mostly joking. "I got so mad at the trainer, Todd. First Cadillac is out then Anthony Davis; Clayton's gone; Galloway's gone; what do you want me to do?"
That cheer, though, heralded Galloway's return. On the last play of the third quarter, the veteran receiver had made his seventh catch of the day on a crossing route, and worked hard to get his arm and the ball over the first-down line for a 12-yard gain. In the process, he had extended his stressed leg muscles beyond the point they could take on this sticky, sweltering day. He was seized by cramps and he simply had to go to the locker room for a dose of intravenous fluids.
The Bucs still had the ball when Galloway ran back out of the tunnel and onto the sideline. They had taken it just past midfield and had seen the drive extended when Detroit jumped offside on an attempted punt. It was first-and-10 from the 42 when Galloway hastily swiped his helmet off the bench and ran back onto the field.
Unfortunately, his first route back into the game was rendered irrelevant when Brian Griese's attempted pass to TE Alex Smith was intercepted by Detroit safety Terrence Holt. The Bucs' offense would have the ball only one more time in the fourth quarter, and they would stick to the run in order to drain the clock and preserve their slim lead.
In other words, Galloway's crowd-pleasing return to the field was basically moot, though it might have eased Gruden's mind a bit. Still, even without another catch in the fourth quarter, Galloway finished with seven receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown, and that was far from moot.
The Buccaneers used a conservative and regimented approach to Galloway's preparations during training camp this year, as Gruden was determined to keep the game-changing receiver in the mix all season this time around. Last year, Galloway missed most of the first half with a groin injury, and that only made his outstanding production in the second half more painful. Even though it was only five minutes of the fourth game of the year, Gruden was clearly unhappy to be without Galloway's services against the Lions.
"Joey and I had a good conversation after the game," said Gruden. "We'll do whatever we have got to do to keep him healthy. We missed him three or four times yesterday for big chunks, he could have had a real big day. He played tremendous football for us and certainly will be in the lineup as much as possible."
Plenty of numbers support the notion that Galloway is the home run threat the Bucs' offense has been seeking for years. He is averaging 18.6 yards per reception through four games. He is tied for 12th in the conference in receiving yards even though Tampa Bay is at the bottom of the league rankings in pass attempts. He has nine touchdowns in his last nine games, dating back to last year. One particular moment supports the notion as well: When he caught a post pass from Griese in stride three plays into the second half, the Lions' secondary had no hope; Galloway split the last two defenders and literally jogged the last 40 yards into the end zone.
"When he gets off clean and gets that stride established, he is dangerous," said Gruden. "When you have a guy that can make really big plays, you like to roll the dice a little bit. With Joey Galloway we have a guy that can't just make the crowd stand up, but keep them standing. It is important that you have that threat."
In talking about the pass plays that worked particularly well against Detroit – and enough did to give Griese 302 gross passing yards – Gruden admitted that there is a part of him that would like to throw the ball on every play. Certainly that desire is fueled by the presence of his two starting receivers, Galloway and Clayton.
Each of those two wideouts has caught 17 passes this year, but the fact that Galloway has 120 more yards and three more touchdowns might make the passing attack seem lopsided. Though he hasn't said a word, it might be eating a bit at Clayton, who had one of the great rookie season by a receiver of all time in 2004, with 80 catches for 1,193 yards. Against Detroit, Clayton had just two catches for 11 yards, though he was obviously not 100 percent healthy.
"He's had a shoulder problem and he's fighting through it," said Gruden. "It's been a tough year. He's been in some real collisions in the first month of the season. We haven't been getting him the ball as much as we would like to."
Still, it's early. It would be shocking if Clayton didn't emerge as one of the team's most important offensive weapons. He is too skilled, too hard of a worker and too much of a team player to get lost in the shuffle. At the moment, the Bucs are still riding the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack and top-ranked defense.
"We haven't thrown the ball as much until yesterday, maybe, as a lot of other teams have," said Gruden. "We're last in the league in attempts. For all those fantasy football fans, we'll try our best to get it going. We have 17 catches from Mike and 17 from Joey and we have spread the ball around pretty good. I think the one thing that matters here is winning games."