Michael Clayton absorbs big hits like all receivers, but he also dishes out more hits than most
Last year, when they crowded around him in the locker room, everyone wanted to know how a rookie could make such an enormous impact on the team so quickly.
This year, when they crowd around Michael Clayton – and they still do – they want to know essentially the same thing. How can this rookie be doing so much so fast? Only know there's a tougher follow-up question: Is there still room for you to excel?
Has anyone ever had a shorter reign as "best rookie in franchise history" than Michael Clayton?
That's no disparagement to Clayton. It was clear from the early going last season that the rookie from LSU, the 15th pick overall and the fifth receiver drafted in 2004, was no ordinary rookie. His preparation, his work ethic, his aggressive approach to the game, his maturity and, of course, his supreme skills vaulted him right into the league's upper echelon of receivers.
By season's end Clayton had 80 catches for 1,191 yards and seven touchdowns. He was 11th in the conference in catches, ninth in yards and first among all NFL receivers in average yards gained after the catch. With apologies to Warrick Dunn, Santana Dotson, Martin Gramatica, Donnie Abraham, Hugh Green, Mike Alstott, Paul Gruber and Lawrence Dawsey, it was probably the most promising rookie season in Buccaneer history.
This year's first-rounder, fifth-overall pick Cadillac Williams, is making one of the greatest entrances in NFL annals, let alone the Bucs' own 30-year history. His league-record 434 rushing yards through three games has captured the nation's attention, helped by the fact that the Bucs are 3-0 and might be 1-2 without him. Williams has also shifted the balance on Tampa Bay's offense; after three games last year the Bucs had dropped back to pass 123 times and handed it off 61 times. Through the first three outings of 2005, the Bucs have run 82 passing plays and 112 rushing plays.
That's 41 fewer drop-backs through the first fifth of the season, and that is quite obviously lost opportunities for the wide receivers. Thus, everyone is waiting to see if the offensive shift is beginning to frustrate Clayton, who came into the season determined to top his rookie numbers.
They'll be waiting a long time.
Clayton certainly isn't frustrated with 3-0, and he bears no jealousy towards Williams. In fact, the two young stars, two pillars around him this team will clearly be built for years to come, have become fast friends. Clayton is the more outgoing of the two and has taken Williams under his wing. The two know they can be a combined threat that is hard to handle.
"Our mentality is that we're not going to be stopped," said Williams. "If they want to stop the run we're going to pass; if they want to stop the pass, we're going to run. To have that mentality and to be successful in doing that is really good for our offense."
Clayton isn't just sitting around waiting for his opportunities, or playing the decoy downfield. If the Bucs are going to run the ball as often as possible here in the early part of the season, then he's determined to be involved. The 6-4, 215-pound receiver has always prided himself on being a complete player – that's the one thing the Bucs stressed above all else when they drafted him in April of 2004 – and that means an intense approach to his blocking duties. The results have sometimes been eye-popping, as Clayton lays out corners, safeties and linebackers in the open field to spring Williams for extra yards.
"When we get out into space, I've not seen anybody block by Michael Clayton ever in football as a wide receiver," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, not tempering his praise. "He is a great blocking wide receiver."
Given his serious approach to the game, it's likely that Clayton would continue blocking his heart out all year, even if the Bucs' offense remains heavily weighted towards the ground attack. But he also knows that Williams' explosive start will eventually be a boon to the passing attack. While opposing defenses have yet to over-stack the front to stop Williams, Clayton is sure they will, and probably sooner rather than later. That's when opportunities will open up for Clayton, Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.
"We've got three great receivers here and we want to make the blocks downfield," said Clayton. "We want to do what we can to help our running game, and in turn the running game will help the passing game."
Here's a little secret about Clayton's receiving numbers, though: They're not really as depressed as one might imagine. Through three games, Clayton has caught 15 passes for 185 yards. That would put him on pace for, believe it or not, exactly 80 receptions, the same total as last year. The yardage rate is down a bit – he's on pace for 987 – but it only takes one big game to get that back in line.
Perhaps the only number that would disappoint Clayton at this time is his zero in the touchdowns column; his main goal for 2005 was to get into the end zone more often. That, too, is probably just a matter of circumstance. Quarterback Brian Griese still has five touchdown passes through three games, which puts him on pace for 27. In the first game, two of those went to rookie tight end Alex Smith; last week in Green Bay, two went to Galloway. Clayton's number will be called soon. Griese certainly has confidence in him, and his appreciation of the second-year player's game has only risen this season.
"Last year, Mike Clayton caught a bunch of balls, had a lot of yards and really busted onto the scene," said Griese. "We've kind of switched now this year, early in the year, with our philosophy of running the football and have asked him to do different things as far as blocking in the running game. And he's really stepped up and shown what kind of a player he is. He's been able to adapt, not catching so many balls but blocking for our running game. That's a credit to him."
Soon, that credit will be repaid. When the Bucs put it in the air more, Clayton will be there to bring it down.
"To be a successful team, you have to be a dominant run team," he said. "Then, when you get the looks that you can, you definitely want to attack it in the passing game.
"We'll work accordingly. I think now we're starting to get the kind of looks that we want to get. There's going to be a time when we can definitely open it up in the passing game. Like I said, we'll just work with what we get. The looks we're going to get coming in the future are definitely what we want to see."