Little has held rookie WR Michael Clayton back this year, including late-season fatigue
Michael Clayton officially broke the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie receptions record just before halftime in San Diego, a feat that had seemed like a foregone conclusion since about Week Six. Clayton had put a bulls eye on Mike Alstott's 1996 mark of 65 when he caught seven passes in his NFL debut then proved that to be no fluke in the games that followed.
Clayton had surpassed Lawrence Dawsey's receiving yardage record of 818, set in 1991, three weeks earlier, and on Sunday in San Diego he tied the Bucs' single-game receptions record with nine grabs. About the only rookie receiving mark the first-round pick from LSU hasn't claimed is single-game receiving yardage, which Mark Carrier owns with his 212-yard outing at New Orleans in 1987.
Clayton has three more games to go after that mark, and one might want to think twice before betting against him, even if Carrier's big game in '87 is the only 200-yard game in team history, veterans included.
After those three games, however, Clayton's rather specific window for breaking records will be over and he'll have to take his assault to the team's overall standards. (Although, if he continues at his current pace, he'll have a head start, posting the second-best receptions mark and third-best yardage mark in franchise history.)
And that's the more important question for Clayton and the Buccaneers – not how many records he can establish but how well he builds on his breakout rookie season. Three more games and Clayton's rookie campaign will be frozen forever, an awesome accomplishment that can't be erased. But will it prove to be the launching point for an even greater career, or will it set a standard that he struggles to surpass?
Paying more attention to Clayton's make-up than his numbers, Head Coach Jon Gruden firmly believes that 2004 is the start of something big for hard-working rookie.
"This is as tough a football player as I have been around," said Gruden. "He pushes himself to the limit. We just have to help him have a great offseason, where he can go even further, deeper. That's a goal that we have. A program will be developed for him, but I think he has a chance to be rare."
Looking dispassionately at the game-by-game numbers, one might have wondered if Clayton hit that 'rookie wall' in Week 13, when he had just one catch for 15 yards against the Falcons. At about the same time, his former LSU teammates were starting their five week layoff between the end of the regular college season and the Tigers' New Years Day bowl game.
Those receiving totals against Atlanta were Clayton's lowest of the season, marking just the second time all season that he had fewer than four catches and 50 yards in a game. In context, however, it's clear that this was the type of one-game blip that any productive receiver can have – after all, a number-one receiver isn't assured of a certain number of touches, the way a starting running back is. In addition, the Bucs ran the ball almost exclusively in the second half as they sought to drain the clock in a 27-0 shutout.
Clayton's performance in San Diego on Sunday would also put to rest any talk of hitting a wall. He set new career highs with 145 yards and nine catches, and scored his fourth touchdown of the season. No other rookie Buc receiver had ever had nine catches in a game, though rookie back James Wilder did so in 1981. And Clayton didn't get the majority of his yardage on one big play; rather, he had catches of 29, 23, 20, 18, 17, 17, 13, five and three yards.
In other words, he was an instrumental part of almost every Buccaneer drive, including the last one, on which he nearly made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone before Tampa Bay settled for a field goal in the game's final minute. After the game, Gruden praised Clayton for 'sucking it up' late in the fourth quarter after fellow starting receiver Joey Galloway was felled by cramps.
And yet Gruden believes that Clayton can get even better and more involved, because that rookie wall concept is valid. Clayton's production may not be slumping in December but that doesn't mean it has been easy for him to remain at the top of his game. Remember, too, that Clayton just turned 22 two months ago.
"His stamina, I believe, whether he admits it to you or not, will improve as he becomes a pro football player and matures physically," said Gruden. "The offseason, the grind that he has got to put himself through to be at his peak, his greatness, in the fourth quarter, when he is sore in week 14. Those are traits that are going to come to him."
Clayton's big day in San Diego pushed his season totals to 70 catches for 988 yards and four touchdowns. Not only does that make him the rookie receiving leader by a wide margin – Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, the third overall pick in the draft, is next with 47-637-4 – but among all players it ties him for seventh in the NFC and 12th in the NFL.
He is now on pace for 86 catches, 1,216 yards and five touchdowns and will soon become just the sixth player in team history to post a 1,000-yard receiving season. The man he ostensibly replaced, WR Keenan McCardell, made the Pro Bowl in 2003 with an 84-1,174-8 campaign.
With that, the improvement Gruden hopes to see might not even be in the raw numbers. Clayton has shown big-play ability, such as the acrobatic, 20-yard touchdown catch he made in the fourth quarter on Sunday, and the Bucs would be thrilled to get even more game-changing moments from the young receiver. The hard-nosed rookie is also an excellent downfield blocker, fearless in traffic and devoted to learning the game. In short, he has all the tools and intangibles to be a dominant receiver, and that's what the Bucs would like to see for many years to come.
"He's getting better and better," said Gruden. "There are three or four plays yesterday that he will learn from; mistakes that he did make. He has a chance to be special."