WR Michael Clayton has had fewer big catches than a year ago, but he still has a third of the season to make a major impact
Michael Clayton was leaving the practice field Wednesday afternoon when he stopped to accommodate a clutch of reporters.
Clayton answered their questions patiently and at length, as he always does. He did this when he we was in the midst of a sensational, 80-catch rookie season last fall, and he continues to do so in a sophomore campaign in which he is, stunningly, on pace for half that many receptions.
One question did take Clayton aback for a moment, though he recovered quickly. The interviewer, innocently enough, wondered if the second-year receiver might be pressing this season after everything came so easily to him in 2004. There was no malicious intent in the question, but it did spring from a common misconception.
See, nothing really comes easy in the NFL.
Even before Clayton ever took the field for a game in his rookie season, the Buccaneers' coaching staff was raving about how hard he was working on his craft, how well he was picking up the little nuances of the offense thanks to his constant study. When certain circumstances – Joey Galloway's injury, Tim Brown's decline, Joe Jurevicius' shaky health status, etc. – led to a greater opportunity than anyone expected Clayton to have last year, he ran with it. Boy, did he run with it. Clayton's 80 catches were the fifth-highest total by a rookie in NFL history.
But it wasn't easy. And neither is Clayton's current situation. As a rookie, Clayton was asked to shoulder a load many, many veterans never take on. In 2005, he has battled offseason surgery and some uncharacteristic ups and downs in his own play.
They are challenges of two different kinds. This one is a little tougher, Clayton admits, because he's never faced it before. Still, the approach is the same: Work hard, stay focused and accept nothing but his best.
"It's all about focus and I put that all on myself," said the former LSU star. "Obviously, this is a situation that I've never been in before. I've always been on top of my game. Mentally, I just have to stay positive and not think about a lot of things that go on on the football field."
Clayton's issues began off the field, with offseason knee surgery that cost him virtually all of the team's spring and summer program, those same months that laid the invaluable groundwork for his phenomenal rookie season. His training camp was more about regaining his playing shape than shaping his role in the offense, and that carried into the regular season, as well. In the meantime, Galloway, the 33-year-old speed demon, re-emerged as one of the league's best receivers and became the focus of the passing attack.
"He did have knee surgery in the offseason, which people seem to forget about," said quarterback Chris Simms. "He had to battle through that in the preseason, kind of get himself back in shape, get his knee feeling good again. Of course, when he was doing that, in practice every day we were throwing a lot of balls to Joey and Joey was doing great. It's just kind of one of those things that works out that way. You go with the hot guy and Joey's been on fire since Day One this year."
Clayton recognizes all of this and neither disputes it nor complains about his share of the offensive pie. He also realizes that the Bucs are winning.
"We're all a team," said Clayton. "There is no individual effort out here, as far as our mentality. When you go out in the game, guys get opportunities to take advantage of it, and that's just how it is. Last year, it was the other way around but we were losing. This year we're winning and everybody's happy."
Clayton has had 28 receptions for 323 yards this season, which only seems like a disappointment in light of his rookie numbers. There were seven receivers taken in the first round of the 2004 draft, Clayton the fifth among them. Those seven players this season have averaged 29 receptions this season. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald has broken out with 74 and is among the league leaders, but he is balanced by San Francisco's Rashaun Woods, who has not played. The other five – Clayton, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans and Michael Jenkins – are all currently between 20 and 30 receptions.
It might be reasonable to wonder how much the Jaguars are going to get out of Reggie Williams in the long run, or how productive Jenkins will be in Atlanta over the next 10 years. The Bucs, on the other hand, have no doubt that they have an elite receiver on their hands; 2004 was evidence aplenty.
"I haven't lost any confidence in him," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "He's a big reason that I'm excited. With him and Carnell [Williams] and Alex Smith and [Dan] Buenning and Anthony Davis and Chris Simms, I've got a lot to look forward to here, I think. [Clayton] is a big part of this program and our future and we're looking forward to getting him going."
Clayton will undoubtedly be motivated in 2006 to prove that his true talents lie in the range of his 2004 numbers or higher. But that's getting a good bit ahead of the situation. This season is far from over and the Bucs are going to need some key players to raise their games in order to remain in the Super Bowl hunt. Clayton could very easily prove to be a difference-maker over the last month.
"I think it's been a humbling experience for him a little bit because he had such high hopes," said Gruden. "But there are still five games left and there is a 23-year-old man walking around in that helmet, so the world isn't coming to an end."
Clayton had no receptions last Sunday against Chicago (though he had one surprising drop), and that's something that never happened to him as a rookie. He has been shut out twice this year, both in Buccaneer losses. On the other hand, there have been some games in which he has stood out; notably, in the two games that Galloway didn't make a catch, both Buccaneer victories (vs. Buffalo and at Atlanta), Clayton had two of his better days. In other words, he didn't allow opponents to shut down the passing game simply by smothering Galloway. Also, Clayton has drawn raves for his blocking all year, particularly during the Bucs' run-heavy 4-0 start to the season.
"Clayton's had some big catches in a lot of these games," said Simms. "He hasn't had the big eight or nine-catch games for 150 yards, but he does so many things for our team. He's just got to keep playing and the ball will come his way eventually."
Clayton would like to see those moments come more frequently, but only if they come in the process of a Buccaneer victory.
"I'm a competitor," he said. "I want to make plays all year. That just hasn't happened for me. It's up to me to stay positive, stay in a football mode and do the things I can do to keep this team winning games.
"I'm just trying to get better, finish the season with a bang, get in the playoffs, make our playoff run and just look forward to next year."