WR Michael Clayton is ready to snatch his latest opportunity to be a factor in the Bucs' offense
In March of 2004, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for Joey Galloway, a big-play receiver who would eventually transform the team's passing game. A little over a month later, the Bucs used their first-round draft pick on Lousiana State wideout Michael Clayton.
After that, nothing went according to plan.
Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, one of the heroes of the 2002 Super Bowl season, was still trying to overcome a knee injury. Feeling short-handed, the Bucs signed former Green Bay Packer Bill Schroeder just before training camp. Later, former Oakland Raiders great Tim Brown became available, and the Buccaneers pounced.
Jurevicius struggled to regain his form. Brown was at the end of his stellar career. Galloway suffered a groin injury in the 2004 season opener and missed the first half of the season. Schroeder was gone after three games.
The Buccaneers' receiving corps was in shambles…or, it would have been, if not for the presence of rookie Michael Clayton.
In what has to be considered the very definition of "picking up the slack," Clayton caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns in 2004. At the time, it was one of the five most prolific seasons ever for an NFL rookie receiver. It seemed to portend great things.
After that, nothing went according to plan.
At this point, the story is familiar to any Buccaneers fan. Galloway recovered from his injury and has been the team's top receiver for the last three-and-a-half years, proving to be a reliable deep threat no matter who was at quarterback. Meanwhile, Clayton has struggled to regain his rookie-season form, in part due to injuries. In the three-plus seasons since his 80-catch debut, Clayton has just barely doubled his career totals, with 88 receptions since.
But here's where it might get interesting again, if only because it has come full circle. Galloway, clearly the team's top receiving threat heading into 2008, has sustained a foot injury. Clayton is a prime candidate to step into Galloway's role if the latter is unable to play against Chicago this weekend. The Bucs have other options, including third-year man Maurice Stovall and speedy rookie Dexter Jackson, but Clayton clearly has a chance to emerge this weekend.
"It's a big opportunity, one that I've been waiting for," said Clayton, who added that his first choice was to play alongside Galloway. "Mentally you have to stay positive, it's a long season, you never know what's going to happen. You treat every game the same, the way you prepare, and go into practice as if you're going to be the guy.
"Anything can happen. It happened this week for me – a tremendous opportunity and it couldn't come at a better time. It's early in the season so I think I'll get a lot of plays out there."
Clayton had one catch for six yards in Sunday's win over Atlanta. He saw action at Galloway's split end spot after the veteran receiver left the game with a foot injury, but the Bucs, up by 17 at one point, were mostly running the ball in the second half. Chicago likes to crowd the line of scrimmage with its defense, which means the Bucs will likely have to prove themselves in the passing game in order to open up the run.
Somebody, then, will have to make the Bears alter their strategy. Or maybe several somebodies. Clayton knows he's not the only one who can take advantage of a golden opportunity on Sunday at Soldier Field.
"There are a lot of opportunities for every wide receiver who will be out there," he said. "We'll game-plan it and get what we want, get the looks that we want with the wide receivers that we want and we'll go from there.
"The opportunity is there and I feel real comfortable with Brian Griese being back there and what we can do as an offense. We've established our running game in both games that we've played in, and once we get that rolling with the offensive line that we have there, it will give Brian a good chance to throw the ball and we'll make adjustments."
Yes, you've heard this story before, once or twice in the years since Clayton put up his 80-catch campaign. The talent is still there and the will is still there, so Clayton's next big season has been a possibility for several years now. This just might be the best intersection of good fortune and good health that has presented itself to the hard-working fifth-year receiver so far.
"I've been hungry, man," he said. "I've been hungry for five years. Nothing has changed, my mentality hasn't changed. The opportunity has changed and I'm looking forward to taking advantage of it. Like I said, I'm really excited about the opportunity. I'm blessed to be in this position. God has kept me healthy and I've been able to take advantage of it."