WR Michael Clayton proved once again that he could take a hit on Sunday against Dallas
He had a record-setting rookie season after being selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the draft. Expected to remain a key part of the Buccaneers' attack after that outstanding debut, he instead saw his production drop off for several seasons, largely due to injuries.
By 2008, he was becoming something of an afterthought in the team's offensive plans, even if he did show serious signs of life in the last few weeks of the season. He followed that with a promising 2009 offseason and on Sunday, when the Buccaneers opened the regular season against the Dallas Cowboys, he looked much like the player he was expected to be at the end of his breakout rookie season.
No, not Cadillac Williams. We're talking about Michael Clayton here.
The Buccaneers picked Clayton and Williams in back-to-back drafts, Clayton 15th overall in 2004 and Williams fifth overall in 2005. Both were instant hits, Clayton with the best rookie receiving season in team history (80-1,193-7) and Williams with the best rookie rushing season in team annals (290-1,178-6) and the NFL's Rookie of the Year award. As indicated above, neither has been able to fully recapture that rookie-season magic in the years since.
But if Williams was the top positive story in the Buccaneers' 34-21 loss to the Cowboys, with his 97 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, Clayton was just as impressive. The sixth-year receiver led the Buccaneers with five catches for 93 yards and had several of the game's most impressive moments. With fellow starter Antonio Bryant, last year's breakout story, struggling with a knee injury in the second half, it was Clayton who emerged as new quarterback Byron Leftwich's primary target.
For first-year Head Coach Raheem Morris, who was the Buccaneers' assistant defensive backs coach during Clayton's rookie season, the re-emergence of the hard-working wideout was one of the night's most encouraging sights.
"I sure hope those questions about Mike Clayton signing back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were answered today," said Morris. "To see that guy catch that ball up the middle with a safety bearing down on him, stay up, spin around, not even come out of the game and get up off the field and walk off like that…that's the type of toughness we're going to be about around here."
As Morris suggests, Clayton could have moved on following the 2008 season, and the Bucs could have declined to bring the unrestricted free agent back. When the team re-signed the former LSU star, who didn't even reach half of his 80-catch total in any of the subsequent four years, it did raise some eyebrows. But Tampa Bay's new management – Morris and General Manager Mark Dominik – appreciated Clayton's complete game and the toughness he brings to the field. They also saw a player with a string of noteworthy plays in the final month of the 2008 season, including a 58-yard touchdown against Oakland in the finale.
Clayton's toughness most often manifests itself in his blocks on linebackers and defensive backs in the running game, but it was also on display in the third quarter Sunday afternoon on the play Morris alludes to above.
Cutting across the field from left to right, Clayton caught a 20-yard pass into the Dallas red zone on the final play of the third quarter. Before he could get his head around or the ball tucked under his arm, Clayton was hit head-on by Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh. Stunningly, Clayton held onto the football. More stunningly, he didn't even hit the ground. Instead, it was Sensabaugh who ended up on the turf, and later in the X-ray room for a look at his ribs.
The play was huge; Derrick Ward scored four plays later and was briefly just six points down with 14 minutes to play. Clayton's catch was the longest completion on an 84-yard drive that kept the Bucs in the game at that point.
After the game, Clayton wasn't ruing the big hit he took.
"It's going to happen," he said. "It's, 'No fear.' Those who know me know how I play the game. It's what we do. This is our mentality, being a physical football team and defenses that come against this offense know that they're going to have a heck of a fight when they come in and play us."
Indeed, the Bucs rang up 450 yards through a power rushing attack and Leftwich's precision strikes over the middle of the field. After the game, Leftwich praised his receivers but said he thought the offense was capable of much more, presumably in terms of scoring points. Clayton saw the outing as the start of something big.
"In the offseason, we put forth a tremendous effort, getting better every day and jelling together and we put it up to us to not let anything distract us on offense. We had to grow up real fast. We've got some new faces out there. Cadillac Williams came in and ran the ball tremendously."
The Buccaneers gave up a late touchdown in the first half and were trailing 13-7 when they got the ball back with 46 seconds to play before halftime. Rather than run out the clock, the Bucs took a crack downfield, and it was Clayton who drew Leftwich's attention. Racing down the right sideline, Clayton ran past cornerback Terence Newman and dived for a rainbow of a pass from Leftwich. He managed to catch it with his fingertips, pull it in and land just inbounds for a gain of 47 yards.
That set up a near-miss pass into the end zone and a misfired 46-yard field goal attempt by Mike Nugent. While the Bucs failed to capitalize on Clayton's big play, it at least gave them the chance to score.
Like the rest of his teammates, Clayton was unhappy with the final outcome on Sunday afternoon. Yet he couldn't stop himself from thinking positively about much of what transpired on opening day, and not because he needed just one game to surpass his best receiving yardage total of 2008. Rather, Clayton was intrigued by the potential the offense showed as a whole, and what it will mean for the rest of the 2009 campaign.
"This is the only loss of my career that I have a smile on my face after," he said. "I love what we have; there are just a couple of things we have to nail down. We have everything we need right now. I'm happy with the play calls. We went out and made some plays. We left something out there on the field, but offensively we have everything that we want. We have a stepping stone now. Now it's up to us to build on it and this team definitely has the character to do that and I'm excited about the next 15 games."