After all the signing bonuses and salaries are added up, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are paying their starting wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton around $17 million dollars this season. Through six games the receivers have combined for 25 catches for 332 yards and one touchdown. To make matters worse, Clayton is one of the NFL's leaders in dropped passes. In contrast Bucs tight end Kellen Winslow surpasses both receivers in catches (29) and touchdowns (four). Quarterback Josh Johnson was asked why his starting receivers weren't able to make a bigger impact so far in 2009.
"I'm not sure, it is a lot of things that are involved with it," said Johnson. "We call plays to get those guys the ball, but if they're covered, I mean teams roll coverages to our receivers and it opens up Kellen, and it happens. That's what Kellen has brought to this offense. When those guys get in Cover 2, with two high safeties, with their main focus on our two wide outs. It opens up Kellen, and Kellen has taken great advantage of that. It is on us to move those guys around. To move Mike [Clayton] and [Antonio Bryant] around to get them the premier matchups so they can go against a linebacker here or a nickel guy here. Once we do that it is on me as a quarterback to get those guys the ball. I understand that they haven't gotten the ball as much as Kellen, and we are going to do all in our power to get them the ball because they are playmakers."
In Sunday's 28-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Bryant had two catches for 37 yards. One other pass was thrown his direction. Clayton caught one pass for nine yards with three passes thrown his direction. Earlier in the season, Bryant missed the Week 2 game at Buffalo with a knee injury. Clayton was held without a reception against the New York Giants in Week 3 and the Washington Redskins in Week 4. The sixth-year veteran Clayton did not agree with his quarterback that defenses are playing deep zones to take away openings for himself and Bryant.
"No. If anything it is man-to-man coverage every week," said Clayton. "They bring a lot of blitzes to blitz our young quarterback. You have to be able to prepare and handle the blitz to take advantage of opportunities outside. Mostly for the first six games we have seen a lot that."
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, Clayton dropped a number of passes, and received a lot of criticism for that leading up to last week's game against the Panthers. Bryant also was guilty of a dropped pass or two in that game. Johnson was asked if the dropped passes from his receivers are frustrating for him.
"No it happens," said Johnson. "I mean just like I have five interceptions, it happens, it is part of the game. I have my flaws just like everybody has their flaws. For me to get frustrated at them I feel like is unfair to them because at the same time I've put us in bad situations by turning the ball over, which I'm working on eliminating. It goes back to all of us just eliminating those three or four lapses a game and try and take them out of the game and see where we end up after the game."
Clayton responded to what defenses are doing to limit his and Bryant's production. In answering that he acknowledged dropped passes as one of the reasons for the lack of receiving numbers.
"Nothing at all, to be honest," Clayton said. "We are doing a lot of things good, but I know this year we let a couple of balls fall out and get away from us. We just have to get the ball out every opportunity that we have. I believe that will change in itself. That's the nature of this offense. We are learning new things every week."
Johnson has started three games and appeared in one other. He has completed 54-of-99 passes (54.2 percent) for 529 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. His quarterback rating is 58.9. Johnson has also run 21 times for 141 yards for an average of 6.7 yards per carry. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said that Winslow, Bryant, and Clayton are the primary options for the Bucs passing game, and that is not changing despite the lack of receptions.
"Well part of it is opportunity, we threw it 17 times last week," Olson said. "We had more passes called than that. Some of them turned into scrambles with Josh. Still you look at it at the end of the game of whom we are targeting the ball to. Those are the three guys that we are targeting the ball to in all of our games. Those are the three guys we are trying to get the football to. Certainly Cadillac Williams fits into that mix in terms of his rushing attempts and some passes we'll throw out to the halfback as well. We are always looking for ways to get those guys the ball. Again, we've been, I wouldn't say hard headed, I just think we felt we could move the ball running the football last week. The game got a little bit out of hand there, or the game didn't get out of hand but we just didn't have the opportunities in the second half. Kellen is obviously an explosive player, and a very good player. I think just as Josh gets more comfortable with Mike and Antonio he'll start taking some of those chances with the outside deep balls."
The Bucs hope the receivers and Johnson will make strides as they gain experience with each other, and spending more time together. Johnson did not throw to Bryant or Clayton in training camp and the preseason because he never worked with the first team offense. Tampa Bay hopes that traveling abroad, and being together non-stop for four days will help build camaraderie for the offense, and entire team.
"Right now it might may be too early to tell, but I think it can help," said Johnson. "For us to be together Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday it helps to help us grow. It keeps our mind on one thing. We have a long trip out there on Friday, and that allows us to just focus on football the whole time we are on the plane and once we get there we go straight to bed and then we are doing football again. For us the good thing about this trip, all the distractions are eliminated. If some may have distractions or not, I really don't know about what the other guys may have going on, but if this is what it takes for us to clear our minds, I hope it does help, so when we come out on Sunday we can play and try and get our first win."
Clayton agreed with Johnson that the team traveling abroad, and spending four days together would be something the Bucs could use to their advantage.
"Definitely our motto all year has been all that we have is us," Clayton said. "To be able to take advantage of an opportunity like this that brings us closer and more time together with curfews and spending time in the hotel together. All those serve as a camp type atmosphere. It can serve us as a great opportunity to allow us come together and play a whole lot better."
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org