What’s happened to wide receiver Michael Clayton? Just months after shrugging off questions regarding the dreaded sophomore jinx, Tampa Bay’s second-year receiver finds himself battling through one.

After hauling in a team-high 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns during his rookie campaign, Clayton has struggled to play at the same level this season. He’s caught 28 passes for 323 yards and has yet to score a touchdown through 11 games.

Part of the reason for Clayton’s woes stem from offseason knee surgery, which kept him sidelined during Tampa Bay’s OTAs and mini-camps, and got him off to a slow start in training camp. To make matters worse, the former first-round pick suffered a separated shoulder in preseason.

“I was out for four or five months,” Clayton said of having offseason knee surgery. “I missed the whole offseason and that can affect any player in the NFL because that is one of the most crucial situations that a player needs to be in. That’s when we get game-ready. To miss that, especially coming off surgery, it’s not easy to bounce back from. A lot of guys take a year. But I put in the work. I didn’t miss any practices at training camp and I’m doing all I can, still doing all I can. 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.”

Clayton had a case of the drops in training camp and preseason, and those problems have carried over into the regular season, where he’s dropped several catchable passes. Clayton is on pace to catch just 40 passes for 469 yards and no touchdowns, which would be less than half of the production he had in his rookie season.

“Well, you know what, I do. I’m not going to live off last year,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “I’m never going to do that. It’s what have you done lately. Mike knows that. He’s had some injuries to his shoulder, to his knee. He’s had a rough offseason. He’s mishandled some passes that he’s got to catch and he understands that. He’s practicing good and hopefully there are good things that lie ahead. He’s a big part of this program and our future and we’re looking forward to getting him going.”

Perhaps the main reason why Clayton’s production has slipped is because of the emergence of WR Joey Galloway, who has hauled in a team-leading 58 passes for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns this season.

Last season, Clayton stepped up in place of Galloway, who missed six games with a groin injury. This season, Galloway has been the No. 1 receiver while Clayton has battled through various injuries.

Some believe Clayton’s disappointing encore has actually been the result of a combination of things.

“It’s hard to really put your finger on one thing,” Bucs quarterback Chris Simms said when asked about Clayton’s struggle this season. “He did have knee surgery in the offseason, which people seem to forget about. 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.”

With five games remaining in the 2005 regular season and the Bucs making a strong push for the playoffs, the team is hoping Clayton will catch on sooner rather than later.

“I think it’s been a humbling experience for him a little bit because he had such high hopes,” Gruden said of Clayton. “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.”

Injury Update
The Bucs took the practice field without their starting kicker on Wednesday.

Matt Bryant, who missed a 29-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game vs. the Chicago Bears, has been battling through a hamstring injury he suffered on the opening kickoff of that contest.

With Bryant questionable for Sunday’s game vs. the New Orleans Saints and missing Wednesday’s workout due to the injury, practice squad K Todd France handled kicking duties in practice and apparently did a good job.

“He was seven-for-seven today,” Gruden said of France. “He kicked the ball right through the uprights. He’s got a strong leg. His kickoffs are deep. He appears to be in very good kicking shape. His timing was good. He made six field goals for Philadelphia. We know him. But Matt Bryant’s status is questionable. We’re not going to ask him to kick until later this week as he gets some rest.”

In other injury news, Bucs defensive lineman Dewayne White suffered a hamstring injury during Wednesday’s practice. He was added to the injury report and listed as questionable for Sunday’s contest.

Tight end Anthony Becht (knee), linebacker Marquis Cooper (chest) and safety Will Allen (knee) are all questionable for the Bucs’ upcoming game vs. the Saints.

Tampa Bay Signs WR Russell To Practice Squad
Just one day after releasing him from their active roster, the Buccaneers signed rookie wide receiver J.R. Russell to their eight-man practice squad on Wednesday.

Russell, a seventh-round selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, was released on Tuesday so that the Bucs could sign rookie running back Derek Watson to their active roster.

Bucs Prepare To Invade Baton Rouge
The 3-8 Saints have been forced to play away from New Orleans ever since Hurricane Katrina flooded their hometown back in August.

With the Louisiana Superdome and the city of New Orleans rendered unavailable for the foreseeable future, the Saints have been practicing in San Antonio and splitting their home games up between the Alamodome and LSU Tigers Stadium in Baton Rouge, where the Bucs will be invading on Sunday.

“It’s going to be interesting trip,” said Gruden. “I’ve never been to Baton Rouge before. I’m excited about that. I’ve heard a lot about the tradition at LSU and the city of Baton Rouge. I’m excited to see it for myself. The Saints are a good football team, regardless of what their won-loss record is. I saw them push the Patriots to the brink. They’re a very talented football team, physical. It was a big win last week in the Meadowlands. We’re excited. We’re very eager to play again, obviously.”

The Saints have produced just a 1-4 record at their two homes away from home this season. Their record and displacement have led to thousands of empty seats at the Saints home games. Tampa Bay is apparently aware of the poor attendance for New Orleans home games.

“I don’t know if the speakers are out there,” Simms said of the practice fields at One Buc Place. “Probably not, though. I would assume that…I don’t know what the crowds have been for the last few games, but just from the tape that I’ve seen it doesn’t look like the stands are packed. We can use that to our advantage hopefully, not a whole lot of crowd noise.”

While Simms looks forward to playing in what will likely be far from a hostile environment, other players, like WR Michael Clayton and defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, will play at LSU Tigers Stadium for the first time since their collegiate days.

“It’s awesome to go home, not only to Louisiana but to your hometown of Baton Rouge,” Clayton said. “It’s just going to be a wonderful feeling stepping into that stadium again.”

While it will be special for Clayton and McFarland to play there again, stepping out onto that field will also serve as a devastating reminder of what led the Bucs and Saints to play in Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans.

“I truly wish that I wasn’t going because that would mean what happened to New Orleans wouldn’t have happened,” said McFarland. “But it is what it is and we’ve got to go do it. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to go back, so it’s good to get the opportunity to play there.”

Baton Rouge is the first stop on Tampa Bay’s three-game road trip that will also include visits to Carolina and New England. While that appears to be a tough stretch, the Bucs refuse to look past the Saints.

“Well, we’re [not] going to have to play all three of them this week,” said linebacker Derrick Brooks. “You know we’ve got to play the one. As far as we’re concerned, it’s just taking that approach. That’s just New Orleans and Baton Rouge and that’s what our focus is on. We’ll move on from there Monday, go to the next destination, but we can’t play them all this week. We’ve had three road games in December before. Obviously we’ll keep focus as usual, one game at a time.”

Tampa Bay certainly can’t afford to overlook New Orleans. After all, the Saints have won four of their last six meeting with the Bucs. The Saints are also playing better than their 3-8 record suggests. New Orleans’ last two losses have been by one score or less.

The Bucs, on the other hand, have lost games like this twice this season. Two of Tampa Bay’s four losses were in New York (Jets) and San Francisco, both of which have 2-9 records and are in last place in their respective divisions.

“They’re a dangerous team,” Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly said of the Saints. “They always play us tough. The history, if you look back on it, this is always a tough game. It’s a division game, so they know our personnel and we know their personnel. This is definitely going to be a challenge for us to go into Baton Rouge, Louisiana and get a win.”

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