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Up until last Sunday, Tampa Bay's offense had been fairly productive this season. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay's offense, which currently ranks 25th in the NFL, its momentum came to a screeching halt in Indianapolis, where the Bucs lost to the Colts, 33-14.
Despite suffering that loss and losing running backs Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle), and left tackle Luke Petitgout (knee) to their respective injuries over the past two weeks, the Bucs offense still has several reasons to be confident.
Quarterback Jeff Garcia has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 914 yards and has tossed four touchdowns and zero interceptions, and wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard have combined for 41 catches for 610 yards and two touchdowns through five games.
However, some Bucs fans still are wondering what in the world has happened to wide receivers Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall, both of whom are playing behind Galloway and Hilliard.
Stovall turned in an impressive offseason and training camp. In fact, he was listed as a starter when the Bucs first released their depth chart in July.
But the 2006 third-round draft pick hit a wall in camp. He had a difficult time overcoming dehydration issues as well as what was deemed "sore legs." Those problems allowed Hilliard to work his way into the starting lineup to play opposite Galloway.
"Ike and Joey were our starters coming out of camp," said Bucs wide receivers coach Richard Mann. "As long as they are productive, they can play, they're not hurt and they can play they stay in there. If they start to fall back and they're not doing what they're supposed to do then we'll make a change."
The Bucs suggested a few weeks ago that Stovall was working his way back from those issues, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver still is looking for his first catch of the season and has seen limited playing time on offense thus far.
"I haven't been given any explanations, but I'm not really looking for any," said Stovall, who caught seven passes for 102 yards as a rookie. "This is a professional team, and if the coaches make decisions and they feel comfortable with the guys out there then that's fine with me. I just need to stay ready because you never know what could happen."
According to Mann, Stovall has been impressive in practice and could see more playing time sooner rather than later.
"Maurice is going good. He's doing real good," said Mann. "If he continues to do good he'll get his shot. When he gets his shot he's got to take it and run with it."
Speaking of shots, some can't help but wonder if Clayton is running out of them. After exploding on to the scene as a rookie with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns, Clayton hasn't come close to showing glimpses of the player he was in 2004.
A former first-round draft pick, Clayton has just three catches for 36 yards this season. He also had a key drop and a potentially costly fumble against the St. Louis Rams. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden didn't hesitate to explain why Clayton and Stovall are playing behind Galloway and Hilliard.
"The guys playing ahead of them are playing better," said Gruden. "They're playing pretty good, too. We're throwing the ball pretty well, if statistics mean anything. We only had 40 snaps the other day [against Indianapolis]. Hell, if I had 70 snaps and we threw it 40 times maybe they'd have more opportunities to catch the ball."
Gruden brings up an interesting point. Neither Clayton nor Stovall is getting on the field much or having too many passes thrown their way, but there haven't been as many opportunities for them to get the ball as one might initially think.
The Bucs are not passing the ball a lot, especially when you compare their pass attempts through five games in 2006 to the first five games of 2007.
Through five games last season, the Bucs executed 187 passing plays and 112 running plays. This season has been much different. The Bucs have actually run the much ball more, calling 141 running plays and just 121 passing plays.
Garcia has only thrown more than 25 passes in a game once this season, which was in Seattle in Week 1. He's averaging just 22.6 pass attempts through five games. To put that number in perspective, Tampa Bay averaged 37.4 pass attempts per game through the first five contests of the 2006 regular season.
Some fear that the loss of Petitgout will prompt Gruden to feature more two-tight end and max-protect sets to help left tackle Donald Penn in pass protection. However, sources told Pewter Report this week that although he will be making just his second start in the NFL Sunday vs. Tennessee, Penn is extremely athletic and talented, and capable of holding his own, which shouldn't hinder the Bucs' ability to feature three- and four-receiver sets. That could bode well for Clayton and Stovall at some point this season.
"Mike and Maurice get what we give them," said Mann. "It's nothing they're doing wrong. They're just getting what we're giving them. Now, when they get in there they have to perform."
But even when the Bucs were passing the ball more than they were running it, Clayton was still struggling with injuries and dropped passes. As a result, Clayton has caught just 58 passes for 764 yards and one touchdown in 31 games since 2005.
One of the main reasons why Clayton caught 80 passes as a rookie was because the Bucs were running out of players to play wide receiver. Remember – Keyshawn Johnson was gone after the 2003 season, Keenan McCardell was a holdout and was later traded to San Diego in October, Joe Jurevicius was limited with a back injury, while Joey Galloway missed the first half of the '04 season with a groin injury.
All of those circumstances practically made Clayton the Bucs' No. 1 receiver by default, but to his credit he took advantage of the opportunities that came his way. Once Galloway got healthy Gruden built more of his offense around the speedy receiver in 2005.
Galloway, who turns 36 in November, has caught 163 passes for 2,650 yards and 19 touchdowns since '05. While his blocking ability still is considered a valuable attribute on offense, Clayton's production as a pass-catching receiver has dropped off substantially since his rookie campaign.
In fact, four players – Galloway, Hilliard, running back Michael Pittman and tight end Alex Smith – have caught more passes than Clayton since '05, as you can see below:
RECEPTIONS SINCE 2005 SEASON Galloway: 163 catches for 2,650 yards and 19 touchdowns Hilliard: 97 catches for 925 yards and three touchdowns Pittman: 94 catches for 799 yards and one touchdown Smith: 89 catches for 735 yards and seven touchdowns
Clayton: 58 catches for 768 yards and one touchdown
If that isn't disappointing enough, Clayton's 58 receptions are just five better than Cadillac Williams (53) and just 24 better than TE Anthony Becht (34), neither of whom has been considered consistent or reliable receiving threat since 2005.
Hilliard has started all five regular season games for the Bucs and currently leads the team in receptions with 23 for 304 yards. He's on pace to catch 74 passes for 973 yards. Hilliard, 31, has played so well that the Bucs have actually given him the option to practice on Wednesday, much like Galloway's practice regimen.
The Bucs believe Galloway, who has 18 catches for 306 yards and two touchdowns, and Hilliard deserve more credit than Clayton and Stovall deserve criticism for their play this season.
"Ike has 23 catches and he's played big," said Gruden. "Ike had  yards in a half against Carolina. Let's give Ike some credit instead of finding something to complain about. I really feel good about what Ike has brought here and Galloway has been stellar for us. When we get into a situation.
"When where we have the ball more and throw it more maybe you'll see more of [Clayton and Stovall]."
In addition to Clayton's role as a blocking receiver and both Clayton and Stovall's significant roles on special teams, the Bucs believe both players added competition to the wide receiver position in the offseason and during training camp and preseason, which in turn has made the starters, particularly Hilliard, better players.
"With the competition we had it made everybody better, Ike included," said Mann. "We made our decisions coming out of camp and we've got to live with them. Up until last week we looked like we knew what we were doing. Last week we got our ass kicked, but good teams bounce back."
Individual stats are not as important as wins and losses in the NFL, although you wouldn't necessarily know that if you were listening to selfish wide receivers like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss.
Gruden had his fair share of time with a selfish wide receiver in Keyshawn Johnson and doesn't have the time or the patience for it, especially when the Bucs are off to a 3-2 start and currently are in first place in the NFC South division.
Catches don't guarantee wins. Just ask Clayton, who watched the Bucs go 5-11 during his 80-reception season.
"It doesn't, man. That's what I've learned," Clayton said. "You have to be a team player. It's not about individual stats because in the end it all shows up. I'm still here and this team knows my value and what I do. They know the value of Maurice Stovall and what he can do. We're here and we're practicing hard every day. We're ready to play when we get our opportunity, and they know that. It might not show up in the stats, but the Bucs know what they have in us. We're glad to take on the roles that they've given us and we're just waiting in the shadows for that big day."
One thing neither Clayton nor Stovall get enough credit for is the fact that they've accepted and embraced their roles on offense. Neither player has complained publicly about their roles or lobbied more for the ball.
"We're a team," said Stovall. "It's not all about you, me, Mike, Ike, Joey or anybody else. We're a whole team and everybody has to play their role."
No one knows when either Clayton or Stovall will see more action on offense. But one thing is for sure – Clayton and Stovall's unselfish play, however limited their playing time might be right now, certainly is something that hasn't gone unnoticed by the Bucs.
"I guess that says a lot about them," Gruden said of Clayton and Stovall. "Let's be honest. A lot of these guys would rather catch six balls and lose than one ball and win. If that attitude ever festers around here then we'll go with one receiver at a time. I'm tired of these wide receivers bitching about the ball. I want to win the game. Whoever catches it I think the defenses that we've been playing have had a lot to do with that. Hell, everybody wants the ball. Everybody wants to be part of it. Everybody wants to call plays and everybody wants to have entitlement. I try not to get too prideful over that type of stuff. That's just part of being a good pro football player.
"We have some blue chip, great guys that care about winning, care about the team and care about each other. Mike Clayton and Stovall's ability to wait their turn is a credit to them, but it's also part of being a team member."
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