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Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton won his teammates and coaching staff over rather quickly in 2004 by making a huge splash during his rookie season.
The former first-round draft pick out of LSU was thrown to the fire due to a plethora of injuries suffered by Bucs receivers and Keenan McCardell’s holdout, but you wouldn’t have known he was a rookie. Instead, he played like a seasoned veteran in head coach Jon Gruden’s intense version of the West Coast offense, catching a team-high 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns.
Many thought Clayton’s rookie season was a sign of things to come from the 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver. But no one, including Clayton, could have seen the wave of adversity that was headed his way in 2005.
Looking back on it now, Clayton’s second season in the NFL was practically over before it even started. Following his rookie campaign, Clayton underwent surgery to have his left knee scoped. Unfortunately for Clayton, the surgery didn’t take place soon enough.
In fact, Clayton, who has always relied on his body to heal itself as opposed to going under the knife, had never had surgery before, and he held out hope that he wouldn’t need surgery on his knee. By the time he realized his body wasn’t going to work wonders this time around and surgery was indeed needed, it was well into the offseason.
“Personally, I had never had surgery in my life up to that point, so I was a little bit skeptical going through surgery,” Clayton said. “My body had always lined up and I was always able to get healthy, but it just wasn’t happening then. It really pushed me back because it was late March before I had my knee surgery. When I had my knee surgery it was already time to go through organized team activities. I was so far behind, and I really should have had the surgery in January.”
As a result of the late surgery, Clayton got off to a late start. He missed all of Tampa Bay’s OTAs and reported to training camp out of shape due to the fact that he was required to rest his surgically repaired knee.
The knee injury had a domino effect of sorts. Just as he was starting to make some progress, Clayton suffered a dislocated shoulder in the preseason. Those injuries prompted Gruden to build the offense around WR Joey Galloway, who dealt with injuries of his own during Clayton’s rookie year. Galloway went on to haul in a team-high 83 passes for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2005.
Clayton’s season was put out of its misery in Week 16 when he sustained a severe turf toe injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. He finished the season with just 32 catches for 372 yards and no touchdowns.
With reporters repeatedly inquiring about Clayton’s sub-par outing and asking why he wasn’t producing like he had masterfully done during his rookie season, Clayton opted not to point the finger in any direction. He took the high road, and the only time he went down a different path was when he pointed the finger at himself.
“I had the opportunity to make some plays, and I made some plays. I also dropped some balls,” said Clayton. “That’s something you didn’t see from me my first year, but hey, everybody drops balls sometimes. I’m not saying that dropping balls is okay. It just seemed like I was criticized last year for dropping a ball, and people would say, ‘Oh, he’s injured.’ I didn’t drop balls because I was injured. I dropped them because I lost my concentration. If that’s what it is, then that’s what it was, and I’m not going to hide behind an injury because I know what kind of player I am. I know what kind of contributor I can be when given the opportunity. I’m not the type of person that’s going to hide behind injuries. If I’m given an opportunity to make plays I feel I can do that. I play with injuries, and when I play with injuries I play 100 percent. I play all out. When I was out, other guys like Edell Shepherd and Ike Hilliard came in and did a great job for us last year.”
Despite finishing the 2005 season ranked fifth on the team in total catches, Clayton still managed to make his presence known on the football field. In fact, his teammates would be the first to acknowledge the fact that Clayton played an integral role in running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams’ success as a rookie.
Clayton took Williams under his wing shortly after the former Auburn standout was selected by the Bucs with the fifth overall pick in the draft last year. Williams went on to break several records and rush for 1,178 yards (4.1 avg.) and six touchdowns en route to earning NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Clayton, who is regarded as one of the league’s best blocking receivers, takes pride in knowing that he had a hand in Williams’ success both on and off the football field.
“The relationship that Cadillac and I have been able to establish, the way I put myself out there for him to utilize for him to be the best player he can be — I don’t think you see a lot of that, or at least not enough of it in this league,” said Clayton. “I think there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on and guys that are dealing with character issues. I’m a team-oriented guy and I want the best for my team. I played against Cadillac in college and saw what type of player he is. For him to be the best player he could possibly be, he needed the same thing I needed in my rookie year – no distractions. I needed to come home and get a good meal in every day. I couldn’t be sleeping in the hotel. I stayed with my realtor for three months, and she was like a mother to me. I was able to get a foundation that she helped to start me off on. It was something I grew to respect. If I didn’t have that foundation, man, I wouldn’t have been able to be comfortable or expect to play the way I played in my rookie year.
“I went through that, and I wanted to do that for the next guy in line and in my shoes. I wanted to be there for Cadillac and let him know that he wouldn’t have to go through some of the things that guys go through when getting acclimated to the league. It was just about being a good teammate and a good friend. I look at Cadillac like my brother. Not my little brother, I mean my brother. He’s actually older than me, but from experience I lived that. There was no reason why he should go through some of that stuff. This is going to be a friendship that lasts for life, and that’s because we started it off right. Hey, when you’re out on the field with teammates that feel like your brother, you perform better and play harder. I saw an opportunity to help Cadillac and help my team. It did both, and I think it worked out perfect. That’s not to say that was the reason why he won Rookie of the Year, but it was a small part of it, and I’m proud of that, and I know he is, too.”
Although Tampa Bay’s 2005 season ended in the first week of January after a 17-10 home playoff loss to Washington, Clayton wasn’t quite ready to move on from what many have deemed a “sophomore slump.” First, he had to undergo surgery again.
“I did have surgery [this offseason],” Clayton said. “I had a knee scope and a shoulder scope. They were minor. I was back healthy a couple of weeks after those surgeries. I’m probably about 80 percent right now. I’m basically just working on getting back in shape. I’m just trying to get back in football shape so that when we’re ready to take the field as a team again I can go out there with the rest of the guys.”
Clayton prides himself on being a “positive” person, but even he had a difficult time finding something positive besides, of course, Tampa Bay’s NFC South division championship, to take away from the 2005 season. But now that he’s had a chance to reflect on last season, Clayton feels he is already reaping the benefits of the surgery and rehab process he endured this time last year.
“Going through that process in 2005 really helped me this time around,” Clayton said of having surgery. “I just got it done as soon as the season was over. The surgery wasn’t as bad, and I think the process as a whole will be much better this time around.”
Sources told Pewter Report several weeks ago that Clayton had been a regular at One Buccaneer Place this offseason, working out and rehabbing his knee.
As it turns out, they were right. Clayton has been rehabbing his knee 4-5 times a week in two-hour sessions. He’s also spent about an hour and a half in the weight room after each of those rehab sessions.
Clayton is considered a self-motivated person, and he’s got all the motivation in the world pushing him back into the training room and weight room for what can be challenging and grueling sessions.
For starters, Clayton, who was forced to watch Tampa Bay’s first playoff game in three years from the sidelines due to the turf toe injury, said he never wants to experience that helpless feeling again.
“That was real tough, man,” Clayton said of missing the playing game vs. the Redskins. “I’ve never missed a game in my life, so to finally make the playoffs with the opportunity to win the Super Bowl, that’s a different feeling there. To not be part of that and not be able to help my teammates battle for that, and that was something that could have put me under had I not had the support of my teammates.
“My teammates’ support was something that helped bring me out of it. I’m thankful for those guys, but that was tough. Words can’t explain the feeling. You want to help them. That’s why I’m busting my butt in there every day rehabbing, trying to get 100 percent healthy because I don’t want that feeling again. I don’t want to be on the sideline while my teammates are out there practicing and working hard and getting better. That’s just not suitable for a guy that wants to be the best receiver of all time. I want my name to outlast my life. Being on the sidelines is not suitable, and I don’t want to go through that anymore.”
Being a team leader and captain is also important to Clayton, but he found it extremely difficult to emerge as a team leader last season while missing practices and games due to injuries.
“It’s like being the war captain but then you’re not in the trenches with your troops,” Clayton said of trying to be a team leader while injured. “You’re having to watch your troops go out and fight the fight. It was tough, real tough. In this league it’s hard to get respect when you’re trying to lead from the sidelines. Players don’t respect that. They understand the situation, but they don’t respect you like they would if you were out there battling with them. That’s what they respect, and that’s what they love. When you’re injured it makes it tough to be a leader that you’re supposed to be. I’m speaking from experience.”
Clayton also cannot help but get some extra motivation under his belt when he reads about Tampa Bay reportedly being interested in acquiring Philadelphia WR Terrell Owens. According to Clayton, the Bucs don’t need Owens or the baggage he’s been known to bring to the locker room.
“It is what it is,” Clayton said when asked about the Bucs’ reported interest in Owens. “Your focus can never change. The things I do in terms of catching the ball, making yard after the catch, blocking, I really feel that there are only a few guys in this league that can do all of that, and I’m one of them. You can bring in whomever you want to, but there are only a handful of complete wide receivers in this league. I think I’m one of them.
“When you talk about guys like Terrell Owens…I’m a positive guy, man. If a guy like that can come in with his head right and not be detrimental to this team, and bring athletic ability and not cause problems, then I’m all for it because I know in the end I’m going to get my fair share of what I’m supposed to get, and if not, I’ll get that someway and somewhere if I’m pushed down to the way side. I want a guy like that on my team, but I personally feel that we already have guys like that on our team. We don’t need guys like that. But like I said before, this is a business. If they choose to go that route to help the team then hey, you have to be all for it and support it and move on. But I would never let anything that goes on in the media steer me away from whom I want to be as a player. I’m a young guy, and I have a long career ahead of me. Guys like that make you push yourself even more. It can only make you a better player. It is what it is. It doesn’t really bother me.”
Of course, Clayton, whom many believe landed in Gruden’s doghouse with his injury-plagued and sub-par outing last season, is attempting to live up to his own expectations as well as his head coach’s.
“Coach Gruden loves every single guy on this team, and I can honestly say that about the guy,” Clayton said. “But we’re not talking about Jon, we’re talking about the NFL. Speaking on that, you’re talking about a business. I really feel that this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. If a guy is out there, no matter if you’re a first-round draft pick or seventh-round draft pick, if you’re not producing you’re not going to be treated the same. I was forced into an opportunity to play when I was a young player. I was able to show my toughness. But like myself, Coach Gruden is never satisfied. He’s going to push his players to the limit. He just wants every player on this team to be great. Even when I played well as a rookie, Coach Gruden wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you’re going to have a historical career.’ To Coach Gruden and I, my rookie year didn’t prove anything. I got the treatment as anybody would last season. When you’re injured and you’re not producing, it was ‘whatever.’ We kept a good relationship, and we had our ups and downs. That’s the nature of this business. That’s just part of playing in the NFL.”
Clayton is ready to turn the page on last season and is already looking ahead to what he sees as a tremendous year for both he and the Buccaneers.
“It’s going to be a year where I personally feel we’re going to utilize our weapons,” Clayton said. “I label myself as a big-time weapon on this team. I’m prepared to take on the tasks and do what I have to do to make plays and perform for this offense. I really see a bright year coming for myself. If I get an opportunity, I really feel I can be great. I know the coaches understand that you have to get your players the ball. Once we do that and you put the ball in your players’ hands, Cadillac, Joey and myself, we’re going to be able to make plays, and it’s not just once or twice a game – it’s several times a game. That’s a big factor heading into this year, and I think we’ll fare well.
“I’ve always been on top of my game and always been healthy. Things just went wrong for me last year, and I had a bad season. God willing, you stay in the weight room and get healthy, and pray that it doesn’t happen again, that way you can go out there and perform at your highest level.”
Pewter Report and Pewter Insider subscribers can read the exclusive interview with Michael Clayton in its entirety in the Pewter Report Free Agency Issue, which will be printed and mailed in a few weeks.
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