Raheem Morris has a message to anyone who criticized the Buccaneers for re-signing wide receiver Michael Clayton this offseason: don’t question it.
Eyebrows were certainly raised back in March when Tampa Bay re-signed its former first-round pick from 2004 to a five-year contract worth $26 million, which was quite a hefty sum of money for a receiver that hadn’t had a 1,000-yard season since his rookie year. In fact, Clayton, whose career in Tampa Bay has been beset with injuries, dropped passes and a trip to former head coach Jon Gruden’s dog house, hasn’t even had 500 yards receiving in a season since 2004.
Still, after managing to stay healthy last year, the Bucs handsomely rewarded Clayton for catching 38 passes for 484 yards and one touchdown, his first since the 2006 season and only his second since ’04. Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made the commitment to Clayton because they saw his value to the team displayed in run blocking and toughness just as much as catching passes.
In the 34-21 season opening loss to Dallas, eyebrows were raised once more as Clayton had two sensational plays while tallying five catches for 93 yards to lead Tampa Bay. The first came with less than 20 seconds left in the first half as Clayton hauled in a tough, over-the-shoulder catch for 47 yards down the right sidelines to allow the Bucs to attempt a 46-yard field goal.
The second big play came in the third quarter as Clayton ran a crossing pattern over the middle and violently collided with Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh, knocking him to the ground. Clayton stayed on his feet and spun around before being tackled while Sensabaugh lay crumpled on the turf and had to be helped off the field and in for x-rays by the Dallas medical staff.
Clayton pounded his chest after that play and fired up the crowd and the Bucs sidelines. He said his collision with Sensabaugh was typical of how he plays the game from a physical standpoint.
“It’s going to happen,” Clayton said of the impending collision with Sensabaugh as soon as he caught the ball. “It’s no fear. Those who know me know how I play the game. It’s what we do, you know 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 and that’s what it’s all about.”
Tampa Bay quarterback Byron Leftwich saw the safety streaking towards Clayton on the play and knew there would be a collision, but had little choice other than to throw a laser to his tough, physical receiver.
“We both knew it was going to be a bang-banger,” Leftwich said. “We both knew it was going to be a bang-bang play. That was pretty much all I had [open] on that play. It was bang-bang as Mike had a linebacker [on him]. I tried to get it to him as quick as possible, but anybody that knows Mike – you all have seen Mike play – he loves those things because somehow he always ends up on top. That’s just a tough, physical guy. I love his attitude. I love the way that he played. As a quarterback, sometimes you know that it’s going to be bang-bang. And you know when you’ve got a guy that doesn’t mind if it’s bang-bang that you try to feed that guy the ball as much as you can.”
After the game, Morris heaped a bunch of praise on the play of Clayton, in addition to the hard-nosed running from Cadillac Williams, who rushed for 97 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
“I’m really proud of some of those guys on offense,” Morris said. “I sure hope the question of Mike Clayton signing back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was answered today. Did you see that guy catch the ball over the middle with the safety bearing down on him, stay up, spin around and not even come out of the game? To get up and walk off the field like that, that’s the type of toughness we’re going to be about right here. Some of those guys get some real kudos from me.”
“[Clayton and Williams] are the kind of people we’re talking about. When we took over this team, we talked about being a tough, physical football team. That’s what those guys are. That’s the kind of players they are. They suffer the nicks and bruises because they are tough and physical, but on game day they show up and they are warriors. They went out today and played like that. I was proud of them. I was real proud of them. They’ll be the heart and soul of our team and will make us breathe.”
After the game, Clayton was in good spirits after the loss. Not because he didn’t care about suffering an opening day defeat at the hands of the Cowboys, but because he saw the promise from the Buccaneers’ re-vamped offense, which rolled up 450 yards against a typically stout Dallas defense, and was an integral part of the game plan.
“I’ll tell you that this is the only loss of my career that I have a smile on my face,” said Clayton, who missed much of the preseason with a hamstring injury. “You know 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. So, 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.
“In the offseason, we put forth a tremendous effort, getting better everyday and jelling together and we put it up to us to not let anything distract us on offense,” Clayton said. “We had to grow up real fast. We got some new faces out there. Cadillac Williams came in and ran the ball tremendously and like I said, it’s the only loss of my career with a smile on my face because I know what we have now and the only thing is to go to Buffalo and get a win.”
On Monday, Morris was even more adamant in his admiration and defense of Clayton, who is known as one of the league’s best blocking receivers.
“The play of Michael Clayton and the toughness … you know he had a drop last night, but that’s not going to define Michael Clayton,” Morris said. “What’s going to define Michael Clayton is his ability in the run game, blocking for Cadillac and blocking for Derrick Ward and making the tough catches across the middle and not blinking. He goes over there a lot. A lot of us wouldn’t even step foot in there.”
Morris ended his Monday afternoon press conference with a stiff challenge to the media.
“I dare somebody to write an article about why Clayton is on the team again,” Morris said. “I dare you.”
If Clayton keeps up his daring play in 2009, that will never happen.