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Next season, not record, on Clayton's mind

Bucs WR holds multiple rookie records but is focused on increasing his impact in '05.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published December 27, 2004


TAMPA - Michael Clayton's voice was somber as he explained the empty feeling.

So many accomplishments.

So few victories.

Clayton became the most prolific rookie pass catcher in Bucs history Sunday, but a disheartening loss to the Panthers left Clayton with little to celebrate.

"It's tough to lose," Clayton said. "It's been an up-and-down season for us, mostly downs this year. I look forward to next year. A lot of people see a bright spot in me and it's going to get turned up a notch next year. I'll have a little bit more of a leadership role and ,a little more impact on the offense. I just can't wait. I want to accomplish more than this year."

That would be quite a feat.

With one game left, Clayton has 78 receptions for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns, all Tampa Bay rookie records. Scoring receptions of 22 and 6 yards against the Panthers gave Clayton the only record he did not yet hold, Kevin House's mark of five touchdowns in 1980.

Clayton, who also had four catches for 66 yards Sunday, is happy to look in the record book and see his name at the top of the lists, but it meant more when his father, Milton, pulled him aside recently to express his pride.

"It was a warming feeling for me for him to recognize that and say, "Man, that's a big accomplishment to break all these records and I want you to know we're proud of you,"' Clayton said. "It's more rewarding coming from my family because they've seen my transition from when I was a little boy and they know what type of person I am. For good things to happen to me really blesses them, and to see them react to it really blesses me."

Clayton's season has been successful not only by Bucs standards, but by league standards. He is fifth on the all-time rookie receptions list, 23 behind record-holder Anquan Boldin, who caught 101 for the Cardinals in 2003. Clayton is on pace for 83, which would tie him for third all time.

"He's special, no doubt about it," said veteran Tim Brown, a likely Hall of Fame receiver who, in his 17th season, has been a mentor for Clayton on and off the field.

"I've seen a lot of kids come into this league. There may be some faster, there may be some bigger, there may be some stronger, but I don't know if there's been one I've seen with the complete package like this kid. And he's tough as nails, too. It's going to be very interesting to watch him play over the years."

For now, Clayton is focused on next season. Though Brown advocates taking some time away from the game to stay fresh, Clayton seems determined to work harder. Unaccustomed to losing - the first-round pick won a national championship in his final season at LSU - he wants to play a bigger role in the locker room as well as in coach Jon Gruden's game plans.

"I'll take some time off, but the time that's given to us to take off," Clayton said. "When it's time to go to work, I'll be here leading the pack. I can't wait for this incoming draft class. I want to get with these guys and teach them everything that I've learned about life, about football, so they have an easy transition.

"That was one of the main reasons Coach Gruden drafted me, for my leadership. And to get those young guys coming in to help this ballclub and be around and show my face here is going to be really important, so I look forward to that."

At some point, Clayton will cherish the individual achievements of his rookie year. "Years down the line I'll look back and say, "Hey, I accomplished this,"' he said. "And one day those records will be broken, just like the ones I broke. The measure of how wonderful that is, is how long those records stand. We'll just see."