Table is set for a Clayton comeback

There'll be family, food, a big game at alma mater LSU. Will WR bring his game?

Published December 1, 2005

TAMPA - Michael Clayton is anxious to go home. To Baton Rouge, La. To Tiger Stadium, where he starred at LSU. He and his father have purchased more than 100 tickets for family and friends to watch him play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

Afterward, they have planned a bayou banquet of catfish, jambalaya and ribs for his teammates.

Everything is in place for a remarkable reunion.

The only thing missing is Clayton's game.

"No, I've never been in this situation before, so it's tough," Clayton said. "I'm still learning how to deal with it because my whole life I've always been on top."

This is not how the prodigal son is supposed to return.

Clayton left LSU two years ago as a homegrown hero, a national champion, a first-round draft pick who made the NFL look like a game of Madden 2004 after leading all rookies in receptions.

But when does a slow start become a bad season?

After 11 games, Clayton ranks 41st among receivers in the NFC with just 28 catches for 323 yards and no touchdowns. He has dropped passes, like the one in the second quarter of Sunday's 13-10 loss to the Bears.

At the same point last season, Clayton already had 60 catches for 828 yards and three touchdowns.

Only time will tell which season was the aberration. But Bucs coach Jon Gruden is betting Clayton will rebound.

"You're not going to live off last year. I'm never going to do that," Gruden said. "It's what have you done lately, and Mike knows that. He's had some injuries to his shoulder, to his knee. He had a rough offseason. He's mishandled some passes that he's got to catch. He understands that and he's practicing good. Hopefully, there's good things that lie ahead. He's a big part of our program and our future and we're looking forward to getting him going."

There are many theories why Clayton has struggled this season. He missed nearly the entire offseason recovering from knee surgery. He then separated his shoulder in the preseason.

The first month, the Bucs built their offense around running back Cadillac Williams. The featured receiver has been Joey Galloway. Finally, protection problems on the offensive line have forced Gruden to use more two-tight end, one-receiver formations, keeping Clayton off the field.

All of the above have been factors in Clayton's declining numbers.

Since Week 3, Clayton has only had more than two catches in one game. Twice he failed to catch a pass in a game, including Sunday's loss to the Bears.

"I said it all last year that I would trade in my season to have some wins," said Clayton, who led all NFL rookies with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. "Mentally, this is the strongest that I've ever been because of the fact that we're winning games now. That's just the most important thing right now. Playing your role. I'm doing my part, what's asked of me. It's obvious that I could go out and make some more plays, so that's all on me."

As for the dropped passes?

"It's all about focus and I put that on myself, too," Clayton said. "People drop passes, but that's not what gets people down. It's the ability to make plays and not being able to do that is sometimes a thing that comes into a player's mentality and messes up your mind. I know I could be out there making plays."

Not that everything is bad in Clayton's world. For starters, he has found love.

Following the Miami preseason game, Clayton went to a Tampa nightclub alone ("and I never go out by myself") and passed the woman of his dreams leaving the bar alone. He told her he was returning from a business trip in Miami. She told him she was a doctor in South Florida looking for a hospital to begin her residency.

She didn't learn that Clayton was an NFL player until she accompanied him into a sports apparel store the next day and customers ripped No.80 jerseys off the racks for him to sign.

With any luck, Clayton said, he might become engaged to Tina Wright, MD.

"I've got to be 100 percent sure she's going to be happy," Clayton said. "She could be in New York, she could be anywhere and that's really something that's going to get her down. I'm trying to talk to doctors and all that stuff to see if we can get her here in Tampa. But without a doubt, it's going to happen."

Clayton may not be overused on the field, but he is busy off it. He has a radio show, a television show and spends many of his days off flying to Miami looking for Ms. Wright. If you want to pile on, blame that, too.

"It's been a humbling experience for him, I think, because he had such high hopes," Gruden said. "But there's still five games left and there's a 23-year-old man walking around in a helmet, so the world isn't coming to an end."

As for Clayton, he plans to fight his way out of it. In fact, two weeks ago he volunteered to play special teams.

"Man, I had to get on the field some way," Clayton said. "That's just me. I don't care where it is. I'm an athlete and I know I can get in somewhere on this team. (Special teams) Coach Rich (Bisaccia) is going to give me the opportunity to get in there, I'm there. That's just how it is, and I'll take it all day."