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Clayton tries to catch up to old self

Published July 30, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA - There was something familiar about the way the tall man loped across the grass. You might swear you had seen his pace before.

Michael Clayton moved like yesterday's game film, his long strides masking his speed as he ran downfield and cut toward the middle of the field. He reached up and pulled the ball out of the air, as if it was his, and ahead of him, there was only open field and blue skies. It was just another drill on just another day, but there was something in the moment that nudged your memories.

Back when Clayton was a big deal, way back in those golden days of the year before last, he used to look like this all of the time. There was something fluid about the way Clayton ran, something free, something that hinted at points.

Of course, that was before Clayton faced his most difficult catch: his former potential.

If you believe that NFL training camps are about teams finding answers, think of Clayton as the Bucs' version of Final Jeopardy. No question is bigger. He was a cornerstone in his first season and a sinking stone in his second, and who knows what to look for in his third? He is only 23, too young to be old news, but it is fair to wonder if the fluke was the disappointment of the second season or the success of the first.

"I'm sure there are questions," Clayton said. "But that's just another part of the story. I'm pain-free. I'm in a comfort zone.

"Every day, I think this is going to be my breakout year. Every day, I look at the Pro Bowl numbers for wide receivers. That's what I want, to at least be considered for the Pro Bowl."

Two seasons ago, the idea of Clayton in the Pro Bowl didn't seem like much of a stretch. He caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, and he had the look of a receiver who would be a solid player for years to come.

If few receivers have climbed that high as a rookie, fewer have fallen that far as a sophomore. Clayton caught only 32 passes in 14 games, and when you get down to it, who can remember any of them? He didn't score a touchdown all year. On a team that thrived in the fourth quarter, he had only one catch in the final 10 minutes of games and one in the final five minutes.

In other words, Clayton's lost numbers - he caught 48 fewer passes for 821 fewer yards and seven fewer touchdowns - would be a pretty good season all to themselves.

"He was a beat-up guy," quarterback Chris Simms remembered. "He couldn't get off the line; he couldn't separate. When he would catch the ball, he couldn't turn and explode upfield. It was just an unlucky year for him."

Simms remembers the Detroit game, which Clayton entered with a bad knee and then tacked on a bad shoulder. Clayton caught only 15 passes in the 10 games after that.

This year, Simms says, will be different. He thinks Clayton will be the same player he was as a rookie. Friday's practice, Simms said, "solidified" those beliefs.

"He's a motivated guy," Simms said. "Everyone likes to see themselves in the highlights after a big win. To a degree, it p----- him off that he wasn't in there last year."

Clayton had problems with a shoulder last year, and a knee, and a toe. He missed most of the offseason program, and he came in overweight, and from then on, it was as if he was trying to run down a bus he had just missed. He never caught it. And not much of anything else.

Another part of Clayton's dropoff was that the Bucs no longer were forced to wait on him. Remember, during Clayton's rookie season, Bucs coach Jon Gruden didn't have a lot of choice. Keenan McCardell was holding out and Joey Galloway was injured and Cadillac Williams was still in college.

Last year, it was different. Even in those games when Clayton felt healthy, Gruden was used to game-planning for Williams and Galloway. Clayton had fallen from first option to third or lower.

Although Gruden is optimistic Clayton will make an impact this season, the Bucs have hedged their bets. They signed David Boston, who has been impressive in workouts. They drafted Maurice Stovall. They brought back Ike Hilliard and Edell Sheppard.

Still, do not forget the flair Clayton had as a rookie, when he was a tough, sure-handed receiver who seemed to be a cure for third-and-7. If indeed he is healthy now, it is tempting to think about Gruden's options. Put a healthy Clayton inside a huddle with Williams, Galloway and Simms, and the offense looks dangerous.

"We don't need a Clayton to be a flanker," Gruden said. "We need him to be a great flanker."

Clayton will tell you that he needs it, too. Players get used to making an impact. Take it away, and you have torn away their self-image.

"My whole life, I've been a go-to guy," Clayton said. "Last year, I was a role player. It was a different experience. You miss people depending on you to make the big play. In pressure situations, I want the ball in my hands."

If Clayton is healthy again, perhaps Gruden will want the same. Perhaps everyone else, too.

[Last modified July 30, 2006, 01:25:40]

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