Forget The Future: For Clayton, There's No Time Like The Present
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 4 October 2004

Be careful, Bucs. This is not the way you do things. Jon Gruden not only let a young guy play most of the way on offense Sunday, the kid emerged as a bit of a weapon. This was thrust upon Gruden because there aren't a lot of other choices, but why quibble? Fans have screamed for the Bucs to let some of the young guys play, and that's just what happened. This is the part where we say the new kid led the team to victory, but assuming you weren't out in the yard clearing branches left over from Hurricane Jeanne, you know that didn't happen.

The Bucs lost to Denver, 16-13, but rookie receiver Michael Clayton caught four passes for 91 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown. It was a beauty. First he spun All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey around so hard, Bailey fell to the turf while Clayton ran free across the middle. The pass was a little high, but Clayton stretched out for the catch before hitting the ground himself.

Another All-Pro, safety John Lynch - remember him? - came over with a gentle love tap to officially complete the tackle, except Clayton didn't play along. He had gotten up before Lynch could end the play and finished running to the end zone, completing the 51-yard touchdown pass. ``I think he's pretty quick, especially when he gets up after laying on the ground,'' Lynch said. ``[The Bucs] obviously made a move toward playing him more today and he stepped up. I think he's going to be a big-time pro. The Broncos were talking to him at draft time and were very interested in drafting him. Now you can see why.''

To complete the scene, Clayton lost his helmet on the play. He was hatless as he crossed the goal line. Someone asked 127-year veteran receiver Tim Brown if he could recall a player in recent years making this kind of impact so quickly. ``Besides myself?'' Brown said with a face that almost was straight.

Fair point. Then again, when a team basically stinks on offense the way these Bucs have all year, every positive play becomes a straw at which to grasp. Clayton seems to be exactly what Gruden said he would be when they made him the team's top draft pick last spring. He has good hands, is a tough kid, and makes plays. He also knows how to capture a moment.

When a locker room attendant came to take away Clayton's uniform for washing after the game, Clayton stopped him. That jersey and pants will be retired - complete with stale sweat and grass stains - to commemorate his first touchdown as a professional. Probably the first of many. ``We're just begging for stuff to go our way,'' he said. ``We execute in practice, but just can't get over the hump in the game. But we feel it coming. We feel it coming. The season is not over. This is the first quarter [of the season] and we're not looking back. We have a whole new season ahead of us.''

For Clayton, that likely means 12 more games where he takes on increasingly large shares of the offense. The Bucs lost another receiver Sunday when Frank Murphy ruptured his Achilles' tendon, and there just aren't many other choices. These Bucs still look like a Studebaker in the Daytona 500 when they have the ball, but at least there was some hope when this fourth consecutive date with futility was over. ``It's going to be a fun project to watch unfold,'' Gruden said.

In the cramped room that serves as the Bucs' dressing quarters on Sunday, Clayton drew a large crowd around his locker. He talked a lot about staying positive, forgetting the 0-4 start and concentrating solely on next week's game at New Orleans. ``I have the attitude that I treat a win like a loss,'' he said. ``It's an attitude I learned in college. As soon as the game is over, you start concentrating on the next one.''

One can only guess how long it will be until more young players work their way onto the field to keep Clayton company. Although Gruden won't dare utter the ``R'' word - rebuilding - it's obvious the continued use of the Bucs' aged brigade in a hopeless season doesn't make much sense. At least now there is proof that being young doesn't have to be a curse.

At some point soon, Gruden will have to learn how Chris Simms does at quarterback with the full playbook and a week to prepare. Gruden will have to infuse his wretched offensive line with some youth, even as he knows they'll make mistakes. Mistakes would be better than futility. At least you can correct mistakes, and the young guys who may one day be part of a turnaround here can learn what it takes to succeed. ``I'm in his ear constantly,'' Brown said of Clayton. ``If he makes a big play, I tell him he has to do it again.''

Well, someone has to. You might not have figured that on this, of all teams, a rookie would emerge as a go-to guy, but we've seen it. We have proof. Just check the replay of Champ Bailey laying on the ground and John Lynch reaching out with nothing to touch.