Clayton has to make the catches
Midway through the first quarter of Sunday's game against Philadelphia, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced fourth-and-2 at the Eagles' 26-yard line. Figuring, oh, what the heck, they went for it.
Josh Johnson dropped and threw a perfect pass to Michael Clayton, slanting in front on the left side. It would have been an easy first down, perhaps setting the Bucs up for a tying touchdown.
Except ... doink!
The ball bounced off Clayton's hands to the turf. About that time, I had a flashback to a few weeks ago when Bucs coach Raheem Morris stood in front of the media and dared anyone to question why Clayton had been signed to a five-year, $26 million contract extension in the offseason.
I'm game. If that was the first pass Clayton had dropped, or the fifth, or the 19th, you maybe figure a guy is human and stuff happens. If you've watched the Bucs at all, though, you know Clayton makes a habit of these things. He had two more drops Sunday, which brings his total to at least four this season.
This, after Clayton complained just last Monday he needed more opportunities to make plays. Well, he asked and received. Johnson threw 12 passes in Clayton's direction Sunday. He had three receptions.
None of this is saying Clayton was solely responsible for the 33-14 loss to the Eagles, that dropped - uh, bad choice of words - the Bucs to 0-5 this season. If the man wants to be a leader, though, he needs to make those catches. He needs to make the kind of plays worthy of his paycheck. That's not just me saying that, by the way. Morris said the same thing not long after the game.
"That's an issue," Morris said of the drops. "When you're playing with a young quarterback those plays have to be made by those caliber players ... you have to make those plays for your young quarterback so he can present himself with a better day than he had."
Afterward, as he always does, Clayton patiently answered questions and accepted his share of the blame. He is a stand-up guy, give him that. He's a tough guy, not afraid to go across the middle. He'll block with the best of 'em and he has been willing to get his nose bloody playing special teams.
Admirable. What the Bucs need right now, though, is for Clayton to catch the ball. "To be in this situation, with a young quarterback and know I have the ability and power to make his job easier, then to not come up with some grabs that could be key, hurts. It hurts a lot," Clayton said.
Clayton also wasn't the only Buc to drop passes in this game. Antonio Bryant also had balls go off his hand, and we could go a step further by conceding there were so many other things wrong with the Bucs in this game. If Clayton catches every pass thrown to him, maybe the Bucs only lose 33-21.
But Clayton also likes to consider himself a playmaker and his salary suggests he had better be. Plenty of eyebrows went up when General Manager Mark Dominik invested that much money - $10 million guaranteed - in a player who had totally fallen from favor with previous coach Jon Gruden. That's the kind of gamble that can hang like an albatross for years, especially every time the ball falls to the turf.
We look for reasons why this team doesn't win. We blame the offensive line for not opening holes. We blame the secondary for allowing big plays. We blame the defensive line for no pass rush.
We blame Morris and the coaching staff, just because.
But when the right play is called, and the blocks are made, and the ball is delivered by the quarterback, and the ball is simply dropped, whose fault is that?
Clayton swore this year we'd see something different. He would be released from Gruden's purgatory and he'd once again show the flash that made him an outstanding rookie. That seems like a long time ago now, though.
The Bucs can't do much about it because they're basically wedded to Clayton now. Johnson said afterward he'll keep throwing the ball in Clayton's direction and Morris doesn't have much choice but to keep calling his number. The exasperation is beginning to show, though.
Morris is right. That play has to be made. But it wasn't. Why was he signed? Good question.
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 12 October 2009