Rookie Clayton making his mark with Buccaneers


Saturday, December 18th 2004, 11:57 am
By: News On 6


TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Instead of gloating, Michael Clayton simply smiled.

It's difficult to imagine where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense would be without the NFL's leading rookie receiver, but it's not the former LSU star's style to boast.

His teammates like his levelheadedness and have slapped a new moniker on him for the remainder of the season.

``They called me `Rook,''' Clayton said. ``Now I'm Mr. Rook.''

With 70 receptions for 988 yards and four touchdowns heading into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, the 15th pick in this year's draft has already set team records for catches and yards by a first-year player.

His numbers are superior to the four receivers drafted ahead of him: Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona, third overall), Roy Williams (Detroit, seventh), Reggie Williams (Jacksonville, ninth) and Lee Evans (Buffalo, 13th).

And Clayton's consistency is one of the reasons the Bucs remain in the race for a wild-card playoff spot in the weak NFC, despite a 5-8 record _ the same mark that has the Saints clinging to slim postseason hopes with three games left.

``I never did feel like a rookie,'' said Clayton, coming off a nine-catch, 145-yard performance in a 31-24 loss at San Diego.

``I got the title, but my mentality was if you come in and think you're a rookie, you'll play like a rookie. ... People talk about a brick wall that rookies hit in a longer season. If you put in the back of your head that there is no wall, you won't look at it that way.''

Clayton attributes part of his success to help he's received from 38-year-old Tim Brown, who spent the first 16 seasons of his career with the Oakland Raiders before signing with the Bucs during training camp.

Coach Jon Gruden also was forced to expand the rookie's role because of injuries to Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius, as well as Keenan McCardell's contract holdout and subsequent trade to the Chargers.

Clayton, LSU's leading receiver a year ago when he helped the Tigers win the BCS title, cracked the Bucs starting lineup in the fourth game.

``He's getting better and better,'' Gruden said, noting the 6-foot-4, 197-pounder has the potential to develop into a game breaker as he matures and gets stronger physically. ``This is as tough a football player as I've been around. He pushes himself to the limit. We just have to help him have a great offseason. ... A program will be developed for him. I think he has a chance to be rare.''

Clayton is not surprised by his impact.

``My expectations are a whole lot higher than anybody's expectations for myself,'' he said. ``I haven't reached my goals. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot to learn. I just use every game, every practice as a learning experience to try to get better. I don't know how long Tim Brown will be in this league, but everything that he has to offer I take it in.''

New Orleans beat Dallas 27-13 last week to stop a three-game losing streak that fueled speculation about the future of coach Jim Haslett, who's assured of his third non-winning season in the past four.

The uncertainty is not new for the Saints, who have a history of playing poorly in December under the fifth-year coach.

``All you can do is go out and play,'' New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister said of Haslett's status, adding that players have to perform regardless of what's going on with management.

``In a way, you're auditioning every year, regardless of what your contract says, because most of the contracts aren't guaranteed. ... Your job is to go out and play the game.''

The Bucs and Saints are among six teams at 5-8, one game behind Carolina and St. Louis for the last NFC wild-card spot.

Tampa Bay plays Carolina at home and Arizona on the road in its last two games, while New Orleans plays Atlanta at home and Carolina on the road.

``In this league, nothing amazes me any more,'' Haslett said. ``Year in and year out, teams emerge and you don't know why and teams fall and you don't know why. This year it just happens to be that the NFC is not as good as the AFC, for whatever reason.''

Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks thinks an 8-8 team will get in.

``We hope it is us,'' Brooks said. ``We don't want to have any regrets that we are not that team.''