TAMPA, Fla. – Michael Clayton keeps a 10-by-11 inch piece of paper in his car to remind him that he's a good professional football player.
There's a picture on the sheet of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout's first touchdown reception in the NFL, a helmet-less 51-yard masterpiece against Champ Bailey and the Denver Broncos in 2004. And written over the image are a smattering of gushing quotes about Clayton's abilities, from coaches Nick Saban and Jon Gruden, and teammates past and present. In a way, it's an ode to all things good in Michael Clayton the football player: The dominant talent, work ethic, unwavering patience and unflagging confidence.
It's also a reminder of a guy Clayton hasn't seen in a while.
"Sometimes you have to bring yourself back, man," Clayton said last week. "Sometimes you have to read those things to put you in the right mindset. You know, to help you concentrate and get back to what's normal."
That's the No. 1 football question in this man's life right now: What's normal?
Is it the Clayton we see today, who has notched three catches in four games this season and is not even on pace to repeat the pedestrian numbers (65 catches, 728 yards and one touchdown) of the last two seasons? Or is it Clayton's vintage 2004 rookie year, when he was burning rocket fuel: 80 receptions, 1,193 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Which is normal? The guy who has been injury prone for two years and frozen out of the offense as a go-to playmaker? Or the guy whose career arc as a rookie seemed to foreshadow a pro career following every other All-American footstep in his football life?
Clayton hears these questions and swears he's a better player than he was three years ago. But 2004 is fading fast and so is the idea of Clayton as a dominant receiver.
Certainly nobody who witnessed Clayton's run in '04 could have predicted how far his star would fall. Not after he challenged Ben Roethlisberger's fairytale debut for offensive rookie of the year honors. And not after he put up one of the most prolific seasons in league history for a first-year receiver.
Only four players in the history of the game put up more yardage than Clayton as a rookie. Two of them are current stars Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin. A third, Billy Howton, was one of pro football's most celebrated receivers in the 1950s and resides in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. The fourth is Bill Groman.
Unless you caught Groman's brief spurt of success in the early '60s, he is little more than a trivia answer (Q: Who holds the rookie record for most receiving yards in the NFL? A: Bill Groman, with 1,473 yards in 1960). Almost half a century later, it's Groman's career snapshot that Clayton is mirroring. After a remarkable two-year flourish, the former Houston Oiler and Denver Bronco fell into mediocrity and was out of the league by 1965.
That's a chilling path that Clayton may be on at this very moment. No longer a focal piece in Tampa Bay's passing game, his prime years are being spent blocking for other playmakers and contributing on special teams units. Had you predicted such a reality after Clayton's rookie flourish, you would have been branded clinically insane.
"Mentally, you tell yourself 'I'm not in a slump,' " Clayton said. "People may call it a slump, but to me it's just a series of bad plays. At any given point, something good will happen and what's normal for me will come back.
"That's what I look forward to."
Late in August, when reports began to trickle out of Tampa that Clayton might be in danger of missing the 53-man roster, the news left one NFC head coach flabbergasted.
"Are they really thinking of (cutting him)?" the coach asked. "What the hell is going on with that guy?"
It's a legitimate question with a complicated answer. After 2004, Clayton suffered through multiple injuries the next two seasons. He had offseason knee surgery heading into 2005, then spent the season dealing with a shoulder separation and turf toe. It didn't help that Joey Galloway, who had been injured much of 2004, was back in full health and once again asserting himself as a big-play wideout.
But eyebrows were raised shortly after the 2005 season when Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden typed up a "commitment contract" and asked Clayton to sign it going into the offseason. Essentially, the document was an outline of what Tampa Bay's coaching staff wanted from Clayton in terms of preparation in the months leading up to the 2006 training camp. Ultimately, it was billed in the Tampa media as a motivating tactic. But one team source who asked not to be identified framed it as an attempt to get Clayton to conduct himself "seriously as a professional."
"When a coach has to get your attention after your second season, it says something," the team source said. "It wasn't like (Clayton) had a lot of knucklehead in him. It wasn't that. You know, most young guys need to be reminded of their responsibilities and expectations. So you remind them."
And it appeared to work, as Clayton arrived in training camp in 2006 looking ready to rebound from his sophomore slump. But Tampa Bay's entire offense struggled with inconsistency at quarterback and a general lack of a running game. Meanwhile, Clayton's play seemed to regress further, plagued by some gut-wrenching drops, including what appeared to be a pair of easy touchdown catches in losses to the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Compounding the disappointment, Clayton suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Steelers.
That set up a bumpy offseason in 2007, with the belief that the Bucs were targeting Calvin Johnson with the No. 4 overall pick and looking to amp up the competition at wideout. Johnson never made it to Tampa Bay's draft slot, but the competition for Clayton's starting job materialized in the form of Maurice Stovall and Ike Hilliard. Ultimately, it was Hilliard who took Clayton's starting spot, relegating the man who once looked like a cornerstone in the offense to a rotation with Stovall as the No. 3 wideout.
While the Buccaneers have been winning games, Clayton's role has been limited at best. Still a top-notch blocking wideout, he threw a bone-crusher on New Orleans Saints safety Kevin Kaesviharn that sprang Galloway for a 69-yard touchdown, and sprang Carnell "Cadillac" Williams on a running play against the St. Louis Rams by pancaking defensive end Leonard Little.
"People count stats, but he's developed in other areas," Gruden said. "If you're talking about stats, he's been on the decline. He's had five different injuries – five. They don't put a stat next to his name that says 'five injuries.' This is really the first time we've had him back full speed since his rookie year. Sometimes injuries can derail you, but he's still one the most physical wide receivers I've ever seen play the game."
Added general manager Bruce Allen: "I don't care who catches the passes for the Bucs. They are Buc receptions and they are Buc touchdowns. He's been a vital part of what we've done this season. Every time he's on the field, he's a physical presence. He's helped out on special teams and he's doing well."
Yet, the reality is that NFL teams don't spend the No. 15 overall pick in a draft – Clayton was Allen's first-ever pick as Tampa Bay's GM – on a wide receiver to develop him into a blocker and special teams standout. Even from the inside looking out, the LSU product didn't come into the league thinking this is where he'd end up.
"I expected to be one of the top guys in the league, repeating that (rookie production) over and over again, and being the go-to guy in the offense," Clayton said. "That doesn't change just because your role changes. If opportunities are still available, then there's still a chance to succeed in those expectations. I just want to go into it smarter and hopefully more calmed down than I have been lately."
Over and over, he uses the word "role."
Clayton never comes out and blames his problems on where he fits in the offense, but he justifies it by talking about how he went from being the man in Galloway's absence to the man in Galloway's shadow.
"I'm faster, I'm bigger and I'm better than I was as a rookie," Clayton said. "But my role has changed on the team slightly. When your role changes a little bit, other things change. Galloway went down, I had to step up. As he came back, we were forced back into different roles.
"Everybody expects it to be like my rookie year, but the role is not the same. I'm still able to go out and catch 3-4 balls a game and make some big plays, but the opportunity isn't there to catch 9-10 passes a game because of our personnel right now. That's just the way it is."
But Clayton has struggled this season to seize the limited opportunities to get involved in the passing game. Against the Rams, he dropped a picture-perfect slant pass from quarterback Jeff Garcia that had the potential to be a long touchdown. Two plays later, he had the ball stripped at St. Louis' 30-yard line, and was pulled from the game. Then as he walked to the sidelines, cameras caught him arguing with Gruden over the benching.
"It's not the first time a guy has gotten upset coming out of the game," Gruden said. "But I'm not exactly happy when the ball clanks off our shoulder pads with the chance to make a big impact play in the two-minute drill and then we fumble it two plays later. We've got Maurice Stovall on the team for a reason. We're going to play a guy that's productive."
Right now, Clayton is no longer that player. As a result, he talks about "calming down" and acknowledges he might be getting overanxious when he sees a catchable ball come his way. Suddenly the mental aspect of football – both in the act of playing and preparing – has become more important than ever. Clayton already visits with the sports psychology staff at IMG Academies in Bradenton in the offseason. And he has taken to his old habit of watching highlight tapes of himself on Saturdays to get himself mentally confident for games.
It's the progressive approach to football, and not exactly the Zen stuff, that Gruden is buying.
"I like guys who stay in shallow water," Gruden said. "If you start getting real deep, you're going to drown in your thoughts. Catch the damn ball. Protect the ball. Keep doing what you're doing. His effort is outstanding. His physicalness is off the charts. He's running good routes. It's just a matter of time before it all comes back to him."
The Buccaneers faithful can only hope it's that simple, that Clayton's resurgence is a matter of time. Until then, he's got his sheet with all the positive things people have said about him. He's reading Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy's autobiography for inspiration, and he's reciting from books that he's getting from motivators and sports psychologists.
"There's this one story, this guy is trapped in a car and it's freezing cold and he's writing on the window 'I'm getting colder … I'm getting colder … I can't feel my fingers,'" Clayton said. "This guy is talking himself into death. Then he tells himself 'I'm about to die … I'm about to die … these are my last words.' And then he dies. Going through things like that mentally, the message is about reinforcing yourself with your will.
"Mentally, you have to tell yourself 'I'm the best player out here. I can catch this ball and take this (expletive) to the house any given time. Mentally, you have to talk yourself into it. And you have to believe that once the opportunity comes and you conquer it, everything else goes away."
Undoubtedly, something will go away soon. And if it's not Clayton's slump, then it's going to be the belief that he can still be an elite wideout in this league.