Where have you been Michael Clayton? As a Bucs fan I rooted for you in 2004, but you disappeared after that. Some other dude showed up in 2005-2008 who was a shadow of what I saw in '04. Sure, he wore the same #80, he wore the eye black under one eye, he pounded his chest, made a few nice blocks along the way, but it wasn't you. This other guy dropped passes, he fumbled, he was out of shape, he got injured, it was tough to watch.
You become one of the local pinatas, an easy target for people to beat up on with your lackluster play, your lazy offseason regiment and Gruden toying with you like a fat kid toys with cake. We heard the rumors. You didn't work out as hard, you got injured, Gruden was in your head, you were too physical. I didn't know what to believe or what to discount.
Your contract ran out, and most Bucs fans were ecstatic. I held my tongue, mainly because I was waiting for the old #80 to show up. I mean, how can I run you out of town when you left 4 years ago? I had hoped we would get to see a glimpse of the rookie Clayton before you left, and you gave us a pseudo performance against the Raiders, and it seemed like a fitting curtain call. One long catch for a TD, a glimpse at the promise you once had. It was a nice run, we got one good year out of you, and then dashed hopes. You couldn't come back. Not with the crushed expectations and no backing. It was time to part ways.
Then a funny thing happened. Gruden and Allen got the boot. I could've swore you did backflips when you got that news. Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris offered you a nice fat contract, one that had most football fans up in arms. "This guy sucks" was offered up. "He drops too many passes" was heard. Well, there's no way you suck, you had your great year and then hired a stand in, so it wasn't really you that sucked. And I've discounted your drops to show they are overblown.
The offseason rolled around and we heard things like "best shape of your life" and "glad Gruden is gone, time to shine." But we've learned talk is cheap. We heard of the great catches in practice, the way you finally looked comfortable without Chucky looking over your shoulder. You came into camp motivated, healthy and for once didn't have F bombs being lobbed at you.
Then came the injury bug. Hamstring hurt, Clayton out. Ugh. So much for the expectations. We began to fret as the $20+ million dollar receiver was sidelined and getting zero time with the starting offense. I found myself trying to defend you with wild claims like "He doesn't need a hamstring to block" and "it shouldn't affect him much, he runs shorter routes." Everyone began to clamor that we had paid too much for a glorified tight end.
But then, the light came on. We're a running team. We have three running backs. Clayton blocks well. Clayton likes to block. Wait a minute! That means he might fit in this offense! But wait, will he catch the ball? I mean, a receiver has to be able to catch, right?
Week one rolled around and I was just hoping your first target didn't result in a drop. Lord knows the boo birds would be out. Not only did you not drop the first pass, you only had one drop, on a underthrow over the middle. Plus you hauled in a great catch down the sideline late in the second quarter. Wait, what? Michael Clayton made a diving catch with both feet in bounds, caught the back end of the ball, and didn't fumble? Maybe this is 2004 Clayton. I figured with that high salary you could continue to pay the stand-in who had been playing for you the last few years, but it seems you came to play. Maybe you knew with Gruden gone, you could show your face around One Buc Place again.
The chest pounding looked the same. The blocking never left, and looked the same. You got lit up, only to have the safety be the one to fall to the ground. A corner turned? That's tough to tell. It sure was a great week. It was one week. Do it 15 more times and then we can say you're back.
The thing that has me seeing great things? This was the most receiving yardage you've had since Week 14 of your rookie year. And you did it with different kinds of catches. It's been over four years since you hit 90 yards. One week, one good week. Does it mean you're on your way to becoming a Pro Bowler? Nope. But this is better than anything you've done in recent memory.
I feel like I need to remind you of this. Gruden is gone. The bad man isn't coming back. I don't want to get too excited, but at the very least, we can call it a good first step back.
Now let's make sure you make that second step.