06 Dec 2006
Two years ago, Michael Clayton had one of the best seasons any rookie wide receiver has ever had. Clayton had 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. By Football Outsiders' DPAR numbers, Clayton was the fourth most valuable receiver in the league that season -- and that doesn't even consider the things he did that don't count in the stats, like run-block better than any rookie wide receiver in recent memory.
Two years later, Clayton has become an afterthought, and Tampa Bay just stuck him on injured reserve with a torn MCL in his left knee. Clayton has less than 800 yards over the last two seasons and just one touchdown. He may not even be a starter next year.
It's hard to figure out what happened to this guy. He's had nagging injuries, and apparently spent some time in Jon Gruden's doghouse for not rehabilitating them with the proper attitude. When he finally got healthy, the age-defying Joey Galloway had taken his place as Tampa's number one option in the passing game. But even considering these issues, his decline is astonishing. A number two receiver should gain more than 400 yards per season.
Will Clayton ever live up to the promise he showed in 2004? As we noted in Pro Football Prospectus 2006, Clayton's decline from 1,193 yards in 2004 to 356 yards in 2005 is the greatest sophomore slump by a wide receiver in NFL history. The other two receivers who fell by at least 600 yards -- Anquan Boldin and Derrick Alexander -- bounced back and were strong again in their third and fourth seasons. But Clayton just faded some more.
I ran three-year similarity scores for Clayton and most of the players who come out as similar are guys in their fourth or fifth season, not their third. Similarity scores start at 1000 (same player) and go down, and in general wide receivers aren't really that similar once you get lower than 800 or so. There's no third-year player with is similar to Clayton with a score over 700 in all three seasons. The closest is a guy named Derrick Gaffney, who had a career high of 691 yards as a rookie with the 1978 Jets and gradually faded away. But 691 yards is a far cry from 1,193 yards. Next comes Terry Glenn, but he's only similar in his first two years -- despite struggling with injuries, he had 792 yards in his third year.
If you look at the guys in their fourth season, it's a parade of guys who just disappeared. Gordon Jones of the 1980-82 Bucs, Floyd Dixon of the 1987-89 Falcons, Germane Crowell of the 1999-2001 Lions. Quincy Morgan is still around, but fairly meaningless. Courtney Hawkins of the 1993-95 Bucs had a reasonable career, lasting until 2000 in Tampa Bay and then Pittsburgh. Charlie Brown of the 1983-84 Redskins and 1985 Falcons did have a big year for Atlanta in 1986, but never played again after the strike year.
Even the guys on that list who had careers pale in comparison to the players who had rookie years similar to Clayton's: James Lofton, Ernest Givins, Bill Brooks, Cris Collinsworth, and Glenn. That was Clayton's original potential.
If any player might give Clayton hope, it is Eddie Kennison. Kennison has one of the weirdest career paths in NFL history. The Rams took him 18th as part of the fabled wide receiver class of 1996 and he had 924 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie. Like Clayton he crumbled -- in fact, the reason why he's not more similar to Clayton is that he didn't struggle with injury, he was just awful. Kennison had 404 yards in 1997, just 234 yards in 1998. The Rams gave up on him and he bounced around the league, with a good year with the 1999 Saints, a mediocre year with the 2000 Bears, and then that strange 2001 season where he quit on the Denver Broncos in the middle of the year, announced his retirement, and then un-retired a week later to sign with archrival Kansas City.
After that, Kennison inexplicably found his lost talent and became an important part of one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. He had 1,760 yards in 2002-2003, then two straight 1,000-yard seasons in 2004-2005, and he's still good this season.
That's Michael Clayton's hope: to be Eddie Kennison. My guess is that, like Kennison, he will have to go to another team or two before he finally recaptures his early potential.
"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.