LAKE BUENA VISTA — The route was Z-deep cross, and Michael Clayton ran it to perfection. He was 21 yards downfield when quarterback Luke McCown deposited the football perfectly into his hands.
All that was left to do was tuck it under his arm, turn the corner and outrun the Dolphins defense toward the end zone, a place he hasn't visited in nearly two years.
But Clayton took his eyes off the pass to look upfield, and the ball dropped to the turf like an egg smacking a tile floor.
"I have this demon in me," Clayton said of the drop in the Aug. 9 preseason opener. "It's so hard to see that ball coming, being in my situation, wanting to make a play. I was just being greedy. I take full blame for that. It won't happen again.
"I know things happen and people make their judgments. You just can't drop balls like that running wide open."
Move forward to the final day of training camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports. Clayton, 25, was the last player off the field, having stretched, signed autographs and conducted drills for Special Olympians.
Clayton has dieted on white fish, chicken and broccoli to slim down to 208 pounds, his weight in 2004, when he led all rookies with 80 receptions and 1,193 yards and his seven touchdowns were fourth. Back then, he was the youngest player for a franchise in transition, the go-to receiver on a 5-11 team going nowhere.
But Clayton's path was clear. From the podium as a rookie of the year candidate, he could see Pro Bowls and Super Bowls. But that was before the demons, greed and injuries conspired to diminish his production and role in the Bucs offense.
In the past three seasons combined, Clayton has caught 87 passes for 1,029 yards and one touchdown. At least he made that score count. It was an 8-yarder with 43 seconds remaining in a 14-13 win over the Bengals.
That was Oct. 15, 2006.
People are still making judgments on Clayton. He is in the final year of the contract he signed as the 15th overall pick from LSU, coming off career lows of 22 catches and 301 yards.
By all accounts, Clayton is having the best training camp of his life, even including the drop against the Dolphins. He recovered to make his second reception of the game and was open in the end zone in the second quarter when McCown sailed a pass over his head. But all anyone remembers is the drop.
"To be a championship team, you eliminate both of them," Clayton said. "Bottom line, you make the throw and catch. If it continues to happen, then you're going to be out of there. Point blank, we all understand that."
Entering tonight's game against the Patriots, Clayton is in a battle for the No. 2 spot behind Joey Galloway. The competition has never been better at the position with Maurice Stovall, Antonio Bryant, Ike Hilliard, Paris Warren, Micheal Spurlock and rookie Dexter Jackson vying for playing time or, perhaps, a spot on the roster.
"We just have a tough call," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's not that nobody has emerged, but they've all competed."
It's hard to believe Clayton is in his fifth season, but he's still a young player by any measure.
"I really feel like I'm in my prime now," he said, "and overall, more patient, faster. I'm growing stronger, mentally strong. It's the best of the best right now."
The knee, shoulder and ankle injuries that plagued him the past three seasons have finally healed. Of course, as long as Galloway remains on the team, Clayton will never be the focus of the passing game.
"I think it's very important to be the guy on third down," Clayton said. "Every year, we see our offense developing and getting better. My second year, it didn't matter. It could've been my first year and Joey would've been the guy. I fell into that role because of injuries."
Confidence is a fleeting thing in the NFL. Clayton admits, like some young players, he didn't always handle his success well. The Bucs were aware of it, too.
"I think everybody from Michael Clayton to Tiger Woods has to deal with not only adversity but with success," Gruden said. "He's a young guy. He's learned some lessons along the way. He's also had some injuries that derailed him. You combine all of that — being a young player, having injuries, changing quarterbacks every year — it's not easy."
In addition to his on-field failures, there had been talk Clayton struggled to take care of himself off the field. Late games turned into even later postgame celebrations at clubs, where young people go to blow off steam.
Clayton says he has heard the rumors but dismisses them as people looking for an excuse for losing.
"I personally feel that it's never really been an issue with me, though things do get twisted," Clayton said. "I know people have been talking.
"Sometimes you have to realize what's going on, and you have to silence that talk, too. You have to stay away from it just for that reason as well.
"It's the spotlight. It's a part of life. When you're given an opportunity and you go out there and shine, nobody (cares) what you do. They actually want you to continue to do it. Don't change anything. The older you get, I found myself thinking I don't even want to go out anymore. I'll go three weeks and you feel the urge. Guys start talking, 'Where the hell are you? Why don't you come out with us.' The older you get, it tends to fall by the wayside."
Clayton smiles. He still is young, talented and charismatic. He vows to catch that next football — and hang onto his career with the Bucs.
"You still have to go out there, keep your head right and play football," Clayton said. "They can say what they want to say.
"And if it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, you try to go elsewhere."