Though receiver Michael Clayton's critical fourth-down drop late in the fourth quarter likely will be remembered as the final nail in the Bucs' season, teammates and coaches were quick to assure the rookie his season was much more.
Veteran receiver Tim Brown and cornerback Ronde Barber were among teammates who ran on the field to console Clayton after the drop. While Clayton was surrounded by media, coach Jon Gruden made his way through the crowd to embrace the Bucs' most productive first-year receiver.
One bad play does not taint a brilliant season.
"I don't think there is any doubt that Michael Clayton has had a phenomenal year and he's the spark on this offense," receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "My hat's off to him for completing the season with record numbers and record intensity. He's got to sit back now and enjoy what he did this season and his offseason, and then hopefully we can do it again."
The former LSU standout and 15th overall draft pick had two catches for 86 yards. His 75-yard touchdown reception, the bulk of the yards coming after the catch and requiring some magical footwork down the sideline, punctuated a memorable first year.
Clayton finished with 80 catches for 1,193 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, all Bucs rookie receiving records.
While Clayton spent time after the game thanking his teammates and coaches for guidance through his rookie campaign, he couldn't forget the sting of the drop.
"That's something that's going to haunt me in the offseason," Clayton said.
TWILIGHT ZONE: It was a play that summarized the Bucs' season in a nutshell. On a second and 3 at the Cardinals 24 in the second quarter, Chris Simms was slammed by linebacker Karlos Dansby as he was throwing. The tipped ball was intercepted by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, a former Florida State standout, and returned to the Bucs 40 when it was punched out of his hands by Jurevicius. The loose ball rolled 23 yards and was recovered by running back Michael Pittman at the Bucs 17 for what seemed another change of possession.
But during the return, right tackle Kenyatta Walker ripped off Dockett's helmet at the Cardinals 46. Because that penalty was a 15-yard personal foul during the return, it negated Jurevicius' forced fumble and the Cardinals retained possession at the Bucs 39.
"I was trying to save a touchdown," Walker said. "I would take a face mask to save a touchdown every day. My job was to make a play. Even Ronde said to me that I had to do what I had to do, save the touchdown. So, I got him down. There was no touchdown and we held them to three. That was my first face mask of the whole year."
To add insult to injury, left tackle Derrick Deese sustained a left knee sprain on the play and did not return.
MAKING HIS POINT: Discarded by the Cardinals this offseason under bizarre circumstances, Bucs safety Dexter Jackson has harbored some ill will for his former team and coach.
In the week leading up to his return to Arizona, Jackson slammed the franchise for misdiagnosing a back injury that led to his release and hammered new coach Dennis Green for "intimidating his players."
Sunday, Jackson got his first start of the season and finished with six tackles. He stopped Emmitt Smith for no gain on Arizona's second possession of the game and missed a chance for an interception return for a touchdown after nearly picking off a Josh McCown pass.
Jackson seized every opportunity to let Green know how he felt.
"That's how I play ball. They were saying I wasn't well and now I'm well again," said Jackson, who signed a five-year, $14-million deal in 2003 after being named MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII. "So, I'm back on the market."
Jackson did let emotion get the best of him. He was flagged for a personal foul for taunting the Cardinals bench.
"There should never be any hard feelings," Green said. "It's a business. I don't take offense to it. If that's what a guy needs to get himself stoked, that's fine. We really focus on one thing: We won the game."
ROSTER ROTATION: With tight end Dave Moore out with a hamstring injury, tight end Ken Dilger handled the long-snapping duties and the Bucs had to activate guard Jeb Terry.
The injury to Moore also led to the activation of tight ends Nate Lawrie and Billy Baber. Lawrie, a rookie signed to the active roster on Dec. 14, also played Dec. 19 vs. the Saints.
Lawrie had a 15-yard first-down catch in the first quarter Sunday. It was his first career reception. Baber, a fourth-year player, made his first catch as a Buc, a 7-yard reception in the second quarter.
Left tackle Anthony Davis, who hasn't played since the opener, also saw time playing in place of Deese.
_ ROGER MILLS, Times staff writer
PRETTY GOOD START
Never mind his team rookie records, Michael Clayton, whose 80 receptions are fifth best all-time by an NFL rookie, has had one of the best seasons of any Bucs receiver, becoming only the eighth with 1,000 yards:
YEAR YDS REC TDS
Mark Carrier 1989 1,422 86 9
Keyshawn Johnson 2001 1,266 106 1
Michael Clayton 2004 1,193 80 7
Kevin House 1981 1,176 56 9
Keenan McCardell 2003 1,174 84 8
Keyshawn Johnson 2002 1,088 76 5
Bruce Hill 1988 1,040 58 9
Kevin House 1984 1,005 76 5