Too much green space around. Too much time to think. Way too much opportunity to squander.
Charles Clay knew he was the only one who could stop himself from scoring the decisive touchdown for the Buffalo Bills Sunday.
“At the time, the only thing that was going through my mind was just kind of, ‘Watch the point of the ball, make sure I watch it all the way in,’” he said of his 40-yard scoring catch late in the Bills’ 30-21 victory against the Houston Texans. “That’s one of those that feels like they take forever to come down. I thought, ‘Just watch it all the way in … whatever you do, don’t drop this one.’”
Because until that point, Clay’s most notable play was a drop. It was big, foiling at least a 21-yard gain on third-and-10 from the Buffalo 19 with 12:13 left in the fourth quarter. The resulting punt set up a Texans drive for a touchdown that tied the game at 21-21.
Yet, even in redeeming himself a little more than 10 minutes later, Clay was haunted by the mistake that could very well have cost the Bills a win crucial to their tenuous playoff hopes.
“After it happened, the first thing I did was identify why I dropped it and just kind of move on,” he said.
Here was what he discovered when he looked back at digital images of the play: One, he was too late in turning his head for a pass that Tyrod Taylor “put on a rope.” Second, Clay had his hands “the wrong way,” with his palms up rather than reaching out sideways.
“From there out, all I was hoping was that I would get another chance,” he said. Taylor and offensive coordinator Greg Roman “challenged me” with the touchdown throw, “and guys were confident that I would make the play. That speaks volumes for my teammates and the coaches as well to put that trust in me after a huge drop on third down.”
The up-and-down nature of Clay’s performance Sunday was, in many ways, a microcosm of his season. Although he leads the Bills with 50 receptions for 519 yards, he has not come close to having the dramatic impact expected after he was signed in the offseason as a free agent from Miami to the NFL’s fourth-richest contract for a tight end (five years for $38 million, including $24.5 million guaranteed).
He only has three touchdown catches, tying him with No. 2 receiver Robert Woods for second on the team. Of Clay’s 12 games, he finished with only one catch in three. His two most productive games (nine receptions for 111 yards against the New York Giants and nine catches for 62 yards against Cincinnati) came in losses.
“I feel like it’s been OK,” Clay said of his season. “Obviously, I’ve had plays I wish I could have back. It’s never perfect throughout a season, but I feel like I’ve done some things well. They ask me to block; I feel like I’ve done those things pretty good at times. You can always get better at something, so I’ll always just try to keep working.”
Still, there’s no escaping that he will be judged extra harshly because of his salary, which averages $7.6 million per year. During the offseason, Clay insisted there wasn’t additional pressure from the deal.
Now, he seems to have a different perspective.
“That’s kind of part of it,” Clay said of assessing his season. “Whenever you have that kind of money tagged to a person, a lot of people want to see receptions and things like that. I’ve always been a guy where, whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to try to do it to the best of my ability. And, so far, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve gone out there and given it everything I have. I’ll continue to play that way.”
Roman places a heavy premium on blocking by his tight ends. Yet, even that hasn’t been an area of consistency for Clay.
“At times, it’s been good,” Clay said. “It’s never perfect. Definitely have some plays you wish you could have back, but definitely learned a lot from” Roman “as far as footwork and things like that that’ll help you. But I feel like it’s been coming along and I feel like these past couple of weeks, it’s been OK.
“I won’t sit there and say it’s been pretty good or wonderful, but it’s been OK.”
Even his big touchdown catch against the Texans had at least as much to do with another tight end, Matthew Mulligan, as it did with Clay. The Bills were in a formation that indicated they would run, so the Texans responded by inserting larger players on defense who were better at run-stuffing than coverage.
Mulligan, whom the Bills released Tuesday to promote rookie tight end Nick O’Leary to the 53-man active roster from the practice squad, was exceptionally fast in releasing from the line of scrimmage while Clay purposely hesitated. As a result, Mulligan drew defenders and Clay was left all by his lonesome.
“He’s the reason I was so wide open,” Clay said of his former teammate. “The play doesn’t happen if it wasn’t for him.”
And what was Rex Ryan thinking when he saw his No. 1 tight end running downfield without a Texan anywhere near him?
“I was just like, ‘Please, don’t miss the layup, please don’t miss the layup,’” the coach said.
Not exactly the sort of overwhelming faith befitting one of the team’s highest-paid players.
But after the earlier drop, Clay understood the sentiment.
“I tell people all the time I’m my hardest critic,” he said. “The most satisfying thing” about Sunday’s game “is the fact that we won, so that makes it a lot easier. When you watch film, you know you might have made plays that you wish you could have back, but at the same time, you won the game. So that’s the biggest thing to me.
“It’s a continuing work in progress and I’ll continue to work at it until I’m one of the best at it.”