BY BILL COATS
A week ago, no one could've imagined that rookie quarterback Sam Bradford's first regular-season NFL completion would be to Mark Clayton. Even more preposterous would've been any notion that after just three practices with the Rams, Clayton would be their leading receiver in Sunday's season opener.
After Clayton hauled in a career-high 10 passes for 119 yards in a 17-13 loss to Arizona, Bradford said, "It's definitely impressive. But we saw it all week. The first day he was here, he knew exactly what he was doing."
The Rams traded for Clayton on Monday, sending a 2011 late-round draft choice to Baltimore to complete the deal. Clayton, a sixth-year veteran out of the University of Oklahoma, was a first-round draft pick by the Ravens in 2005.
His production had declined over the past four seasons, falling from a career-high 67 receptions in 2006 to 48 in '07, 41 in '08 and then a career-low 34 last year.
"You got to have the ball thrown your way to catch them," said Clayton, 28. "The thing is, I've learned perseverance, being a consummate pro, working, just always, no matter what, to get open. And when the ball comes, take advantage of it. If it doesn't, get open again."
Clayton became expendable when the Ravens signed free-agent wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh earlier Monday.
The Rams had been looking for an experienced hand to supplement their corps of young and largely inexperienced wide receivers. They dealt for Clayton just a few days after a knee injury knocked their top wideout, Donnie Avery, out for the season.
Still, it would've seemed absurd to predict that after getting onto the practice field at Rams Park for the first time Wednesday, Clayton would torch the Cardinals.
Well, maybe Rams center Jason Brown might have seen it coming. He played with Clayton in Baltimore. There, Brown said Clayton proved that he is "very smart and very disciplined."
"We were making compliments and commenting on that all week long, how he came in and didn't have a single mental error at practice," Brown added. "Never lined up wrong, never ran a wrong route. He was on top of it since Day One."
Clayton did extra work on the field after practice each day, then spent a least two hours in the playbook every night before going to bed.
"I was able to just sit down and go over it play, play, play, play," Clayton said. "The Lord gave me a photographic memory. I can go in and just look at some pictures and remember it and ... just process it in my mind real quick."
Clayton had just one 100-yard receiving day last season and only two in 2008. His previous high in receptions, eight, was achieved three times. The most recent occurrence came nearly three years ago, though.
His new career mark "means nothing," Clayton insisted in the wake of the defeat.
"Offensively, we have to put the ball in the end zone," he said. "You make a play here, a play there, but at the end of the day, we have to score points. If we want to win, we're going to have to score points, period."
The Rams mustered a single touchdown Sunday, and Clayton played a major role in the score. His acrobatic grab on the right sideline was good for a 39-yard pickup to the Cardinals' 9-yard line with 20 seconds left in the first half.
"That was big ... a pro catch," Brown said.
Four plays later, Bradford rolled right and found wide receiver Laurent Robinson in the front of the end zone. The 1-yard yard TD as time expired pulled the Rams even, 10-10, at the break.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Clayton had a 33-yard reception in a promising drive late in the fourth quarter. That catch took the Rams to the Arizona 33-yard line, but the march ended with an interception.
"We just weren't efficient," Clayton said. "We had some opportunities, and we weren't able to take advantage of them. We know we'll get better. We'll work hard this week and come back and capitalize on those things next week," when the Rams face the Raiders in Oakland.
Looking forward, Clayton likes what he sees.
"I believe in this team," he said. "This is a really good team, and we wanted the win bad, and it hurt. We fought hard. ... I want to do my best and leave everything on the field. I just want to try to help this team win games."