DAVIE, Fla. — After Charles Clay recently scored a touchdown on his first career rushing attempt, Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin cracked, “I don’t know if he will be compared to Jim Brown or anything.”
Well, what about Kellen Winslow?
When the Dolphins lost starter Dustin Keller for the season in the third preseason game due to a knee injury, there obviously was concern at tight end. The free-agent signee, who had caught as many as 65 passes with the New York Jets in 2011, was regarded as possibly developing into quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s favorite target.
As for his replacement, Clay had just 34 catches in his first two seasons combined, numbers Keller has been expected to put up in half a season. But hold on here.
Through three games, Clay has grabbed 14 passes for 203 yards. That puts him in pace for approximately 75 catches and 950 yards on the season, better numbers than Keller ever has had.
“No surprise,” Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline said about what Clay has done since Keller went down. “I’m not sure who was concerned but whoever was concerned is not well informed and we’re excited (Clay is) getting his opportunities. … Clay was going to be a big part of the offense regardless of whether Dustin was here or not.”
There is some revisionist history going on here. Few really expected Clay to get off to this good of a start.
Clay has caught at least four balls in each game for the 3-0 Dolphins. His top outing was five catches for 109 yards, the second-highest total ever by a Miami tight end, in a 24-20 win at Indianapolis on Sept. 15.
“I’m just a guy who’s going to do whatever it takes, catching the ball, if they need me blocking,” Clay said. “I’m just trying to help the team.”
In his first two seasons, Clay was a true all-purpose guy. He lined up as an H-back and fullback in addition to tight end, where he backed up since-departed Anthony Fasano. He played on special teams.
Now, with Keller gone, Clay has emerged as one of Tannehill’s favorite targets. He’s tied with wide receiver Brandon Gibson for second on the team in catches, with Hartline tops at 18.
“Clay obviously has assumed a role of leadership on this team as well as bringing his talent to fruition,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “He’ll continue to get better. There are certainly some things he can improve upon, but he certainly has proven he can play in this league.”
Clay is a confident guy. He didn’t shy away from letting that be known when he was touting players at his position.
“I like to say that, outside of quarterback, the tight ends are usually the smartest people on the field,” Clay has said.
Dolphins center Mike Pouncey didn’t agree with tight ends being that high in the pecking order, saying guys at his position are the second smartest after quarterback. But Pouncey has no problem with the way Clay has been playing.
“When Keller got hurt, it wasn’t so much a problem where we are going to be hurting at tight end,” Pouncey said. “(Clay is) just being more consistent. He’s catching the ball. He’s blocking really well. In this offense, if you don’t block, you’re not going to get the football. He’s been doing a great job, and he’s been coming along as a football player.”
Clay, 24, still makes some mistakes. With the Dolphins down 23-20 to Atlanta last Sunday and driving, he dropped a pass from Tannehill.
But on the next play Clay hauled in a 21-yard pass to give the Dolphins first-and-goal at the 8. Two plays later, Tannehill threw a 1-yard TD pass to backup tight end Dion Sims with 38 seconds left for the decisive points in a 27-23 win.
One supposes the Dolphins could have given the ball at the 1 to Clay, whose 1-yard TD run against the Colts provided Miami with a decisive 24-20 lead in the third quarter of that win. That was the play that led Philbin to crack Clay isn’t exactly Brown, the Hall of Fame running back.
Obviously, Clay also can’t compare to Winslow, the Hall of Fame tight end. But throw in some more big games and Philbin might just remain in a joking mood when discussing Clay.