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Rookie Clausen has his share of struggles in first start

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Charlotte, N.C. -- About 90 minutes before the start of Sunday's game, it began to rain, literally, on Jimmy Clausen's parade.

And things didn't clear up most of the day for the Carolina Panthers' rookie -- making the first regular-season start of his career -- except for a brief period in the third quarter. To say that the first start of Clausen's career was stormy, a 20-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that left the Panthers at 0-3 for the second year in a row, and probably left lame-duck coach John Fox daydreaming about his next gig in the league, would be an understatement.

'I felt comfortable in both the first and second halves,' says Jimmy Clausen, who throws for 188 yards. (AP)  
'I felt comfortable in both the first and second halves,' says Jimmy Clausen, who throws for 188 yards. (AP)  
The former Notre Dame star, a second-round draft pick and the 48th overall selection in the 2010 draft, completed 16 of 33 attempts for 188 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. It's the kind of debut most NFL observers expect from a rookie quarterback and certainly the kind Clausen delivered. Starting in place of Matt Moore, who had been largely ineffective in his two starts, the learning curve for Clausen was more like Dead Man's Curve.

Clausen didn't drown completely in the emotional deluge attached to a first start, but center Ryan Kalil used the term "treading water sometimes," and running back Mike Goodson chimed in with "pretty difficult" to describe the rookie's first start. Both seemed to capture the essence of the fractured moment. The Clausen debut certainly didn't go swimmingly, that's for sure.

"It's hard to say there were positives out there, because we lost," said Clausen, who insisted he wasn't nervous beforehand, but might have been a "little cotton-mouth[ed]" in experiencing his initial taste of first-team action. "I felt comfortable in both the first and second halves. I think the second half [though], we were just more in a rhythm. ... We moved the ball."

Clearly, though, the Panthers and Clausen didn't have great rhythm. Fox declined to commit to Clausen as his starter for next week's game at New Orleans -- the Panthers haven't opened a season at 0-4 since 1998; but the Saints will be fuming after Sunday's overtime defeat to Atlanta, and the Superdome is a difficult environment in any circumstance. Even so, it would be somewhat surprising to see the Panthers make another quarterback change.

Said Kalil: "You don't want to put a revolving door on the position."

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And the odds are that Fox, who is without a contract for 2011 and unlikely to return here for a 10th campaign (but who is regarded league wide as a very good coach and who should have little trouble finding a head-coaching job if not with the Panthers), is essentially developing a quarterback for his successor. So why not play the youngster? The consensus around the league is that, Sunday's dismal start notwithstanding, Clausen possesses NFL skills and the kind of moxie to play in the league.

Confidence he ain't lacking. Playing time and a surrounding cast, he is.

The Panthers have a terrific 1-2 punch at tailback, with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but still lack big-play potential. As noted in a Saturday column for The Sports Xchange, the franchise has consistently struggled to find a complement to explosive wide receiver Steve Smith and on Sunday started a rookie at the No. 2 wideout spot for the third week in a row. Smith caught only three passes for 22 yards and there was a mock cheer when he finally made his first reception of the game with 10 minutes to play.

CBSSports.com Grades
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
C+
The Bengals managed to get it done behind Cedric Benson, who scored twice and hauled in his first career TD catch. Carson Palmer looked shaky in the first quarter, throwing two picks, although three others could have been intercepted. The defense played well, providing consistent pressure on Jimmy Clausen.
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
D-
The Panthers turned to Jimmy Clausen for a spark, but he had a quarterback rating of 0.0 at halftime and the team had just six net passing yards at the break. The Panthers turned the ball over four times. Once again, the Panthers couldn't establish the running game and WR Steve Smith was a non-factor in the game plan.
By Steve Reed
RapidReports Correspondent

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Actually, the biggest cheers of the day were reserved for those moments when the scoreboard at Bank of America Stadium flashed updates from the NASCAR race at the Dover International Speedway.

"I just run my routes, do what I'm told, and if the ball comes my way, I catch it," said Smith, who refused to blame the Panthers' continuing offensive doldrums on having a rookie quarterback. "If it doesn't come my way, well ..."

Give Clausen credit for this much: He didn't spend the entire afternoon staring down Smith, who was targeted five times, according to official league statistics. The one time Clausen locked in on Smith, on a first-down play from the Cincinnati 21-yard line following a Chris Godfrey interception, he was picked off.

"In this league," said Clausen, "you have to make the plays when you've got a shot."

Clausen didn't get many shots.

Mercifully, for the small, poncho-clad home crowd, the skies didn't open up again after the initial pre-game downpour. Notably, neither did the Panthers' offense, which did its best to protect its rookie starter, and for the most part adhered to a game plan that appeared to have been drawn up on Glenn Beck's blackboard.

In the first half, during which Clausen compiled a passer rating of 0.0, the Panthers only once threw on consecutive plays. For the game, Carolina offered up an offense that appeared to be on Ambien. On 13 possessions, the Panthers went three-and-out seven times. Only twice did Carolina net more than 40 yards in a series. Making things even tougher on Clausen was the fact the Panthers began seven series at their own 20-yard line or worse. Four possessions started at or inside the 11-yard line.

But even when Clausen was handed a short field by a Carolina defense that again played hard, he struggled.

After a Captain Munnerlyn interception on the Bengals' opening series set up Carolina at the Cincinnati 47-yard line, Clausen fumbled away the snap just two plays later. The interception on the pass intended for Smith killed an opportunity that commenced at the Bengals' 21-yard line.

In retrospect, the Bengals didn't play particularly well, either, especially quarterback Carson Palmer, whose passer rating (53.3) was actually worse than Clausen's (53.6), and who threw two interceptions and had three more potential pickoffs dropped by Carolina defensive backs or linebackers.

But facing a rookie quarterback in his first start, the Bengals seemed to sense they had plenty of margin for error, and often played like it. The bar for any rookie quarterback making his first start is typically set low and Clausen on Sunday couldn't successfully navigate a fairly modest Limbo test.

"We didn't even play that well," lamented wide receiver Terrell Owens, who had four catches for 42 yards. "I mean, you're facing a rookie, you know? And you take that into account."

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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