NEW ORLEANS — When you sign up for being led by a rookie quarterback, as the Carolina Panthers have, these are the sorts of days that you get.
Jimmy Clausen made a couple of startlingly good plays Sunday. And he didn't fumble any snaps. But then he did something you really can't do - taking a sack when the Panthers could least afford it - and the Panthers lost again, 16-14 to the New Orleans Saints.
Clausen matured Sunday, playing far better on the road in his second start as a Panthers quarterback than at home in his first. He has got his issues, like all rookie quarterbacks. But he never made a turnover, and he converted several superb plays on the run, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Stewart that came because Clausen kept the play alive and Stewart sneaked behind the defense.
On the upside, Clausen had a 90.8 quarterback rating while completing 11 of 21 for 146 yards (Drew Brees' rating was only 90.2).
On the downside, Clausen had at least three passes batted down at the line. At a listed 6 feet 2 and with a tendency to dump the ball off, the Saints' defensive linemen knew they had a shot at some blocks.
Plus, Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said to reporters about Clausen: "He's got a long windup."
And then came that final drive. Oh, man, that final drive.
The Panthers got the ball down by two points, at their own 28, with two timeouts left and 3:50 on the clock.
And they still ran out of time.
That's why the Panthers are 0-4 today, despite playing their best game of the season.
Now I understand they weren't in the hurry-up offense, and for good reason. You kick a field goal with two minutes left against the Saints and you're just leaving time for Brees to come back and beat you.
So the Panthers moved as slowly as a sloth for much of the drive - running the ball on their first four plays (one was a Clausen scramble). Then came two incompletions (it didn't help that Steve Smith was out with an ankle injury for the entire march).
Unfortunately, by then, Carolina had spent both of its final timeouts.
This is something else you get with a rookie quarterback. It was incredibly loud. There were some miscommunication. And so with 1:57 to go, the timeouts were all gone.
Then Clausen made the best play he has made yet as a Panther, the one that gives you hope for the future.
On fourth-and-4 from the Carolina 46, he avoided a sack, scrambled right and threw a 16-yard laser to David Gettis into an area the size of a handkerchief.
It made his teammates proud.
"That fourth-down play he made speaks volumes for what I think is inside of him," Panther offensive tackle Jordan Gross said of Clausen. "That's as clutch as you get there."
Then, however, came the problems.
After one running play, the Panthers had a second-and-8 from the New Orleans 36 with 1:35 left. They were just on the edge of John Kasay's range.
And then the Panthers moved even more slo-o-o-wly.
DeAngelo Williams took a gamble, cut back and lost four yards. It was 40 seconds later before Carolina got off another play - 40 seconds! - and it was a bad one.
New Orleans brought a safety blitz on third-and-12, and Clausen tried to find his "hot" receiver for such an occasion.
"I can't take a sack in that situation," Clausen said.
But he did.
With no room to run and not wanting to throw the ball away, Clausen took the sack.
And the Panthers again took about 40 endless seconds to run another play, this time snapping the ball with eight seconds remaining on fourth-and-16. Given that Clausen threw the ball at Dwayne Jarrett, you know that one didn't work either.
And so Clausen is 0-2 as a starter for Carolina, despite a marked improvement from last week.
So this is how it feels to have a rookie quarterback.
It's like having a new puppy in the house. Life is very interesting, but you never know what the next moment will bring.
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