With their 27-3 loss to the Steelers, the Carolina Panthers moved one step closer to securing the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The ultimate consolation prize for an awful season, the #1 pick would be a big boon for the Panthers, but it also would be a crushing blow to Jimmy Clausen’s young career. Despite being the team’s top pick in 2010, Clausen now appears to be on the verge of losing his chance to be the team’s QB of the future.
Initially, there was a sharp discord between draft analysts on who was the better quarterback prospect, Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen. Only in the final months before the draft did it become clear that NFL decisionmakers were extremely high on Sam Bradford and not nearly as sanguine about Jimmy Clausen. By contrast, it’s been clear for a while now that Stanford QB Andrew Luck is a favorite of the NFL scouting community; he’s the unquestioned #1 QB and most likely will be the first overall pick, should he choose to enter the draft.
Luck would be an appealing option for any team that lacks a franchise signal caller: he possesses special intangibles and close to ideal physical tools. Unfortunately, the Panthers are one of the teams interested in the young QB’s services. According to Tony Pauline, Panthers GM Marty Hurney has been calling around to find out whether Luck is going to declare. Also, Adam Schefter has been adamant in insisting that the team would select Luck.
To stop the team from taking the Stanford signal caller, Jimmy Clausen needed to turn the last few games of the season into a strong closing argument, one that made him look like a legit franchise QB in the making. Clausen began heading in that direction with his first career win last week against Arizona, in which the rookie QB generated a 107.6 QBR. However, Clausen wasn’t able to sustain his success in a much more difficult matchup against Pitt, only completing 10 of 23 passes (43.5%) for 72 yards.
The Panthers’ offense did start the game on a relatively strong note, moving into Steelers territory on their first two drives, but Clausen & co. quickly reverted back to their typical bottom of the league form.
Some of the ugliness, like Steve Smith’s two ugly drops, wasn’t Clausen’s fault. And Clausen’s receivers didn’t do nearly enough to smooth over his mistakes: David Gettis looked haplessly out of his element while trying to go after an overthrown deep ball, which ended up being picked by Bryant McFadden. Donte Rosario was slow to look back on another play, leaving him unable to reach back for what could have been a much-needed first down conversion.
But Clausen deserves much of the blame for the team’s disappointing offensive output. He was disconcertingly slow to make decisions and often stared down his receivers. When forced to quickly make a decision, Clausen was more erratic with his accuracy and on more than one occasion failed to stick his target.
While it’d be unfair to expect a rookie QB to carry the offense against the tough Steelers D, Clausen appeared to be holding back the team. Late in the game, the Steelers began to let up a bit, yet Clausen still found ways to leave points on the field by not delivering the ball on time and/or on target. By that point, he looked too flustered to give the fans and coaching staff anything to get excited about or build upon.
There’s still a chance that the Panthers could slide out of the #1 overall spot; a win against the Falcons in Week 17 could drop them behind Cincinnati or Denver. However, it looks increasingly likely that the Panthers will own that #1 overall pick, and though it may be unfair for the Panthers to give up on Clausen so quickly, the prospect of adding Luck would appear to be too tempting for the team to pass up.
UPDATE: With Cincinnati and Denver winning their Week 16 games, the Panthers now own the first overall pick.