April 28, 2011 is here. “With the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers select Cameron Newton….” Though Jimmy Clausen texted Newton “Welcome to the team,” in his mind he was reminded of the times in his childhood where he was scared so bad he wet himself.
Clausen has every reason to be scared. Newton is a 6-5, 250-pound athletic freak, Heisman winner and National Champion. Clausen is about 6-2, light and barely succeeded in Notre Dame against teams like Air Force and Army.
Clausen is coming off a season where he threw only 3 touchdowns in 10 games and none were to receivers. Newton led comebacks against Alabama and Georgia, dominated the SEC, and made Tim Tebow look like an Average Joe.
Lastly, Newton was drafted first overall, while Clausen fell to the middle of the second round.
Surprisingly, Clausen may actually be the best option for Ron Rivera's team to succeed in his first year on the job.
If Clausen gained anything from his rookie campaign it was experience. Clausen learned what it is like to be sacked in the NFL. He learned the speed of the game. He learned what it was like to lose.
Clausen also had positive experiences. He learned how beneficial running backs and tight ends can be in the passing game (when they are actually used as receivers). He learned what it was like to experience victory in the NFL. He learned how well his team can do when he just manages the game and doesn’t lose it for them.
Clausen also gained experience in two areas that may make him the better option. First, he gained experience in late game situations. In his first game against New Orleans, he led the team down the field and only fell short of John Kasay’s range by 4 yards. A failed rush by DeAngelo Williams and a sack left the Panthers needing a long fourth down conversion and it just wasn’t in the cards.
The other experience came during the Cleveland Browns game. Clausen had just thrown an interception, but the defense held strong getting the ball back in Clausen’s hands. In less than a minute, Clausen drove the team to the Browns 25 yard line. It was unfortunate that the usually reliable Kasay would miss a relatively short field goal, but the drive revealed something.
Of all the receivers, I think Clausen developed a trust with Brandon LaFell. He hit LaFell deep on the final drive, capped by a spectacular one handed catch by LaFell. He also hit LaFell earlier in the game on a big pass, though reviews showed LaFell dropped the ball as he went out of bounds. LaFell is a big target and if Clausen can further that trust with LaFell than Clausen could have a reliable target to fall back on.
Clausen did not come into the league under ideal circumstances. His Head Coach was already on the way out. Matt Moore was the only veteran to learn from and Moore only had 8 starts. Then there’s a bigger problem.
Clausen had Jeff Davidson as Offensive Coordinator, former offensive line coach for the Browns, and the Browns’ former quarterback coach. Why did the Panthers take offensive coaches from a team that’s only had one winning record in the last ten years?
That’s over now. No more run, run, pass, punt. Shula worked with David Gerrard and Gerrard had one of the highest pass ratings in the first month of the season. He also led a team that had no go-to receiver and only a tight end as a target, to an 8-8 record.
Along with Shula, Clausen will, eventually, be working with Chudzinski who helped Derek Anderson pretend to be an NFL quarterback for the year Chud was with the Browns. Chud also uses tight ends as receivers and just asked Clausen if having a 6’5” target makes a difference.
Clausen will have offensive minds working with him and he should benefit greatly.
Head Coach Ron Rivera has said from day 1 that the offense will be much more aggressive and Clausen can only get on his knees and say, “Thank You!” Originality and risk were taboos last year, but Rivera plans to make them the norm.
The offense will become a down-the-field offense. The Panthers will still be a run-first team, but 5-7 yard passes will not be the norm. The Panthers have fast and big receivers that will benefit from this kind of offense. Plus, add in Jeremy Shockey and utilizing the tight ends currently on the roster will have a big impact on the passing and running game.
The new offense would allow Clausen to make bigger plays, better play action, and he’ll live a lot longer.
The common theme of defenses operated by Ron Rivera is aggressiveness and superiority. The Chargers had the best overall defense in the NFL last season. The Bears defense was the reason why they made it to the Super Bowl when Rivera was with Chicago in 2006.
Despite what many think they know, the Panthers defense was a top 10 caliber defense even with the defensive tackle problems and linebacker injuries. They had a great pass defense. Their run defense was not even as bad as advertised as other than the Chicago game, the Peyton Hillis game and Atlanta game, most of the yards gained from teams came late in the game or when the opponent was comfortably ahead.
It is hard to have a statistically good defense when they are on the field for 40+ minutes per game. Rivera’s defense will be more aggressive, force quarterbacks to make bad throws and all of this benefits Clausen. More aggressive play-calling will lead to more turnovers and opportunities for Clausen to run the offense with good field position. He could not capitalize last season, but with some help this season could be a lot different.
LaFell could make Clausen look a lo better
Besides a lack of veteran quarterbacks, Carolina and Clausen also lacked veteran receivers. Steve Smith was the only veteran receiver and he certainly did not play like it. He was discouraged and was not the same Smith that Panther fans have grown to love.
The rest of the receiving corps consisted of third round picks Brand LaFell and Armanti Edwards, and sixth round pick David Gettis.
LaFell had the best season of the three. He made some spectacular catches and if he could just work on his hands and body placement he could be a solid No.2 receiver.
Gettis was the most explosive of the three. His 120 yard and 2 touchdown performance against the 49ers was the best performance by any Panthers receiver last season. He has good height and great speed. If he can work on not dropping touchdowns, he will be explosive in Rivera’s new vertical offense.
Edwards was the most disappointing of the three, mostly due to the Panthers organization, but he did not help his case. Edwards did not choose to be selected in the third round even though everyone from here to Thailand knew it was a reach. He did not choose to be inactive for most of the season. The question is did he put in enough effort?
Edwards can be a huge part of the offense. He is fast, has agility, can be a playmaker, but he needs to work on everything. He needs to learn to run routes and catch the ball. He needs to learn to catch punts.
If Edwards can learn to be a receiver and at the same time be utilized in some sort of Wildcat package he could be an X-factor for this offense, Clausen, and for this team.
Clausen may actually have a receiving corps this year and the addition of Kealoha Pilares this could be a young, explosive group of receivers that have big play written all over them. They could be the key to Clausen’s tenure in Carolina as he will have talent and more experience at the position to assist him.
Clausen learned last year that it is hard being a quarterback in the NFL, but he learned that it’s impossible to be a quarterback in the NFL when he is on his back with a 300 pound sweating monster all over him.
The Panthers offensive line allowed the second most sacks in the NFL last year. The majority of that lies on just poor play from the offensive line. Jordan Gross was not a Pro Bowl tackle and neither was Ryan Kalil. Mackenzy Bernadeau was terrible and Geoff Scwartz didn’t know what position he’d be playing until the day of the game.
Another problem was the health of the offensive line. Travelle Wharton was injured for a good part of the season leaving a huge whole on the left side. Bernadeau was bad, Duke Robinson was bad and hurt leaving an ever-growing hole at the right guard position.
The biggest injury was at right tackle where the 6’6” 330 pound Jeff Otah was supposed to be playing. Otah’s “minor setback” from his knee surgery cost him the entire season and I want to know who is rehabbing these players as it seems they get hurt more during rehab than during the season. Otah is supposed to be the anchor of the right side and when he’s not there it is not the same line.
With a healthy offensive line and either Geoff Schwartz or a free agent at right guard, Carolina’s line should return to being one of the best in the NFL and Clausen will have time to throw the ball for a change.
No luxury to be confused this year
Another reason why Clausen may be the best option is that he understands that he is no longer a rookie and all excuses associated with that title are long gone.
He doesn’t need to come out and be a top 5 quarterback. He needs to come out and show that he took his licks, learned from them, and has moved on. He needs to show progress and keep faith in his teammates, or he will no longer be the Panthers quarterback.
Clausen is no longer the favorite child. Cam Newton is the new golden boy and has already made it clear to Clausen that he wants his job.
Clausen needs to look at this as a challenge that he must win. He will need his experience and proof of improvement to help him overcome Newton’s first overall status and his unique physical abilities.
Clausen will not be given the job like he was after Matt Moore was benched. He will need to earn it and that requires lots of film, and it requires he be the first to arrive and the last to leave the building, when allowed in.
If he can prove he is currently better than Newton than he will deserve to play and Carolina will have the best quarterback on the field come Sunday.
Ron Rivera was a Charger when Clausen was drafted two years ago. He owes nothing to Clausen, but Clausen owes everything to him.
Rivera showed that he has little trust in Clausen, hence the reason why he drafted Newton. Rivera has his franchise quarterback, the question is what is Clausen going to do about it?
Clausen is in a position where he is the starter, but the coach’s kid plays the same position. He needs to prove to himself, his team and most importantly the coach that he is the guy and that he has earned his title as starter.
If Clausen can change Rivera’s mind, he will earn trust from Rivera which will open up the playbook as well as keep stability at the position as long as he doesn’t fail epically.
Jimmy Clausen is not a first round draft pick, he is a second round pick. Not many former second round picks are looked at during free agency. First round picks will draw interest, but second round picks may as well be fifth round picks in free agency.
Clausen is in a dog fight right now and if he loses his spot to Newton, he may never regain it. He will become a career back-up and fade out of the league within the next three years. If he values being a quarterback in the NFL, one that sees something other than the practice field, he will come in as soon as the lockout is over with guns blazing.
This benefits the Panthers because Clausen will have to give it his all just to stay on the team. If he has any talent it will show itself and Clausen will be a quality quarterback. If not, the Newton era begins.