CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Jimmy Clausen was better. There were no bobbled snaps, he threw his first NFL touchdown pass and the Carolina Panthers doubled their offensive output from a week earlier.
It just wasn't enough to produce that elusive first win. And the chaotic, failed final drive in New Orleans Sunday that included gaffes with clock management, communication and blitz recognition provided painful lessons for the Carolina rookie.
This NFL quarterback thing isn't easy.
"There was a lot of stuff that was happening," coach John Fox said Monday. "Guys not lined up right, not getting the call. You've got a lot of young people out there."
In his second start, the former Notre Dame standout was close to engineering one of the league's biggest surprises this season. Trailing the Super Bowl champions 16-14, with 3:50 left, Clausen nearly put the Panthers in position for a possible game-winning field goal. On fourth-and-4 from his own 46, he kept a busted play alive and threw a perfect pass to rookie David Gettis along the sideline for 16 yards.
After DeAngelo Williams gained 2 yards on the next play, the Panthers were at the Saints 36 and at the edge of kicker John Kasay's range.
"Get three yards in three downs and have an attempt at kicking the winning field goal," Fox said.
One play changed everything.
Williams, who had a 39-yard touchdown on a cutback run earlier in the game, tried the move again. This time he was stuffed by Usama Young for a 4-yard loss, dropping the Panthers out of field goal range.
Suddenly the Panthers had to pass as they faced earsplitting noise at the Superdome.
"We were trying to go in and out of personnel groups and it was loud. We really couldn't hear anything through the headsets," Clausen said. "We were trying to signal it. It wasn't the greatest communication we'd like to have."
It didn't help that Clausen's only reliable target and non-rookie receiver, Steve Smith, was sidelined in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle.
The play clock was nearing zero when Clausen finally dropped back and was slow to pick up a blitz. Malcolm Jenkins took him down for another 4-yard loss.
"I would have liked a completion for a touchdown. I think Jimmy would have, too," Fox said. "I would have liked completion for a first down. I think Jimmy would have, too. I liked the sack better than an interception. When you're out there playing NFL football, sometimes it's the next-best thing."
Now the Panthers faced desperation, fourth-and-16 from the 44 with less than a minute left. But because of more confusion, the team huddled instead of going into the hurry-up offense.
Fox on Monday incorrectly said it was fourth-and-14, and Clausen's pass intended for Dwayne Jarrett may not have been a first down if it was caught. It didn't matter because Clausen wasted nearly 40 seconds before taking the snap and Jarrett would've been tackled inbounds to end the game.
"I think when the ball was snapped there were 8 seconds left," Fox said. "What we needed was a miracle."
Instead, the Panthers (0-4) are off to their worst start since 1998 as they try to speed up Clausen's maturation.
He went 11 of 21 for 146 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Stewart. He had no interceptions and no fumbles. In his starting debut a week earlier, Clausen was part of three turnovers in a 20-7 loss to Cincinnati.
"I thought it was a great play he made on fourth-and-4," Fox said. "I thought he made some decent throws. I'm sure there are some we'd like to have back and he'd like to have back. I thought his performance was better this week than it was a week ago."
Still, there's much to be learned. Not only was there confusion at the end, but the Panthers called two timeouts before their fourth play from scrimmage because of communication issues and a defective headset.
Clausen won't have to worry about an opposing crowd Sunday when Julius Peppers returns to Carolina with Chicago (3-1). But Clausen will likely be without his main target, Smith.
That would leave a rookie quarterback throwing to as many as three rookie receivers.
"Going into an environment like that, playing under those circumstances against the defending world champs," Clausen said, "it's only going to make us get better quicker."