CHARLOTTE - Quarterback Jimmy Clausen hasn't enjoyed the kind of year he envisioned, but there's a reason for the season.
"Obviously I haven't played like I want to play," Clausen said, "but I think it's just a transition that I'm going through right now."
There's a name for that transition: It's called being a rookie.
The Panthers have more newcomers going through growing pains than most NFL teams, with 11 rookies on their active roster heading into Sunday's season finale at Atlanta.
Clausen, who has started nine games at quarterback, is the unofficial face of the rookie class, and he's struggled right along the team. Clausen is 1-8 as a starter; the Panthers are 2-13.
"Coming and starting as a rookie at quarterback even on an all-world team is tough, and especially on a team like this," said left tackle Jordan Gross, an eight-year veteran. "It's growing pains, and if it doesn't kill him, it will make him stronger. One of those two things is going to happen."
Even though it's not yet showing up in the win column, Clausen and his fellow rookies say this season is making them stronger, that it is preparing them for bigger and better things to come.
"As far as next year, with the time we've had to build chemistry, we think we can do things that nobody can imagine next year," rookie safety Jordan Pugh said. "We're looking forward to that."
The rookies believe the worst is behind them, but it's all still within sight of their rear-view mirror.
"It's been real frustrating because we've lost a lot of games, and when you go through something like this, you never really focus on yourself," rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "But I do feel like I've gotten better, week in and week out.
"I feel like I'm way better than I was at the beginning of the season. My confidence level in going out there and playing fast is much higher."
LaFell ranks second among the team's wide receivers with 34 catches, and fellow rookie David Gettis ranks second in receiving yards with 475 (10-year veteran Steve Smith heads both categories with 46 catches for 554 yards).
On defense, rookie end Greg Hardy is tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles and is tied for third with three sacks.
On special teams, rookie Robert McClain is third in tackles with 10, and fellow rookie Eric Norwood is fourth with nine.
The rookies, who currently make up more than 20 percent of the roster, have built bonds that extend beyond the playing field - bonds that they believe will help going forward on the playing field.
"We're all tight," LaFell said. "We're always hanging out with each other - at the mall, going to movies, going out to eat.
"We're a young team, and we all know that for us to be successful, we've got to grow up."
That's exactly what they're in the process of doing - slowly but surely.
"This team is definitely going to grow," fourth-year linebacker Jon Beason said. "We're going to get better as we get older.
"First impressions are lasting, but so are last impressions."