TAMPA, Fla. – The Panthers rookie quarterback often didn't look like a rookie, and their backup running back certainly didn't look like a backup.
In what appears to be a lost season for the Panthers in terms of wins and losses, the performances of quarterback Jimmy Clausen and running back Mike Goodson in Sunday's 31-16 loss at Tampa Bay qualify as a moral victory.
"We saw improvement offensively, which is a bright spot," head coach John Fox said. "Jimmy did a good job, and Mike Goodson stepped in and did a good job."
The last time Clausen entered a game as a starter, he exited before it was over and was replaced by Matt Moore in the starting lineup the next time the Panthers played. But Clausen got another chance after Moore suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last week and looked more like starter material.
"I felt really comfortable out there," Clausen said. "I just tried to make plays, tried to execute the offense.
"Every time you step foot on the field, things are going to get a little bit easier. For the most part, that showed. I just tried to get in a rhythm early with some quick passes, and then we tried to make plays down the field when they were there."
Clausen didn't do enough to win the game but avoided the types of mistakes that lose games, dodging the interception bug that hounded him. Not counting the season opener in which he attempted just two late passes, Clausen had tossed an interception in four of his other five appearances before Sunday.
The lone exception, not surprisingly, was Carolina's near-victory at New Orleans.
"Jimmy gave us a chance," Fox said. "He played well enough to give us a chance, and he'll continue to improve. He's a good young player that with time you'll see improvement."
Clausen's job was made more manageable by the threat that Goodson posed in the backfield. Goodson did something Sunday that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart hadn't yet been able to do this season when healthy: rush for 100 yards in a game.
"When we come out as a backfield, that's what we want to do," said Goodson, who credited Williams for helping him out on the sidelines Sunday. "Everybody this week was like, 'The third-down guy is going to get the start.' It's just next guy in line."
Williams and wide receiver Steve Smith were among those who helped Goodson shake off a shaky start. Goodson carried the ball on the game's first three plays for 15 yards, but on the fifth snap he lost a fumble near midfield that led to a Tampa Bay touchdown.
"I had guys like Steve and DeAngelo on the sidelines telling me to let it go. That's what I tried to do, and I just made plays the rest of the game," Goodson said. "It sparked me to come out and do even more."
Other relative newcomers made promising contributions as well. Running back Josh Vaughan made his NFL debut and got his first career touchdown, a 2-yard run in the second quarter, and linebacker Nic Harris -- a second-year player getting his first start with the Panthers -- paced the defense with 11 tackles.
Goodson, a second-year back out of Texas A&M, believes the youthful Panthers will do even more in time.
"We have a lot of young guys," Goodson said. "It's not coming as fast as most people want it to come, but it's coming. It's definitely coming."