Strickly Panthers: Growing pains

CHARLOTTE – In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys threw rookie quarterback Troy Aikman into the fire, and he lost all 11 of his games as a starter.

In 1999, the Cleveland Browns went with rookie Tim Couch at quarterback as well as a pair of rookie wide receivers, and the team lost all eight games the trio started.

The Carolina Panthers now find themselves in a similar situation, but they're not willing to accept that they're doomed to repeat history.

"It's no mystery that quarterback is one of the hardest positions to play (as a rookie), and I think receiver is right up there with it," head coach John Fox said. "Just look historically in our league -- it doesn't happen very often.

"But nobody comes and rescues you. We've just got to get better."

The Panthers started Jimmy Clausen at quarterback and David Gettis and Brandon LaFell at wide receiver – all rookies – in last Sunday's 23-6 loss to the Chicago Bears. While becoming the first team since the '99 Browns to start such a trio, the Panthers slipped to 0-5.

When Carolina returns to action after its bye against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 24, there's a good chance the Panthers won't start the rookie trio again. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith will start if he has healed from an ankle injury, and fourth-year pro Matt Moore could regain his starting spot at quarterback.

Regardless, the Panthers still sport the youngest roster in the NFL. Their youngsters, however, are refusing to use that as a crutch.

"We don't look at ourselves as being young guys. We look at ourselves as being guys in the NFL. We're professionals," LaFell said. "People don't worry about a rookie pilot when they get on a plane, so don't worry about rookie receivers. Just go out and play well."

LaFell readily admits he didn't play well against the Bears, but he didn't pin it on his lack of experience. Players who have been in his shoes before, like safety Charles Godfrey, look at it the same way.

Godfrey started all 16 games as a rookie for the Panthers as a rookie in 2008.

"About the youth, I don't look at that too much. That's not an excuse," said Godfrey, who leads the NFL with four interceptions. "When I first came here, when I messed up, it never was, 'It's OK. I'm a rookie.'

"If I'm in a position where I'm on the field, I have the responsibility to make plays, so I don't look at it about us being young or whatever."

Clausen agreed, saying that "we expect things to go smoothly," but he also admits that experience certainly helps.

"You aren't going to go from a rookie quarterback to all-pro quarterback in one week or a few games or a season. It's a progression you have to go through," Clausen said. "I'm trying to excel at that as much as I can, as fast as I can for myself to give this team an opportunity to win games.

"I think it's a matter of time."

It truly is a matter of time.

No rookie wants to say he's struggling because he's young, and inexperience isn't always to blame. But when there's inexperience across the board -- as is the case with the Panthers just like it was with the '99 Browns and '89 Cowboys – the cumulative effect has to be felt.

Youth isn't an acceptable excuse to most competitive individuals, but it's a reasonable reason for a team full of young players to have difficulty consistently competing.

Related Content

Advertising