Clausen could mean less for Moore

Jimmy Clausen had to wait to be drafted, but may play right away for the Carolina Panthers. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

If Matt Moore is the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers when they close the regular season Jan. 2 in Atlanta, John Fox will be the happiest coach in the NFL.

It will mean the Panthers are headed to the playoffs and Fox will have earned the contract extension the Panthers have been so hesitant to give him. If Moore lasts that long, it means everything’s gone right for the Panthers. It means they’ve found a No. 2 receiver, a pass-rusher and a big run-stuffer.

If Moore lasts that long as the starter, I’ll be stunned. That’s not an indictment of Moore. As Fox likes to say, “It is what it is’’.

Here’s what it is. The Panthers drafted Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen with the No. 48 overall pick Friday night. He’s a second-round pick with first-round talent and he was Carolina’s first pick in this draft. The Panthers were trying to trade up to early in the second round to get Clausen, but didn’t have enough ammunition to get there.

Clausen still tumbled and the Panthers didn’t hesitate. You can read a lot into that and consider it a pretty major statement. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney never have taken a quarterback earlier than the fourth round of the draft and they’ve spent the offseason singing Moore’s praises.

That’s great because Moore looked pretty good the last five games of last season. Hurney likes to tell you his mentor, Bobby Beathard, used to say a quarterback has to take advantage when his window opens.

There still might be a window for Moore, but it shut by about 50 percent the minute the Panthers selected Clausen. The Panthers will spend the rest of the offseason saying Clausen and Moore will compete for the job in training camp, while making it sound like Moore has the inside track on the starting position.

Probably true, to a degree. Moore’s been in the system for three years and he deserves a shot. When I first started to think through this column, I was planning on saying Clausen instantly becomes the starter. After a little more thought, I’m toning that down, but only a little.

Fox and Hurney are loyal (sometimes to a fault) and you can’t question the integrity of either man. They’ll give Moore a shot. Unless Clausen totally outplays him in training camp and the preseason, Moore will be the starter on opening day.

It’s the fair thing to do. It’s probably the prudent thing to do. The Panthers have a good running game, and, if the defense is any good, Moore could be completely functional for this team.

But keep one thing in mind, even as you ponder that whole concept of fairness and loyalty. Moore really isn’t Fox and Hurney’s guy. He’s in this position pretty much by default. Moore was an undrafted free agent plucked off the waiver wire from the Cowboys three years ago. He got thrown into the lineup last year after Jake Delhomme was injured, which happened after Delhomme played poorly for most of the season.

Delhomme was Fox and Hurney’s guy. They stuck with him far too long and when they finally cut him in February, Moore became the heir apparent partly because of his play last year, but mainly because he was the only other quarterback on the roster besides Hunter Cantwell.

By draft right, and by Fox’s close friendship with former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, Clausen automatically becomes Fox and Hurney’s guy. That carries a lot of implications for a coach and a general manager who clearly are heading into the season on the hottest of seats.

Let’s go on the assumption that Moore starts on opening day. It gives him his shot and it prevents Clausen from having to play his first NFL game in the hostile atmosphere of the new Giants Stadium.

After the trip to New York, the Panthers host the Buccaneers and Bengals. Then, they go to New Orleans before hosting Chicago. After that, they’ve got their bye week and that’s when things could get interesting. Let’s say the Panthers are 3-2 or better at that point. Moore stays as the starter.

But let’s say they’re 2-3 or worse. Let’s say Fox and Hurney are scratching and clawing for their jobs and receiver Steve Smith relinquishes his position as the president of the Matt Moore Fan Club. At that point, there’s no other option.

They have to hand it off to their guy. They have to go to the guy with the Notre Dame pedigree. They have to win, or at least convince owner Jerry Richardson they’ve found their franchise quarterback and are on the verge of winning big. Anything less than that and Clausen could be playing for Bill Cowher in 2011 -- if there is a 2011 season.

But Fox and Hurney can’t worry about the league’s uncertain labor situation. They’ve got a more immediate uncertainty about their own labor situation.

If Clausen sits his entire rookie season, Fox and Hurney will be thrilled they didn’t have to throw him into a fire that never got too hot. If they start him, he’ll be going into an inferno, but he’ll be Fox and Hurney’s last chance to put out the flames. Actually, Clausen’s the best chance to put out those flames.

What the Panthers did Friday night was draft a potentially better version of a young Delhomme. Remember back in 2003 when Fox and Hurney quietly signed Delhomme as a free agent and opened the season with Rodney Peete as their starting quarterback?

How long did that last? Precisely one half of the first game. A few months later, Delhomme had the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

Delhomme was Fox and Hurney’s hand-picked guy. Now, Clausen is. The two are a lot alike and I’m using the young Delhomme as a measuring stick. That Delhomme was a gunslinger and so is this Clausen. That Delhomme took chances and this Clausen takes chances. That Delhomme was cocky. So is this Clausen.

The 2003 season was the shining moment for Fox and Hurney. When people have their backs pinned to the wall, they tend to go back in their past to what worked best.

Fox and Hurney would have been thrilled -- and probably stunned -- if Peete had stayed the starter and taken that team to the Super Bowl. But they didn’t really give him much of a chance to do that.

At the first sign of trouble, they turned to Delhomme. It’s going to be history repeating itself -- at least in theory. Moore’s going to get a shot. But the first time the Panthers lose a couple games in a row, Fox and Hurney are going to turn to their guy.

That’s Clausen.