CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As if Jimmy Clausen needed another distraction with Carolina fans dreaming about drafting Stanford star Andrew Luck to replace him, here comes Matt Ryan to town.
Clausen is going through a typical rough season for a rookie quarterback in the NFL. Trouble is, Atlanta's Ryan is a reminder it doesn't always go bad when a youngster is behind center.
"I can't speak on the behalf of Jimmy and the situation there but I know the situation I came into my rookie year," said Ryan, whose Falcons visit the Panthers Sunday. "I had a lot of guys around me that played extremely well both offensively, defensively and on special teams and that helped."
Ryan burst onto the scene as the No. 3 overall pick from Boston College in 2008, throwing 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions as the Falcons went 11-5. Ryan has since established himself as one of the league's top QBs and this year has helped lead Atlanta (10-2) to the best record in the NFC.
"We knew there would be a learning curve but it really got accelerated once Matt got the opportunity to go out there and play," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "We had some pieces in place around him to allow him to go out there and have success."
Clausen doesn't have that luxury playing for the league-worst and talent-deprived Panthers (1-11).
Forced into the job by Matt Moore's struggles and then his season-ending shoulder injury, the second-round pick from Notre Dame has thrown just one touchdown pass — more than two months ago — and six interceptions. His passer rating of 55.3 ranks last in the league among eligible QBs.
It's left the Panthers in position — if they lose the final four games — to get the No. 1 pick in the draft with perhaps the chance to draft Luck, if he declares for the draft.
"That's not really my focus, to be honest," Clausen said of all the Luck talk in Charlotte. "I'm not paying attention to what's being said on the outside. Just trying to get better each and every day and trying to get a win on Sunday."
Clausen may be getting a raw deal. With a struggling offensive line, no experienced No. 2 receiver and an up-and-down running game, there is little around him to make his job easier and perhaps effectively evaluate his ability as the Panthers' long-term answer at QB.
"That's for you guys to judge," Clausen said to a group of reporters. "I'm just trying to get better each and every day and each and every game."
Clausen has spent a lot of time watching Ryan in hopes of doing that. They first met in Clausen's freshman year at Notre Dame when the senior Ryan threw for 291 yards and two scores in BC's 27-14 victory.
"He's done a great job coming into the league and playing really well real early," Clausen said. "He's one of the guys I like watching on tape. ... He's a heck of a quarterback and I love watching him play."
Ryan has thrown 21 touchdown passes this season and has led six game-winning scoring drives in the fourth quarter or overtime to help the Falcons to six straight wins.
"The more experience you have the more things do slow down and the more clearly you think out on the field," Ryan said. "I'm still in that process, but for me I feel a lot more comfortable than I did my rookie season and certainly more comfortable than last year."
Ryan said it took "four, five and six games" as a rookie starter to get comfortable.
"Your routine starts to kick in and you feel settled in your preparation and those types of things," Ryan said. "When you start to get those things under control, I think that allows you to go out there and play more efficiently."
While Clausen has nowhere near the success of Ryan, he has shown signs of improvement. He had perhaps his best game of the season in a 24-23 loss to Cleveland Nov. 28 in which John Kasay hit the left upright on a game-winning field goal attempt as time expired.
Last week, Clausen led the Panthers on a game-opening touchdown drive and a 14-0 lead before regressing in the second half. His interception return for a touchdown — his second of the season — sparked Seattle's streak of 31 unanswered points and dropped Clausen to 0-6 as a starter.
Getting that elusive first victory would not only boost his confidence, but perhaps drop the Panthers out of the first spot in the draft order, out of the Luck sweepstakes and possibly cement Clausen's future in Carolina.
"I'm trying to do everything I can to do that," Clausen said. "Trying to do everything I can to get us a victory."
Notes: LB Jon Beason (knee) missed his second straight practice Thursday, a concern for a Carolina defense that's been struggling. ... CB Chris Gamble (hamstring), CB Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder), LG Travelle Wharton (toe) and LB Nic Harris (head) also missed practice. ... LB Jason Williams, RB Tyrell Sutton (ankle), S Marcus Hudson (ankle) and DT Ed Johnson (knee) all practiced in full after being limited on Wednesday.