CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The forward pass has been around for 100 years or so. It's just a concept that hasn't caught on with the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers this season.
The Cardinals (4-9) have used three quarterbacks, including two rookies, and signed an emergency backup recently who was out of the league and hog hunting when called. The Panthers (1-12) have used four QBs, including two rookies and a stay-at-home dad who had been out of the league.
Arizona has what looks to be a dismal passer rating (59.7) until you glance at Carolina's (55.0). The teams have combined for 15 touchdown passes and 35 interceptions.
Carolina rookie Jimmy Clausen sure looks inexperienced with only seven starts and one touchdown pass — until you look at Arizona rookie John Skelton, whose first start came last week. Skelton has thrown zero TDs.
Add this up and you have the league's two worst offenses and passing games squaring off Sunday in a showdown for draft positioning that's sure to include an empty seat or two. Maybe a few running plays, too.
"I think they're barely (ahead of) us as far as offensively in the National Football League," Panthers coach John Fox said. "Whenever you do that, it puts stress on your defense. So I think in a lot of ways they are very similar to us."
Much has happened since these teams met two seasons ago in the second round of the playoffs, with Arizona's win moving it a step closer to its surprise Super Bowl appearance.
Now Kurt Warner is gone, and the Cardinals have gone through a carousel of inconsistent QBs. There was Derek Anderson, then rookie Max Hall, then Anderson again and now Skelton, a fifth-round pick from Fordham forced into duty after Anderson's concussion.
"Who?" Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said four days before the matchup. "Oh, that's his name?"
Skelton actually was part of a 43-13 rout of Denver last week, becoming the first QB to post that many points in his first start since a guy with a little more name recognition, Tom Brady of New England.
Take that, Munnerlyn.
"Hopefully, after Sunday he'll know," Skelton said.
The 6-foot-6 Skelton completed 15 of 37 passes against the Broncos for 146 yards. But kicker Jay Feely's touchdown off a fake field goal and Tim Hightower's 148 yards rushing and two TDs were enough for Arizona to snap a seven-game skid.
"We have obviously played a number of different guys, some of it's by injury and some of it's because of production," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Obviously we're into our second game with our second rookie this year and we're just hoping that he can continue to improve."
The Panthers know the feeling. Jake Delhomme's six-turnover nightmare against the Cardinals in that playoff game following the 2008 season was the beginning of the end of his run in Carolina. But Matt Moore proved to be ineffective, then got hurt.
It's been a difficult adjustment for Clausen, who has been in and out of the lineup with rookie Tony Pike and journeyman Brian St. Pierre.
"He ain't at Notre Dame anymore, that's for sure," Panthers receiver Steve Smith snarled after Clausen's rough outing in last week's 31-10 loss to Atlanta.
Clausen, 0-7 as a starter, has thrown 193 passes since his lone touchdown. He's yet to have a 200-yard passing game as he's struggled to read defenses and react quickly.
"The speed of the game, that's one of the biggest things," Clausen said. "Disguises, teams don't need to show what they're doing because they're so fast and so athletic. On the snap of the ball they can get to the positions they need to get to."
Even waking up Carolina's dormant ground game hasn't helped the NFL's lowest-scoring team. Jonathan Stewart rushed for 133 yards last week, but his fumble on the first play from scrimmage set up a touchdown and Atlanta never trailed.
It was the Panthers' seventh straight loss, leaving them three defeats away from securing the No. 1 draft pick and perhaps Clausen's replacement, Andrew Luck of Stanford.
"Obviously, no one expected us to be in this situation right now," Clausen said. "But we are what we are and we have three games left to finish strong."
Thanks to being in a forgiving division, the Cardinals still are alive in the playoff race. They trail NFC West co-leaders St. Louis and Seattle by two games with three to play. All they have to do is get hot with an offense Whisenhunt acknowledged is scaled back for Skelton.
"Obviously, that is one of the most important positions on the field," Whisenhunt said. "I think that when you look at the level that a lot of these quarterbacks are playing at, you can understand why teams are being productive."
These two teams certainly aren't productive. Just ask Smith and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Pro Bowl regulars whose numbers are way off thanks to passing games from another era.
"Very similar situation that we're in," Fox said of the Cardinals. "They've had their rotation at quarterback. They've got some skill people outside that sometimes you don't get to take advantage of in that situation. Again, it's been hard for them to get continuity on offense."
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