WHEN IT comes to quarterbacks, there's almost a scarlet letter M (for marginal) on guys who went undrafted. There was one on Kurt Warner until he exploded for the Rams in 1999, one on Tony Romo till he got his chance in Dallas. "As a quarterback," Romo said last year, "when you don't go to the scouting combine and you don't get drafted, you're only going to get one chance—and you'll be lucky to even get that one. So you know you can't screw it up, or it'll be gone forever."
Imagine, then, the quandary of Matt Moore.
Undrafted out of Oregon State in 2007. Signed by the Cowboys. Waived by the Cowboys. Signed by the Panthers. Rode the bench, mostly, until late last season, when starter Jake Delhomme's slump became intolerable. Moore took charge of a 4--7 team beginning on Dec. 6 and won four of the last five games of the year. He completed 63% of his throws, threw eight touchdowns with one interception—he had 117 straight attempts without an interception to end the year—and had a lofty 104.9 passer rating, the best for 2009 of any quarterback besides Drew Brees and Brett Favre.
What impressed the Panthers most was Moore's demeanor. Nothing rattled him. He'd shrug off blitzers, find the hot reads just in time and know when to take shots downfield. "I really was nervous only once," Moore says. "On the field before we played Minnesota, Moose [wideout Muhsin Muhammad] introduced me to Brett Favre, and I thought, Wow, I'm in the NFL, playing Brett Favre. But then I went back to playing football." Three touchdowns, no interceptions. Carolina routed the NFC North champs. "I've seen the pressure eat guys alive," Moore says, "but I learned in college, just be the same person you are. Play the way you can. The football will take care of itself."
In March, Carolina chose to release Delhomme and hand the starting job to Moore. Then, in April, the Panthers used their first pick of the draft on Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Selecting 48th overall because they'd dealt their first-rounder last year, the Panthers had no plans to pick a quarterback, but no one saw Clausen falling past the 20s. And there he was. "For some reason, every year when we've identified a quarterback to draft, he never got to us," coach John Fox says. "This is the first time we've had the chance to get one we really liked."
Moore was stunned. Asked for his reaction this summer, the supremely good-natured Moore paused for a full three seconds, trying to pick the right words. "It was . . . uh . . . unexpected," he said.
Right away the thought around the Carolinas was that Moore would just keep the seat warm for Clausen. It's possible, of course, but it's much more likely that Moore will be given the 2010 season to prove he's a capable NFL starter and leader.
"I've just kept in mind what my dad has always told me," Moore said." 'The best guys will play.' If I play the way I can, I'm going to be the quarterback here."
The Carolina offense needs to be more efficient than it was in 2009. The Panthers won't deviate from their productive run-first attack; last year Jonathan Stewart (1,133 yards, 10 touchdowns) and DeAngelo Williams (1,117 yards, seven TDs) became the first pair of backs on the same team to surpass 1,100 rushing yards in a season. Basically, the quarterback's job is to not screw it up, and last year Delhomme (eight touchdowns, 18 interceptions, three lost fumbles) screwed it up. Moore won't win any fantasy-league passing titles, but if form follows, he's not going to turn it over much either. If he does, expect to see Clausen get a shot earlier than Fox would prefer.
"Somebody did a study on how much yardage teams get when the ball travels less than six yards in the air," Moore says. "A ton. What that means is that it's smart to take the checkdown when it's there instead of forcing the ball downfield. That's me. I'm always going to try to make the smart decision."