Every week, the head coach of Carolina’s next opponent participates in a teleconference with the writers and broadcasters who cover the Panthers.
John Fox, who will bring his Denver Broncos to Bank of America Stadium Sunday, talked Wednesday.
I asked if memories from the nine seasons he coached the Panthers are more good or bad
“I tend to approach things as the glass half full,” said Fox, 57. “We did get to the Super Bowl and we got to a couple championship games, had three playoff appearances, so by most people’s calculations that’s pretty good.”
A little defensive, but the answer probably was the most candid Fox offered. Even though he knows many of us, he never said hello, never asked how we were doing and never said anything that implied we had met.
Fox’s performance was outstanding. He gets in character before he speaks, and the character is decidedly dull and boring.
If all you know about Fox was his news conference persona, you don’t know the man. Compare the news conference Fox with the Fox I encountered in Auburn, Ala., at Cam Newton’s 2011 Pro Day. I tapped Fox on the shoulder to say hello, and he hugged me and asked, “Do you know John?”
No. But I’ve heard of him.
Fox introduced me to John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback who is the team’s executive vice president of football operations. Two weeks after Fox coached his final game for the Panthers, a 21-point loss to Atlanta, Elway hired him.
I was tucked behind a newspaper – ours if you must know – one morning in a coffee shop and Fox snuck up and yelled. I can’t remember what he yelled, only that it was not, “It is what it is.” Only time in my life I cheated gravity like David Thompson.
Fox is a fan of Bono, from U2, and was thrilled to meet him backstage when Fox was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants.
After I wrote a 2009 column about a bout I had with cancer, Fox approached me at training camp, and several times asked if I was all right. He said he had not planned to read the story because it wasn’t about the Panthers, but did anyway.
Look: In our business we often write and talk about people as if they are one thing, as if they lead their lives in a straight line.
But they’re much more complex.
Yes, Fox loved defense, handoffs and draw plays. He had a relationship with draw plays. I keep waiting for him to tell Peyton Manning that on third-and-12 he has to give the ball to a fullback.
Fans of the Panthers blamed offensive coordinators for Carolina’s run-based offense. The coordinators were following orders. Fox gave them a picture of what he wanted and they stayed within the lines.
Yet under Fox, Steve Smith led the league in receiving yards in 2005 and caught passes for more than 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. Quarterback Jake Delhomme made the Pro Bowl after the 2005 season, and it wasn’t for the quality of his hand-offs.
Panthers fans tired of the run-based offense except when it worked. Last season they loved the more creative offense the Panthers employed under coordinator Rob Chudzinski. When it stopped working this season they complained about the absence of conventional hand-offs.
Fox no longer coaches Carolina for several reasons, among them was that he failed to win in consecutive seasons. No Panthers coach has.
Not what Richardson wants
Jerry Richardson, who owns the Panthers, wanted (and wants) a winning program, not a team that occasionally has a winning season. Richardson didn’t fire Fox. He didn’t renew Fox’s contract.
Fox suspected, and maybe even knew, he was out after 2008. Carolina won 12 games that season and earned a first-round bye before getting pounded at home 33-13 by Arizona in a divisional playoff game.
Fox expected a contract extension. He didn’t get it.
The Panthers went 8-8 in 2009. If Richardson decided then that Fox was a temp, he should have fired him.
But a lockout was looming after the 2010 season. The labor impasse between owners and players had the potential to be lengthy and expensive. When money stopped coming in Richardson did not want to lay off large numbers of non-football employees such as sales representatives, landscapers and security guards.
His coaching staff was one of the league’s highest paid. Rather than fire them, and have to pay them, Richardson retained them.
I had heard from sources that the 2010 season would be Fox’s last with Carolina. I was able to get Fox alone four days before the Panthers opened against the New York Giants and asked what the odds were of him returning in 2011.
Fox gave me one of the most succinct and pointed quotes of all time. Although the conversation was off the record, I told him he should let me use the quote. Nobody will think you’re boring, I said.
He held me to our deal.
I wrote on opening day that Fox was out. Readers were furious at me. Then the Panthers lost their first five games. Then they were furious at Fox.
A strange team
Fox left the Panthers with a record of 78-74. Before 2010, his record was 76-60.
The 2010 Panthers were as strange a team as I have encountered. In previous drafts the choices were made jointly by Fox and general manager Marty Hurney, whom Richardson fired last month.
But Fox had little or no influence on the 2010 draft. The Panthers had hoped that rookies would get playing time. But Fox never did like to use rookies, and played quarterback Jimmy Clausen, that year’s second-round pick, only because he had no alternative after Matt Moore was hurt.
The most bizarre game in franchise history might have been a 37-13 loss to Baltimore that November.
It was bizarre because, with Clausen and Moore injured, Fox entrusted his offense to veteran quarterback Brian St. Pierre.
A week earlier Pierre, whose NFL career had consisted of backing up back-ups, was changing diapers in suburban Boston. Five days after joining Carolina’s practice squad, Fox started him over Tony Pike, a rookie who had been with the team since training camp.
St. Pierre had his moment, an 88-yard touchdown pass to David Gettis that cut Baltimore’s lead to 20-13. St. Pierre, who did not mimic Superman, has not been heard from since.
As the season wore on Fox’s relationships with Richardson and Hurney, especially with Richardson, wore out.
It happens. Coach Jeff Fisher wore out after 16 seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Coach Andy Reid is wearing out after 15 seasons in Philadelphia. Fox wore out in Carolina.
But let’s be fair. When Fox was hired in 2002, he took over a dismal team that had gone 1-15 under George Seifert. Fox introduced himself to players by telling them they were soft. The Panthers drafted defensive end Julius Peppers and went 7-9 in Fox’s first season.
Fox pulled players aside on the field to show them a technique or offer a suggestion or tell a joke. That never happened under Seifert, and players were thrilled to have a coach who cared about them. Fox had a defensive background and was especially close to defensive players.
Although Fox led the Panthers to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, his best work was in 2005. No way was Carolina the second best team in the NFC. Yet the Panthers won playoff road games against the Giants (23-0) and Chicago (29-21) before going to Seattle, where reality intruded and the Seahawks won 34-14.
Fox liked life. He liked to have a good time. He also liked himself. People told him he was a great coach, and I suspect he believed them.
In Fox’s teleconference Wednesday he called the Denver-Carolina game a business trip.
What he didn’t say is that he’d love his business to include beating the Panthers by 30.
It would have been interesting.