CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This will be a strange season for the Carolina Panthers, win or lose.
But player defections are a part of the NFL. So the really weird thing for the Panthers is that John Fox, who has been the head coach here for nine seasons, is in the final year of his contact and there are no talks for an extension on the horizon either. So win or lose, Fox is gone.
If he wins with this team, he might be able to name his number with a new team and pick his team. If the Panthers struggle, he has got too good a résumé not to get a top job again and there's a built-in excuse:
The Panthers are young.
Yep, John Fox is sitting pretty, which doesn't normally happen with a man in the final year of a contract. Talking to him, you get the idea he knows it, too. He is as loose as at any time in his career. If this situation is bothering him, one would never know it.
He seemed so giddy when I talked to him in the bowels of the team's stadium late Saturday night that I half-expected him to skip down the hall when he walked away.
"I've had a lot of players who have been in the last year of their contracts and sometimes it's been their best years," Fox said. "I've never worried too much about finding a job in the National Football League."
There is already talk Fox would be the top target of the Cleveland Browns. Some say that job will be his once the Browns end the Eric Mangini tenure after this season. New general manager Mike Holmgren gave Mangini a one-year reprieve, but let's be real. We all know there isn't much more after that.
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There's also speculation that if Tom Coughlin is let go in New York, that would be the job Fox would most want. He was defensive coordinator there before becoming the Panthers coach.
For now, he's not thinking about any of that.
"I'm going to attack this [year] just like I always have," he said.
He has lots of work to do to mold this team into a playoff contender. The Panthers indeed are a team in transition. For most of Fox's tenure in Carolina, the Panthers have been a primitive passing team that focuses on the run and plays good defense.
That hasn't changed -- even if it needs to do so. Carolina has a great 1-2 running combo in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a good offensive line, so the running part makes sense. But to see their passing game is to see one that continually has problems getting the ball down the field, which is where we're seeing the change.
"There's no doubt we're a running team," quarterback Matt Moore said. "But the emphasis has been on improving the passing game. With those two guys in the backfield, and the guys on our offensive line, if we can air it out we're going to be pretty impressive, I think."
Moore takes over as the starter at quarterback for Delhomme. In five starts last season in place of Delhomme, he flashed some talent, winning four games and throwing eight touchdown passes against only one interception. He helped the Panthers finish 8-8. But it's a lot different when you are the guy, rather than a late-season relief pitcher that teams might not know that well.
"I'm sure the more anybody plays, teams get used to it," Moore said. "They get used to a style. That will be a challenge the more I play. Maybe last year that was a benefit to me, being a new guy that nobody had seen."
It also can't be too comforting for Moore to know the Panthers' long-term answer at quarterback might be rookie Jimmy Clausen, whom they picked in the second round last April. Moore is playing under a one-year contract for just over $3 million, so, like Fox, he probably is auditioning for another team.
Unless Moore goes numbers crazy and the Panthers go deep into the playoffs -- which isn't expected --- Clausen should take over next year.
|You would be smiling too if you had the same job prospects as John Fox. (AP)|
That has been Moore. There is no way Clausen takes the job this season -- unless Moore folds badly, according to Panthers sources.
Some thought that might be happening in the first quarter of the preseason loss to the New York Jets on Saturday night. Moore had a rough go, but Clausen wasn't any better. The Panthers scored three points and looked out of sync all night long. It was downright tough on the eyes to watch.
Moore was 6 of 17 for 57 yards and an interception and it looked even worse to watch. In two games, he has a passer rating of 34.9.
But some of the troubles came from inexperience. Take his interception. Moore tried to go deep to rookie Brandon LaFell on the sideline, but safety Jim Leonhard intercepted the pass for the Jets. It was an overthrow, but a closer look at the play shows a fault of the young passer.
"You have to hold him [Leonhard]," Moore said. "He did a nice job. He started on the other hash. The ball was snapped and he bee-lined over there. That's something I have to see and learn from and go elsewhere with the ball. I felt good when I let it go. Seeing it in the air, he had a full head of stream going that way. You can't pull it back. I put that on myself, no doubt."
The good news from the Jets game, as well as early camp reports, is that the defense might be better than expected. With Peppers gone, there are questions about the pass rush, but second-year player Everette Brown had two sacks and the Panthers did a nice job against the Jets offense.
You can bet with Fox as coach, the defense won't be that big a worry. Nor will the running game.
So that means the Panthers' success will be decided again by the passing game. If it works, they can be a wild-card team. If it doesn't, they could be lucky to get to six victories.
Either way, Fox can't lose.
Like he said, he'll be coaching somewhere in the NFL next season. He's a lame-duck coach who just might be the luckiest guy in the league.