Fox optimistic about Delhomme, new-look ground game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While John Fox ditched the casual clothes for an expensive dark suit on Wednesday, all the Carolina Panthers coach wanted to talk about was getting down and dirty.

As Fox answered questions from fans at the Charlotte Touchdown Club luncheon, he made it clear why they spent the offseason drafting a bruising running back and restocking the offensive line with five players weighing 325 pounds or more.

"I was tired of third-and-1 becoming fourth-and-2," Fox said. "People were being critical sometimes for us not going for it on fourth-and-2. Why on earth would I ever do that? We can't get there on third-and-1.

"So we wanted to get more physical up front. I think we accomplished that."

After consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, including a 7-9 mark last year, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney were determined to return to the smash-mouth style that helped them reach the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

Running back DeShaun Foster, and starting offensive linemen Justin Hartwig and Mike Wahle were released. The Panthers took power running back Jonathan Stewart of Oregon with the 13th pick in the draft, then gambled by trading away next year's first-round pick to Philadelphia so they could take mammoth offensive tackle Jeff Otah with the 19th pick.

Otah (325 pounds) joins new acquisitions Keydrick Vincent (325), Milford Brown (330), Toniu Fonoti (350) and Geoff Schwartz (330) on a suddenly giant line they hope will open plenty of holes for Stewart.

"He's a powerful guy, thick lower body, excellent balance, great feet," Fox said of Stewart, who also will be the leading candidate to return kickoffs. "He breaks a lot of tackles and gets a lot of yards after first contact, which is something we look for."

Fox fielded questions about both sides of the ball during the luncheon for sponsors of the nonprofit organization. Many were frustrated fans who have watched the Panthers limp through the past two seasons.

"Any time you don't make the playoffs it's disappointing," Fox said after signing autographs. "I think our fans are probably disappointed, but not more than we are. We work too hard, spend too much time, commit too much, sacrifice too much to not win and not get in the playoffs."

With Fox set to enter his seventh season, there is plenty of pressure to turn things around. It's why the Panthers have had their most active offseason in years.

On defense, Carolina signed linebacker Landon Johnson, who had 143 tackles with Cincinnati last season, saw defensive end Mike Rucker retire and traded defensive tackle Kris Jenkins to the New York Jets.

"We wanted to get a little bit smaller and a little more athletic and quick as far as rushing the passer," Fox said of the Jenkins trade. "That's an area where we dropped off. A lot was made of Julius (Peppers') sack production. Well, Kris only had three sacks."

Peppers, held to a career-low 2.5 sacks, is moving to Rucker's old spot at right defensive end, where he played in college. The lean and quick Charles Johnson is the leading contender to start on the other side.

The Panthers begin offseason workouts in two weeks, giving them an opportunity to test out the new parts. They'll also get another look at Jake Delhomme's recovery from ligament-replacement surgery in his right elbow.

Delhomme threw some at a minicamp earlier this month, and Fox raved about his progress on Wednesday.

"I can tell everybody here that Jake looks outstanding," Fox said. "He looks fit. He's bigger, stronger. His arm looks fantastic, maybe stronger than ever."

Fox received a warm welcome from the crowd, eager to see how the new-look Panthers perform. It was a stark contrast to the persistent booing Fox and the Panthers were subject to last season when they went 2-6 at home.

And while Fox dodged a question about how many games he thinks Carolina will win in 2008, he sure sounded confident with his new rough-and-tumble lineup.

"If we stay healthy," Fox told the fan, "you'll be happy."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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