Players, rivals back Panthers coach Fox, who's still mum on future

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While Carolina Panthers coach John Fox deflected questions about his uncertain future Wednesday, several of his players and a rival coach weren't shy in defending him.

It was part of a bizarre day as Fox acknowledged that his contract hasn't been extended, yet he didn't want to discuss perhaps entering 2010 as a lame-duck coach in the final year of his deal.

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"I don't get into that right now," said Fox, who's 75-60 with a Super Bowl appearance in Carolina but hasn't posted consecutive winning seasons. "Our focus is to get through the season, and I have an agent that deals with that."

Agent Bob LaMonte didn't return messages Wednesday, but Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis, center Ryan Kalil and even New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton came to Fox's defense. The Panthers (7-8) enter Sunday's season finale against the Saints (13-2) ensured of missing the playoffs for the fifth time in Fox's eight seasons.

"I know this: He and his staff aren't going to have problems finding work. Let's just say that," said Payton, a longtime friend of Fox. "I think he has a lot of confidence in that team, and I think the team, the same way, has confidence in that coaching staff.

"It's evident by the way they played against Minnesota and the way they played against New York. If it's not Carolina, maybe a week goes by and he'll be in good shape."

The Panthers have won three of their last four games, including upsets of the Vikings and the Giants the last two weeks, ending the possibility of Carolina having its first season of 10 or more losses under Fox. The wins came despite numerous injuries and apparently were enough that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson decided against firing Fox with one year and more than $6 million left on his contract.

"He's done a great job," Lewis said. "I think the guys on this team really rally around him."

The Charlotte Observer reported Monday that Richardson will not extend the contracts of Fox, his assistants or general manager Marty Hurney past next season. Richardson, who hasn't spoken to reporters in more than a year, remained silent Wednesday. Fox bristled when asked if he had talked to Richardson.

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"I am speaking English, right?" Fox replied, referring to his earlier declaration that he wouldn't answer more questions on the subject.

Fox's future has been a hot topic because of Carolina's disappointing season and the number of big-name coaches out of work.

"I hear around town everybody calling for (Bill) Cowher," said Kalil, referring to the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach who lives three hours away in Raleigh. "Everybody wants Cowher to come. Cowher is an awesome coach. I'd love to play for somebody like Cowher, but what's he going to do differently from Fox? He's going to play good defense and he's going to want to run the football. I mean, what are we exactly talking about here?"

But it's possible that Fox could decide he wants to seek another job with more security. The Panthers might allow him out of his deal if another team compensated them with draft picks.

While he has been criticized for his conservative style, Fox has an impressive track record. He inherited a 1-15 team from George Seifert after the 2001 season and had the Panthers in the Super Bowl two years later, but they lost 32-29 to the New England Patriots. The Panthers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game at the end of the 2005 season, and they had Super Bowl aspirations last year after going 12-4.

But Carolina folded in the playoffs in a 33-13 home loss to the Arizona Cardinals when quarterback Jake Delhomme committed six turnovers. The Panthers then gave Delhomme a lucrative contract extension, only to watch him commit five more turnovers in a Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to starting 0-3.

As injuries piled up, Delhomme threw 18 interceptions in 11 games. Fox stuck with Delhomme until the quarterback was sidelined with a broken finger during a Nov. 29 loss to the New York Jets.

Matt Moore took over and has led Carolina to a 3-1 record. He has six touchdown passes and no interceptions while outplaying Brett Favre and Eli Manning the past two weeks.

The late-season success is nothing new for Fox. The Panthers are 24-13 in December and January regular-season games in his tenure and 5-3 in the playoffs.

"Maybe they do it in midseason next year. Who knows?" Lewis said of a contract extension for Fox. "I know one thing: He's not going to have a problem finding a job. He's done a great job. He's one of the reasons I came here."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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