Saints coach Payton goes to bat for Panthers' Fox

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't long ago that John Fox was fresh off a trip to the NFC title game and a couple years removed from a Super Bowl appearance as he pushed to get buddy Sean Payton his first head-coaching job with the New Orleans Saints.

Now wearing a Super Bowl ring, Payton is a coaching star. Fox's fortunes, meanwhile, have plummeted. Denied a contract extension, his Carolina Panthers are among the worst teams in the NFL, and all signs point to this being Fox's last year with the team.

Payton knows he needs the banged-up Saints (5-3) to complete their first season sweep of the woeful Panthers (1-6) since 2001 on Sunday to erase a slow start and stay in the mix in the competitive NFC South. But it hasn't stopped Payton from looking out for his embattled friend.

"When he becomes a free agent, you get a feel for the market," Payton said. "For him, it will be a good thing."

Fox, too, said last week that, "I've never really worried about having a job in this leaguem and I'm not going to start now."

But it's striking how the roles are reversed from the end of the 2005 season when Payton, then a Dallas Cowboys assistant, received a strong recommendation from Fox as he sought the Saints job.

"Somewhere along the line, I'm sure people that make those decisions asked me about Sean," Fox said. "Of course, I have nothing but great things to say."

They became close from their time together with the Giants, when Fox was the defensive coordinator and Payton ran the offense as New York reached the Super Bowl following the 2000 season.

"We lived near each other and spent a lot of time together," Payton said. "I have a ton of respect for his football knowledge and his abilitym and I think that is something we had a chance to share.

"He has always been a guy I bounced ideas off of. When your two offices down, a lot of times there were late nights when you're thinking of something like third down or red zone, and he always had great insight and good advice."

But Fox has seemingly run out of answers -- or talent -- this season. Powerless as owner Jerry Richardson ordered management to slash payroll and begin a youth movement, the Panthers have become the NFL's bottom-feeder in points (12.1 per game), yards (251.4), interceptions (13) and turnover margin (minus-10).

Last Sunday was another nightmare, as Matt Moore threw three more picks in a 20-10 loss at St. Louis. The Panthers also managed just 25 rushing yards, eliminating any momentum from their first win of the season one week earlier. The loss marked the fourth time in seven games that Carolina had scored 10 or fewer points.

"It's just so bad on offense," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "There's no other reason we're losing besides that."

Indeed, the defense is ranked fourth in the league and gave Drew Brees fits in the teams' first meeting last month, when New Orleans scored only one touchdown but escaped with a 16-14 victory.

"We just can't get out of our own way sometimes," Gross said.

It has put Fox's streak of never finishing worse than 7-9 as an NFL coach or an assistant in jeopardy. He also needs one more victory to guarantee a winning overall record in Carolina, but a poor final season would put a hole in his resume.

Perhaps Payton would find a spot for him on his staff in 2011?

"I don't think he's going to have to worry about being an assistant," Payton said. "But I would always look for a spot for a guy like John Fox because he is that good."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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