Fox helps Panthers turn season around

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - His team was 1-7 and his list of injured players seemed a mile long. Carolina coach John Fox changed nothing, sticking with his style of cutesy little clichs to pull the Panthers through and prevent them from quitting on him.

''Keep pounding,'' he told them.

''Tough times don't last, tough people do,'' Fox reminded them.

''No one is coming to rescue us, we can win with the guys we have,'' he coaxed.

After three years of hearing Fox explain every situation as ''It is what it is,'' the Panthers could have tuned him out. Instead, they chose to believe.

''He says that stuff religiously, and at first it seems kind of cheesy, but it starts to wear on you and it takes hold,'' tackle Jordan Gross said. ''And it's true, because if he didn't really believe it and preach it to us, and we didn't believe it, we probably wouldn't be where we're at.''

Where the Panthers (6-7) are is on the verge of becoming the first team under the current playoff format to start 1-7 and still make the postseason. Carolina currently holds the final NFC wild-card position with three games to play, all against NFC South rivals.

Somehow or another, Fox has prevented the Panthers from tanking in their follow-up to last season's Super Bowl run.

''You just stay the course,'' Fox said. ''I preach all the time about being the same guy, so I can't be different. Otherwise, they won't listen.

''We have a plan. We have a formula. We just kept heading down that path, and, eventually, things started to click.''

It would have been so easy to quit as player after player - 14 in all - went on injured reserve. Five were star players, including the top three offensive threats and their All-Pro defensive tackle.

And, to put it mildly, Fox's choices of replacements players aren't exactly Pro Bowlers.

The Panthers now start sixth-stringer Nick Goings at running back, undersized Kindal Moorehead at defensive tackle and Todd Fordham, who joined the team in a trade nine days before the season opener, at right tackle.

Fox assured his team it didn't matter.

''I remember vividly him saying we can win with the guys that we've got here,'' said defensive end Mike Rucker. ''Are they the guys we started out with? No. Are we capable of winning with these guys? Yes.

''That comes from a coach that's been around a long time and seen a lot of different things.''

That's how Fox was able to stay calm during a six-game losing streak. But there were still moments that tested his patience, and one actual instance of Fox losing his temper.

Trailing 17-6 at halftime against San Francisco, Fox blew up during the break with a speech that caught Carolina's attention.

''About 100,'' safety Mike Minter said when asked how hot Fox was that day. ''He was red.''

Because he so carefully picks and chooses his battles, Fox's halftime eruption was effective and Carolina rallied to a 37-27 victory that started the current five-game winning streak.

Players now point to that halftime speech as what lit the fire they now are playing with. The defense was urged to let loose and have fun again, and responded with the intensity and aggression that made it one of the top units in the league the past few seasons.

Jake Delhomme began to look downfield a little more, to trust his line a little longer, and to be patient with the running game. He was spoiled last season, his first as a starting quarterback, when Stephen Davis took most of the pressure off Delhomme by rushing for a franchise-record 1,444 yards.

''We're trying to get back to playing 'Foxball,' '' Delhomme said. ''That's where you play good special teams, solid defense and run the ball on offense. That's how you have to play to win consistently in this league.''

By getting Carolina to play at the same level it did en route to the Super Bowl last season, the Panthers think Fox should be considered for Coach of the Year honors.

''It's real easy if everybody's healthy,'' Rucker said. ''It's real easy if everything's running smoothly, if no one's getting in trouble off the field, it's real easy to do that. But this is life and things are going to happen.

''It starts at the top. From the organization to the owner on down, and it goes through him. He's held us together, through different trials and tribulations, through different injuries. That's what makes a good coach.''

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