Report: Panthers coach Fox can return in 2010

Injury-riddled and out of the playoff race before December, the

Carolina Panthers seemed certain to have their first season of at

least 10 losses under coach John Fox.

Instead, they’re playing their best football of the season,

just in time for the embattled Fox to have a shot at returning in

2010.

A day after the Panthers (7-8) routed the New York Giants for

their third win in four games, The Charlotte Observer reported Fox

and general manager Marty Hurney will be “offered the opportunity

to return next season” by owner Jerry Richardson.

However, the report Monday said Fox will not be given a

contract extension. He’s due to make more than $6 million in 2010,

the final season of his deal.

The team declined to confirm or deny the report. Team

spokesman Charlie Dayton said Fox and Hurney are under contract for

next season, and he’s heard nothing to indicate they won’t return.

Fox’s Monday news conference came before the report, and

Hurney didn’t immediately return a phone message left by The

Associated Press. Recovering from a heart transplant on Feb. 1,

Richardson hasn’t spoken to reporters in months.

Fox has been heavily scrutinized since starting the season

0-3, a year after Carolina went 12-4 and captured the NFC South

before an ugly 33-13 home playoff loss to Arizona.

It follows a familiar trend. While Fox led Carolina to the

Super Bowl after the 2003 season two years after inheriting a 1-15

team from George Seifert, he’s never had consecutive winning

seasons in his eight years on the job. The Panthers have also never

finished worse than 7-9.

They were 5-8 this year before stunning wins over Minnesota

and the Giants the last two weeks. Backup Matt Moore has thrown six

touchdown passes and no interceptions in those games.

“He played well. I think he’s gotten better each week,” Fox

said. “He’s got more comfortable managing the game. I think there

are certain things he’s a little more comfortable doing that we’ve

had to tweak a little bit. But I think he’s gotten better each week

and I think he’ll continue that.”

Fox stubbornly stuck with Jake Delhomme as his quarterback

despite a horrendous 18-interception season until he broke the

middle finger on his throwing hand against the New York Jets on

Nov. 29. The Panthers are 3-1 with Moore, who could challenge

Delhomme for the starting job next season despite Delhomme’s big

contract.

“I knew this would come up, but I’m just worried about next

week,” Fox said when asked about the quarterback situation.

“Tomorrow first and then we get ready to play the New Orleans

Saints. What the week after that brings and all that, we’ll cross

that bridge when we get to it.”

Fox is 75-60 in Carolina, including his three playoff

appearances. He’s widely respected around the league and it’s

believed he could quickly find another head coaching job if he

left.

That could make things interesting if Fox balks at not

getting a contract extension and wants to seek another job. Fox’s

agent, Bob LaMonte, did not immediately return messages seeking

comment.

Fox was upbeat earlier Monday, a day after the Panthers’ 41-9

win ended the Giants’ playoff hopes. Jonathan Stewart rushed for a

franchise-record 206 yards filling in for the injured DeAngelo

Williams, and Steve Smith held onto a 27-yard touchdown catch

despite breaking is left forearm on the play.

Smith underwent surgery Monday and will be the 12th player to

go on injured reserve. But despite being without their starting QB,

running back, both offensive tackles, defensive tackle and weakside

linebacker, the Panthers have outscored the Vikings and Giants

67-16 in the last two weeks.

Moore has outplayed Super Bowl-winning QBs Brett Favre and

Eli Manning the last two games and will face Drew Brees and New

Orleans (13-2) in the season finale Sunday.

Several players have come to Fox’s defense, including center

Ryan Kalil, who last week said “it would be a mistake to make any

kind of changes.”

The late-season success is nothing new to Fox, whose Carolina

teams are 24-13 in December and January regular-season games.

“You get dealt the cards you have,” Fox said of the numerous

injuries. “To see young guys get that opportunity and have success

is definitely rewarding.”