- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

John Fox insists he is no miracle worker, though anyone familiar with the recent history of the Carolina Panthers would be tempted to disagree.

Fox lifted up a franchise that two seasons ago hit bottom with a one-win season. And he’s done this not by winning but by, well, not losing.

“I’ve always believed that more games in this league are lost than won,” Fox said. “Not that you play careful or play safe, but it’s kind of like investing your money. There are proven ways, and there are high-risk ways. I believe in the more proven, steady way.”

Fox’s way worked wonders, and in short order. The team he took over last season couldn’t have gotten much worse: It had finished the previous season with the NFL’s worst record (1-15), its worst defense and its second-worst offense.

Now the Panthers are tied for the best record in the NFC at 7-2, have beaten the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice and have taken a virtually insurmountable three-game lead in the NFC South over the Bucs and New Orleans Saints.

Fox, 48, accomplished this rapid turnaround by adding six starters, three on each side of the ball. Fox grew up rooting for Vince Lombardi’s methodically excellent Green Bay Packers, and he still believes in old-fashioned football. The Panthers rely on defense and a ball-control offense that has the NFC’s highest run-pass ratio.

After winning its first three games last year, Carolina lost eight straight and finished 7-9. but Fox uncovered Pro Bowl potential in defensive linemen Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins. Linebacker Dan Morgan, safety Mike Minter and receiver/kick returner Steve Smith also were good, young players. Free agents Todd Steussie, Jeff Mitchell and Kevin Donnalley bolstered the offensive line. Good thing, because Fox didn’t have much leeway to make changes.

“We didn’t have a lot of cap room to get too involved in free agency [in 2002], but we did have the second pick in the draft,” said Fox, who used that selection on end Julius Peppers, who was Defensive Rookie of the Year with 12 sacks. “We worked at evaluating people.”

Building on the momentum from last year’s strong finish, the Panthers gambled this winter that Saints backup quarterback Jake Delhomme could be a legitimate starter and that Redskins castoff Stephen Davis had plenty left in his legs at 29.

The gambles paid off. Delhomme (78.8 rating, 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions) has been steady, and Davis (992 yards, 5.1 a carry) ranks third in the league in rushing. The offense as a whole has improved its ranking from 31st to 11th.

Oddly, the defense has slid from second to 24th. Peppers has just two sacks, but Rucker is tied for the league lead with 11. Kicker John Kasay, who was nearly cut in preseason, has made all 20 of his field goal tries. Todd Sauerbrun is the NFC’s top punter. Smith is second in the NFL in combined yards.

Carolina’s three blocked kicks in Week2 at Tampa, including the one by Jenkins that forced overtime, were the most by a team in one game in 12 years. And the Panthers win the close ones. They’re 5-0 in games decided by a field goal or less.

Asked what his reaction would have been last summer if he was told his team would be 7-2 with two victories over the Bucs, one with Davis sidelined with a sprained ankle, Fox replied, “I would have taken that [record] and ran fast” before returning to his usual conservative self.

“I try to stay even keel,” Fox said. “I’ve seen it all happen in this league. I’ve been 0-4 and won 11 of 12 [as San Diego’s secondary coach in 1992]. I’ve been 8-2 and lost six in a row [as Oakland’s coordinator in 1995]. This is a fickle business. We’re an improved product, but we’re still a work in progress. We haven’t arrived by any stretch.

“We talk about being the same guys every day win or lose, check your egos at the door and just go about your business and be ready to put in a good, hard day’s work in the preparation phase. If you’re prepared, usually good things happen.”

With lightweights Atlanta, Arizona and Detroit still ahead, the Panthers are all but assured of their best record since they went 12-4 and reached the NFC Championship game in 1996, just one year removed from being an expansion team.

“We know what path we’re on — to make it to the playoffs and try to make a run,” Davis said. “We just have to stay focused.”

The no-nonsense Fox will see to that.


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