- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - John Fox was denied a contract extension for two years, then told to finish out his deal coaching a stripped-down, youthful, banged-up roster that’s become the worst team in the NFL.

Sunday will almost certainly be Fox’s final home game in Carolina in his worst season in 20 years in the NFL.

Fox wasn’t ready to get sentimental Thursday. He wasn’t shy in defending himself, however.

"I think the staff, the players here and myself included, I think we’ve done absolutely the best job we could possibly do," Fox said. "I will be able to look myself in the mirror when I walk away from here."

Owner Jerry Richardson isn’t talking _ he hasn’t taken questions from reporters in almost three years _ but all signs point to Fox’s exit as the Panthers (1-12) limp toward possibly their second 1-15 season in 10 years.

It was after the first in 2001 that Richardson hired Fox, then the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator. He immediately helped the Panthers rebound to 7-9. They reached the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

After a trip to the NFC championship two years later, the success waned. Carolina has had only one winning season since 2005, and that came crashing down in the 2008 playoffs when the Panthers were upset by Arizona at home, 33-13.

It was after that game Richardson wouldn’t extend Fox’s deal. Last year’s 8-8 season wasn’t good enough, either. But Richardson had Fox coach this season instead of replacing him and still paying him more than $6 million.

The results have been horrendous. Without the numerous veterans Fox had come to depend on, the Panthers have become a laughingstock on offense. Things have gotten so bad Richardson sent a letter to permanent seat license holders last week.

"I want all of you to know that we plan to look at every aspect of our organization," Richardson wrote. "What we do in the future will entirely be geared toward putting the best possible team on the field."

The Panthers have lost seven straight, but there have been few signs of lack of effort. At least two players, tight end Jeff King and defensive end Charles Johnson, think Fox is the reason for that.

"Fox is a good guy, man," Johnson said. "He’s the type of coach that you want to follow. Fox, you learn so much from him, just being around him and how he coaches. He treats you like a man, he respects you and he respects his players."

Added King: "I think he has the respect of the locker room and the guys. He’s upfront and honest and plays a certain style of ball and guys know that."

That style of play _ a ground-oriented, take-few-chances approach _ has earned Fox plenty of criticism from fans. So has his inability to post consecutive winning seasons.

But until this year’s debacle, Fox has been steady. Going back to when he entered the NFL as a secondary coach with Pittsburgh in 1989, his teams had always been at least respectable.

From the Steelers to Chargers to Raiders to Giants and then his first head coaching job with the Panthers, he never had a season worse than 7-9. It makes 2010 even that much tougher on Fox, who is 77-72 in Carolina.

"Yeah, considering it took until this point to be double digit losses I would say that is a fair assessment," Fox said.

Fox, though, refused to discuss what he’s thinking about likely going into Bank of America Stadium for the final time on Sunday. The Panthers play their final two games on the road.

"Everything is a possibility, but as I mentioned earlier when we had questions on that subject that those things get worked out after the season," Fox said. "I just know we have to get prepared to play the Arizona Cardinals."

Fox also declined to answer if his nightmare year will make it harder for him to get a head coaching job elsewhere. Fox appeared to be a potential top 2011 free-agent coaching candidate before the season started.

"I know it has been a hard season. That is all I know," Fox said. "All of that other stuff gets worked out in the future."

Johnson said Fox has never mentioned his contract status with the team, although he acknowledged players have read and listened to news reports about the end of his nine-year run.

"There’s no telling what goes on up there," Johnson said of the front office. "I don’t know, but Fox, wherever he goes, he’s going to be a hell of a coach."

Notes: WR Armanti Edwards (illness) missed his second straight practice. … LB James Anderson, LB Jordan Senn and S Marcus Hudson remained limited with ankle injuries. … DE Greg Hardy (knee) practiced in full after being limited a day earlier. … The Panthers still haven’t filled the last spot on the 53-man roster after moves earlier this week. … Panthers LT Jordan Gross was voted winner of the second annual "Tom Berry Good Guy Award" on Thursday. The award, named after the late Panthers beat writer for the High Point (N.C.) Enterprise, recognizes the Carolina player most helpful to the media in doing its job. It’s presented by the Carolinas chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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