Fox, Hurney appear safe after meeting with owner

Darin GanttJanuary 8, 2008 

CHARLOTTE -- Since it was too cold to water ski or shoot hoops, the Carolina Panthers braintrust spent part of last week indoors discussing the future.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson took head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney to his lake house in western North Carolina last week, where the three talked about the prospects for the future of the team.

The trip's similar to last year's summer retreat, when Richardson took five players to his vacation home for a few days of picking their brains, having fun, but most importantly, transferring leadership of the locker room to a new generation. That time, it was Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross, DeShaun Foster and Julius Peppers.

After this more compact trip, it now seems certain there's going to be no transfer in the top jobs, as Hurney came out talking about the plan for 2008 and beyond.

"Without getting into a lot of specifics, we're all on the same page," Hurney said Monday. "We talked about where we want the character of the team to be, and our goals moving forward."

There has been much speculation about the future of the Panthers' decision-making duo, but ownership has rejected many chances to talk about it -- partly because it's viewed as being externally created. Without comment from above, rumors swirled throughout the second half of this season, which the Panthers finished with a flurry to get to 7-9.

Now they're apparently proceeding without big changes.

Hurney wouldn't comment specifically when asked about the potential for turnover on the coaching staff. If that doesn't necessarily mean they're all returning, it's at least partly because coaches are off this week, as they usually are.

It was 15 days after the season finale last year when they fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning and two others, so there's a chance more moves could come next week. So far, the only loss has been assistant special teams coach Tony Levine, who left for a job as an assistant at the University of Houston. There's also a chance secondary coach Tim Lewis could interview for a coordinator job.

Otherwise, the arrow seems to be pointing toward continuity of staff.

There will be plenty of turnover on the player side, however. Even with the extension of linebacker Na'il Diggs and the retirement of quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the Panthers still have 15 unrestricted free agents, including starting tackles Gross and Travelle Wharton. Throw in the expected retirement of defensive end Mike Rucker, and they will have several big spots to fill.

According to sources with knowledge of the conversations that took place last week, the coaching staff feels like there are eight starting positions that need upgrading this offseason. Several of those are easy to figure, since Rucker's replacement fits there, along with at least two offensive linemen, free safety and wide receiver.

Other spots that could be part of the eight the coaches have identified include tight end, fullback and perhaps even running back.

Hurney was short on specifics Monday, but when asked about the tone of the trip with Richardson, he said it was: "Very thorough, intense, detailed."

"The goals are the same," Hurney said. "The goal is to win games, make the playoffs, and the ultimate goal is to win a championship."

n EXTRA POINTS: The Panthers have either finalized or are nearing deals with at least four free agents so far, with more to come.

They've already signed running back DeCori Birmingham and wide receivers Chris Hannon and Dominique Thompson and are near agreement with guard Rueben Riley.

All but Thompson were part of the Panthers' practice squad this year. Thompson has spent the bulk of the last three years on the St. Louis practice squad, though he's played in two games, with one catch. The native of Durham, N.C., played at William and Mary.

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