Panthers, Fox capable of making changes as needed

The HeraldDecember 30, 2008 

CHARLOTTE -- Panthers coach John Fox is capable of change.

Witness his evolution, from former defensive coordinator, to overseer of one of the league's most explosive offenses.

The Panthers scored 414 points this season, second-most in franchise history. That 25.9 per game average ranks seventh in the league. They're also 10th in total offense (349.7 yards per game) and third in rushing (152.3).

Running back DeAngelo Williams finished with 1,515 rushing yards, good for third in the league. Wide receiver Steve Smith was third in receiving yards with 1,421, and considering the two games he missed on suspension, he led in yards per game.

That's what you call a paradigm shift for a club built on defense and special teams and enough offense to get by.

"There's no doubt it's the best offense we've had since I've been here as a head coach, if you look at the production level, and a lot's gone into that," Fox said. "We injected quite a bit of talent into that group that has worked out well. There's no guarantees in personnel acquisitions, but they've blended well. (Offensive coordinator) Jeff Davidson and the offensive staff has done a terrific job.

"We've been able to maintain the balance that is important."

Much of that stems from the offseason retooling, which included drafting running back Jonathan Stewart, trading for another first-rounder to take right tackle Jeff Otah, re-signing receiver Muhsin Muhammad and beefing up the rest of the line. And of course, there was the small matter of quarterback Jake Delhomme returning from reconstructive elbow surgery which sent 2007 into shambles.

Fox said the offseason emphasis was clear, after watching last season spiral like a flushed toilet when Delhomme was hurt.

"You evaluate your team; you evaluate the changes you need to make and the direction you want to go, and try to stick to it and realize where your weaknesses are, where you need to get better. I thought that was key," Fox said.

EASING INTO IT: Coaches got the day off Monday, and players came in on their normal brief post-win schedule. They'll get their normal day off today, and then go through an abbreviated week of practice, working Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

This week exists strictly to rest the Panthers for what Fox calls "the next season."

"The key is the bye, and in our current state, that's going to be beneficial to us because we had some guys nicked up that we'd like to have back before we play again," Fox said. "Had it been the other way, I'm not sure that would have been the case, especially with a long trip (to Arizona). Who knows?"

Fox said this week was about maintenance and rehabilitation, saving the heavy work and game-planning until they know who's next.

Fox said "we'll have minimal contact and be selective on who practices and who doesn't."

The coaching staff will get some preliminary game-planning in on all potential opponents (either Minnesota or the Atlanta-Arizona winner), but they benefit by having played all three.

MR. GLASS HALF-FULL: The bye has given Fox a chance to think about it, and upon reflection, he's not concerned at all with the way his defense has been leaking lately.

The Panthers surrendered an 11-point lead in New York to lose, and coughed up a 20-point margin in New Orleans.

He said being tested by such high-powered offense lately is only a good thing. Five of their last six opponents rank in the top eight in total offense.

"You come down the stretch with five games to finish the season," he began. "At Green Bay, which is no box of chocolates, Monday Night Football against the Tampa Bay Bucs, the No. 2 offense in the NFL in Denver and you've got to go to the New York Giants -- the defending world champions -- and then you've got to go on the road and win (at New Orleans), which hasn't been done this season in our (division). You go 4-1, and I'm not concerned with much."

EYE TO THE FUTURE: Even though return man Mark Jones has been more than adequate, the Panthers stuck wide receiver Steve Smith back for one in the third quarter.

Smith returned it 10 yards, his first punt return since Oct. 14, 2007. He had two attempts last year, and nine in 2006. As a rookie, he made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist, but has tapered out of that phase since becoming one of the top offensive threats in the game.

"As we get into this next season, that may or may not be something we look at," Fox said. "We didn't want the playoffs to be the first time he did it. He's practiced it, but there's nothing like being out there in a game, and we wanted to get a look at that in a game situation."

EXTRA POINTS: Fox offered no updates on his injured linemen, and likely won't for over a week. With no game this weekend, there's no league-mandated injury report.

Right tackle Otah (toe) and right guard Geoff Hangartner (ankle) weren't able to finish Sunday's game, and they started without starting defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis.

Fox said he spoke with owner Jerry Richardson Sunday night, and broke up laughing as he began to recount something Richardson said.

"I can't say exactly what he said," Fox said with a grin. "I'll leave it as that it was amusing."

Richardson's resting at home while he awaits a heart transplant surgery, and hasn't been able to travel. Fox said he was glad to be able to provide another home game.

"He was very excited and very proud," Fox said. "It meant a lot to him because he knew it meant a lot to us, but he seemed in very good spirits."

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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