Arizona kept trying onside kicks, and Jordan Senn kept coming up with the ball.
When Senn's second recovery sealed Carolina's second win Sunday, the Panthers' special teams ace ran to the sideline and handed the ball to John Fox.
Fox's final season with the Panthers has been one disappointment after another, but his final home game ended with smiles, hugs and a few tears.
And the game ball.
"I thought he deserved it. I think he deserved a better season than what we're having. But we can only give him what we can," Senn said. "So I wanted him to have the ball. He knows we appreciate him. No matter what anyone says in the media or anything, he's a great coach."
The 19-12 victory over the Cardinals was vintage Fox. The Panthers won with defense, a hard-nosed running attack and a grind-it-out approach that turned conservative in the second half and let the Cardinals hang around.
But the Panthers held on when Senn dug out Jay Feely's onside attempt in the final minute. Fox, whose contract expires on Feb.1, admitted getting choked up while talking to his players after his last game at Bank of America Stadium.
Did the emotions start during his drive to the stadium Sunday morning?
"I'm not quite that soft," Fox said, drawing laughs at a post-game press conference attended by his wife Robin.
The victory guarantees the Panthers (2-12) will avoid the worst season in franchise history. That distinction still belongs to the 2001 team that finished 1-15 and sent George Seifert into an early retirement.
It also means Fox will leave Charlotte with a winning record. Fox, who replaced Seifert before the '02 season, has a regular-season record of 73-69 with two games remaining.
"It meant a lot to all of us, but for (Fox), he was a little choked up," Panthers tight end Jeff King said. "It was great seeing smiling faces again in the locker room. But it was just a good team win. We did it in every phase."
Tailback Jonathan Stewart posted his second consecutive 100-yard game, bulling through the Cardinals (4-10) for 137 yards on 27 carries. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen won for the first time in eight NFL starts by completing 13 of 19 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown.
His 16-yard strike to King in the second quarter came a play after Sherrod Martin intercepted Cardinals rookie John Skelton. It also ended Clausen's streak of consecutive passes without a touchdown at 202.
"Anytime for us this season when we score a touchdown it's a big thing. I was happy to see that happen," Fox said. "We were down there a few times. Unfortunately we came up short. Like always, we make it interesting in the end."
Trailing 13-3 at halftime, the Cardinals tried to catch Carolina napping when Feely dribbled the second-half kickoff with the intention of recovering it himself. Senn, aligned across from Feely, broke back before diving on the ball, which did not travel the required 10 yards.
"The ball sat on the ground forever. If it had gone a yard and a half or 2 yards more and we get the ball, maybe that changes (momentum)," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It was something that we've worked on. I felt like it was there, and we didn't execute."
Despite starting their first four second-half drives at midfield or better, the Panthers managed just two John Kasay field goals on the four possessions. But with the defense limiting Arizona to 218 yards and Kasay going 4 for 4 on field goals, the Panthers kept the lead.
Arizona pulled within a touchdown on Feely's 30-yard field goal with 54 seconds left. This time Senn took the field with the "hands team" expecting an onside kick.
After faking like he was going to kick it right, Feely tried another dribbler down the middle of the field. Senn was there again.
"The first one caught me off-guard. I started dropping back and he kicked it, so I just dove for that one," Senn said. "The second one, you do what you've got to do. I just went in there and got it."
It was fitting Senn ended up in the middle of the action. Fox asked the reserve linebacker to give a speech Saturday at the team hotel, and the special teams starters were introduced before the game rather than the offense or defense.
"Jordan Senn's an unbelievable young man," Fox said. "He did our team talk (Saturday) night. We introduced our special teams. They've been warriors, and he's been probably one of the leaders in that area. He stepped up big, and basically said he was going to (Saturday) night."
On the topic of his future, Fox said he wasn't looking past Pittsburgh, the Panthers' opponent Thursday night.
Tackle Jordan Gross, who presented Fox with the game ball in the locker room, said he was happy for his coach.
"It's been a hard season for everybody, and as much him as anybody when you're the man in charge," Gross said. "To get the win and run the ball well and the defense played outstanding was probably the way he'd want it to happen."