CHARLOTTE -- While the smarter players in the Carolina Panthers' locker room know there are still no guarantees, there was still a palpable sense of relief once they heard coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney are expected to be back next year.
While ownership hasn't told that to local media, Jerry Richardson shared those sentiments with the NFL Network's broadcasters, who repeated his stance during Saturday's loss to Dallas. Fox and Hurney have operated under that premise for some time, and the players they oversee admitted that the news was good to hear in the midst of a bad season.
"I mean, that's huge," right tackle Jordan Gross said. "I really don't think many guys in here have ever questioned it. I think it's been more of an issue on the outside.
"It's good to hear that from the horse's mouth, and know that things are going to be the same in the offseason and next year."
Gross is one of the handful of players with a specific interest in the makeup of the team's decision-making structure. As one of the 17 players set to hit unrestricted free agency this spring, that interest is significant and particular.
Assuming things remain the same, Gross is due a huge payday. The market dictates the floor for his next contract will be in the range of $7 million per year and will likely go higher. He's still confident he's going to remain with the Panthers (as are many in the organization), but that becomes far more likely with the pair who drafted him still on hand.
"I want to stay here, everybody knows that," Gross said. "The reason you want to is because of that situation. I don't think our owner is the type of guy who is going to panic and make huge changes.
"I like it here, and I'll probably stay."
Others have similar reasons to monitor what's going on upstairs.
Backup defensive tackle Damione Lewis, a valuable part the last two years, has enjoyed his two years with the Panthers so much he's moving his family from his suburban Dallas home to the area this offseason. That he doesn't have a contract for 2008 doesn't matter as much, although he's hopeful that will change soon, now that there's some degree of clarity. Just in case, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was in Charlotte Saturday to shake hands and chat with Panthers brass.
"Yes, they've made mention of it, but a contract hasn't been offered yet," Lewis said. "I assume once the season's over, we'll get together and see if the numbers match up, and hopefully we'll stay."
Like many players, he mentioned the team's struggles this year keeping quarterbacks on the field, and said he gets the sense ownership understands that's the root of the team's problems.
"It's been one of those tough roads," Lewis said. "But I think Big Cat understands that, and he sees the future of this team."
Like Lewis, fullback Brad Hoover said there has been general discussion but few specifics about his own future. He said he thinks the lingering uncertainty about Fox's and Hurney's jobs have something to do with that and hopes everyone can move forward now.
"I know I'm relieved they're coming back, and I think it's a good thing for the whole organization," Hoover said. "We'll see what it means for me after this next game. It's a process that's been bumped back and bumped back and bumped back. I think across the board, with everybody on the team it's been like that.
"When you don't know how things are going to unfold, there's a lot of uncertainty. Now that they've sort of come out with this, that's good news for me, and I think it's in the favor of a lot of guys in here, keeping staff in place. We're capable of a lot of good things, just this year didn't work out that way."
The past two years have been a struggle, with the Panthers going 14-17, but they'll defend their tenure on the whole.
The Panthers are 50-45 in the regular season under Fox. Entering the week, only 10 teams in the league had won more games over the same span, just four of those in the NFC. Throw in the 5-2 playoff record (only New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have more postseason wins since 2002), and the Panthers have had more success than is apparent.
"A lot of the good times that have happened around here, they've been involved with," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "I think that speaks volumes."
The players also know there will be many changes in any case, from the coaching staff to the roster.
"That's wonderful for them, but it doesn't mean anything for the 53 guys on this team," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "For the players, no one knows. They deserve it, they're good people. But in this business, good people don't always win.
"But everybody else here, players and other coaches, your job is still in question."
Then there's the team's ultimate pragmatist, wide receiver Steve Smith. He's one of just three players whose contract extends beyond Fox's (he's signed through 2012, Fox has a deal through 2010), and he's taken the "game-at-a-time" approach to the extreme.
He talked about getting ready for Tampa Bay next week, then the offseason. He's been around long enough to know changes are coming, most of which are beyond his control. So he's zooming in on what he can.
"I just work here, I catch balls. I'm not coaching, I'm not management," Smith said. "I can't worry about what's in somebody else's pot when I've got a bunch of dishes in my sink."
• Panthers notebook • 5B